What the Ukraine War Has Revealed About the Indispensability of Multilateral Governance

By Francesca Giovannini, Adjunct Assistant Professor for International Security at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

Countless pages have been dedicated to analyzing how the prolonged and ill-fated Russian invasion of Ukraine has upended the global order, unsettled European security, and destabilized the delicate nuclear balance. Ukraine, however, has equally brought about a renewed appreciation for the importance and the indispensability of multilateral governance in negotiating armed conflicts, protecting human rights, and defending national sovereignty. 

The war itself has exposed the current limitations of the United Nations system, especially when facing mighty Security Council member-states with intractable political grievances. Critics, to be fair, have long lamented, even before the Ukraine war, the undemocratic nature of the UN Security Council, where the veto power held by a handful of powerful nations often trumps the interests and opinions of the majority. Moreover, the UN’s limited resources and the marginalization of developing nations have historically eroded the institution’s credibility and undermined its original mission as the epitome of collective security and global camaraderie. Yet, the conflict in Ukraine represents a significant political nadir for the United Nations and brings about a new level of discord and political stalemate among great powers that are unlikely to be overcome for a decade or so. 

As the war ensued and the need for greater international cooperation rose sharply, multilateral initiatives beyond the narrow purview of the United Nations began to take place among many stakeholders, ranging from private companies to NGOs, international organizations, and national governments. These multilateral interventions are small in scale and, per se, not sufficient to bring about peace. Yet, they remind us that reforming and democratizing the multilateral diplomatic system is possible, and thinking outside the box is indispensable to address ever-complex emergency crises worldwide. 

The Ukraine war has fostered multilateral innovation in at least three areas: humanitarian assistance, human rights, and mediation. 

First, the Ukraine conflict has resulted in an unprecedented global compact, uniting international organizations, energy and agricultural companies, and governments in a concerted effort to address the complex humanitarian emergency that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has wreaked. The Ukraine war has been marked by three distinct yet interrelated crises, including the severe disruption of food and energy supply chains, soaring prices, and punishment of the most vulnerable and underprivileged economies. These crises, in turn, have exacerbated other issues, adding a layer of urgency to the need for coordinated multilateral action. While the United Nations worked to break a historical agreement to allow occupied Ukraine to continue to export grain, other nongovernmental institutions like USAID, corporations like Bayer, and regional organizations like the African Union stepped up to devise fast deliver fast mitigating strategies for citizens and communities around the world. While the approach is not perfect and perhaps inadequate to the scale of the humanitarian emergency it seeks to manage, it has nonetheless demonstrated an extraordinary ability of the international community to mobilize several stakeholders quickly and coherently. 

Second, for the first time in history, the Ukraine conflict has witnessed the reporting of human rights violations in real-time, captured on camera phones by those directly affected by the ongoing hostilities and an array of journalists and freelancers. 

For years, as wars raged from the Horn of Africa to the Middle East and Asia, the UN condemned human rights violations while lacking access to conflict areas. Trials over mass atrocities spanned decades as human rights investigators traveled to collect stories and accounts from the memories of the traumatized civilians. The technological advancements, coupled with the bravery of Ukraine’s population, are already producing an extraordinary corpus of documentation that will potentially expedite the prosecution of those responsible for these atrocities. The establishment of the Ukraine 5 am coalition, a network of human rights organizations using digital technologies to gather evidence of war crimes, stands as one of the marvelous examples of multistakeholder coordination for protecting human rights in war. 

The role played by technology companies, including Space X, in providing access to the Star link system and a wide net of low earth orbiting satellites cannot be sufficiently underscored. Ukraine’s population, under brutal war and occupation, has maintained a vital connection with the outside world and each other.  This has allowed for greater cohesion, resilience, and desire to resist the occupying forces. None of these technologies had been deployed at this scale and space. 

Of course, as with any technological advancement, concerns have arisen over the possible manipulation and fabrication of recordings and documentation emerging from the battlefield. The fog of war only exacerbates these issues, underscoring the imperative for a bona fide multilateral approach to verify the authenticity of these images. Technology companies and international organizations will have to work together to cross-examine data points and achieve the most credible assessment of what has occurred across the Ukrainian territory. 

Finally, the Ukraine war has set in motion an unprecedented multilayered mediation process seeking to resolve the conflict peacefully. Unlike previous wars where the UN or a single country acted as the leading mediator, this war involved multiple stakeholders from Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Multiple dialogue venues were opened, especially at the beginning of the war. France and Germany, followed by Turkey, acted as agenda setters at the beginning of the war. The G-20 and the UN General Assembly followed suit with statements highlighting the dangers of further escalation and the need for an urgent resolution. These efforts have yet to produce tangible results. Yet, the scale of involvement among so many actors demonstrates how the use of the instrument of war needs to be more in line with the values and principles of the current international community.  

Beyond Ukraine

In reading this article, critics might rightly argue that the level of involvement that the war in Ukraine has commanded is only possible because Ukraine is part of Europe, a rich and prosperous region. Other atrocious conflicts, including Congo DRC, Yemen, and Sudan, have been allowed to fester for years amid the indifference and complacency of the Western world. 

It is difficult to reject these arguments, for they underscore the long road ahead to reach a more balanced, democratic, and equal world. But as the war at the heart of Europe drags on, western countries are slowly coming to realize that peace is truly indivisible, and war can break out unexpectedly when the values of peace and justice are taken for granted.

We must build on these lessons and expand on the multilateral innovations that are taking place in Ukraine. We should work to strengthen the UN architecture but equally pursue new avenues for cooperation and representation because peace belongs to all. 

This piece is republished from Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School.

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