SATURDAY NIGHT’S BULLETIN of 1 News featured a very peculiar, and disturbing, item. Put together by journalist Thomas Mead, the item noted with alarm the fact that some New Zealanders were backing Vladimir Putin and Russia against Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Ukraine.
Those involved were described by Mead as “conspiracy theorists”, a term he appeared to be using as a synonym for “evil crazies”. This highly tendentious characterisation was not in the least challenged or repudiated by the two academics Mead consulted. Neither the political scientist, Steve Hoadley, nor the University of Auckland’s “Misinformation Project” spokesperson, Snajama Hattotuwa, challenged Mead’s assumptions about Putin’s supporters.
Were New Zealand at war with the Russian Federation, then this degree of overt media propagandising might, just, be excusable. When the youth of one’s country are locked in an existential struggle with its enemies, balance and nuance tend to fall by the wayside. A war being fought on the other side of the world, however, surely requires plenty of both. Demonising one’s fellow citizens for the “sin” of refusing to view a faraway war through the lens of their own government serves neither journalism nor democracy.
Then again, since the New Zealand Parliament has, unanimously, rushed through all the stages of a bill enabling the New Zealand state, independently of the United Nations Security Council, to impose sanctions on Russian businesses and individuals, perhaps New Zealand really is at war with the Russian Federation.
While the imposition of economic sanctions on another country and its citizens falls well short of ordering one’s armed forces into battle against them, it is difficult to characterise the measure as anything other than a declaration of economic warfare.
An effective sanctions regime, by wreaking havoc on the targeted nation’s economy is intended to inflict non-physical harm on its citizens. It is, unquestionably, an act of coercion. A lesser act of coercion, at least in the short term, than firing artillery shells and dropping bombs, but an act of coercion nonetheless.
This is why the imposition of sanctions, a remedy institutionalised by the League of Nations in the years immediately following World War I, was presented as the most effective international response to aggression – short of all-out war. It amounted to a declaration of economic hostilities upon the aggressor state by the whole world. As such, it made it difficult for the aggressor state to retaliate effectively. It also constituted an unanswerable international moral rebuke of the offending nation’s actions.
Re-adopted by the United Nations following the Second World War, the sanctions option was placed in the hands of the UN Security Council. Providing the five permanent members of the Security Council (USA, Russia, UK, France and China) were in agreement, the world would be empowered to squeeze the economy of an aggressor state until the pips squeaked.
There was, however, an inherent weakness in this arrangement. Since only the world’s most powerful states were ever likely to thumb their noses as the United Nation’s Charter, and since those states could veto any intervention by the UN Security Council, then the application of sanctions as a means of coercing delinquent states into demonstrating an acceptable standard of international conduct became something of a dead letter.
New Zealand has long been a critic of the veto power of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – depicting it as a fundamental obstacle to the enforcement of the provisions of the UN Charter. A little reflection, however, makes it perfectly clear why the veto power has always been critical to the maintenance of international peace and stability.
What possible reason for retaining their membership of the United Nations would the great powers have if it was possible for a majority of the five permanent members to “gang-up” on the rest? It is the veto that keeps the planet’s most dangerous nations seated around the multilateral table. If the UN Security Council had possessed the power to impose sanctions on the Bush Administration for its unlawful invasion of Iraq, would the USA still be a member of the UN? Of course not.
The problem which now confronts the world is that the preponderant economic and military power of the United States has persuaded its leaders to evade the limitations associated with the veto by imposing swingeing economic sanctions upon its enemies without Security Council authorisation. It masks this dangerous unilateralism by pressuring those states under its sway (which includes most of the world’s nations) into joining its sanctions regimes. Any reluctance on the part of US “allies” to participate in these brazen acts of economic coercion is overcome by threatening to extend the sanctions to any entity deemed guilty of ignoring them.
In a more rational world, the very fact one of the five nuclear-armed permanent members is contemplating exercising its veto would be enough to convince the other four that a full-scale diplomatic effort is required to identify the most fruitful options for easing the tension. Tragically, the most malign legacy of the Cold War, which froze international relations for forty years, is the way in which its “Free World” allies have opted to remain passengers on the United States’ war chariot, and how many of its erstwhile Warsaw Pact enemies have sought its protection from their former Russian suzerain.
That Russia would eventually demand to know why sauce for the American goose was not also sauce for the Russian gander was inevitable. If the Americans could determine that a nation thousands of miles from its shores, which had made no aggressive move in its direction, could nevertheless be invaded by a coalition led by two of the five permanent members of the Security Council – ostensibly to defend themselves – then Moscow was surely entitled to do the same to a nation located on its western border which had voiced its determination to throw in its lot with Russia’s Nato “enemies”.
That the answer: because two wrongs do not make a right; and that it is no more acceptable for Russian missiles to kill Ukrainian children than it was for American missiles to kill Iraqi children; should have been obvious to Vladimir Putin, is, unfortunately, no help at all. Because the chancelleries of the world looked the other way when the USA tore up the UN Charter in 2003, their powers of moral persuasion in 2022 are not as forceful as they should be.
Rather than replicating the McCarthyism of the Cold War, shouldn’t journalists from small nations like New Zealand be reminding the international community of its obligation to not only demand full accountability from those nations that commit crimes against humanity, but also from those that cause them?
This essay is exclusive to Bowalley Road.