© Financial Times

This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: ‘The global battle against impunity’

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome back to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times, and this week I’m at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Our subject this week are the humanitarian crises from Ukraine to Somalia and many others that continue to plague the world. My guest is David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee and a former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom. He warns we’re living in a new age of impunity where conflicts are getting worse and bad governments are increasingly getting away with atrocities and human rights abuses. So what can be done about the age of impunity?

[MUSIC PLAYING]

News clip
On top of the many killed, Ukrainian authorities say dozens were injured and many more remain missing in just this one location in Dnipro after Russia hit sites across Ukraine with barrages of missiles this weekend.

Gideon Rachman
Horrifying news from Ukraine continues to make the headlines. But if you read the International Rescue Committee on international trouble spots, Ukraine’s only 10th on their watch list. Somalia is number one. Other crises in Afghanistan, Myanmar and elsewhere throw up their own horrors and jostle for attention. Around the world, the number of civilians displaced or killed by conflict continues to rise. The billionaires and potentates who show up at the World Economic Forum in Davos are pretty insulated from these horrors. But people like David Miliband are able to press the case for concerted international humanitarian action and to join the dots between the various crises. So when I caught up with him in Davos, I started by asking David Miliband why Ukraine ranks only 10th on the list of international humanitarian crises.

David Miliband
Well, it says that the Ukraine crisis is part of a global trend and is actually a contributor to the global trend. Ukraine is not a provincial European affair. It’s a global affair because of its impact on food and energy prices. And the reason Ukraine is 10th is very simple. The IRC’s emergency watchlist for 2023, for every year, is based on a data set of 60 to 70 indicators that flag where we are going to see the most numerous humanitarian crises, the greatest number of people affected by humanitarian crises and the most severe humanitarian crises. And at a time when there is famine or the threat of famine in east Africa, when there’s really intensifying conflict in significant parts of the world, the fact that the global response to Ukraine has been so strong, both the international humanitarian aid inside the country and the treatment of refugees outside the country, means that despite the severity of the war, the pummeling that’s going on of civilian sites in Ukraine, it doesn’t justify place number one because of the mitigations that are in place. And my message in Davos has been that we can’t allow Ukraine to be an outlier for the kind of response that it promotes. The response has been a good one, albeit not yet finished. The first weekend of the crisis, European governments across the EU guaranteed three years residence, three years work permits, three years education, three years welfare benefits. And inside Ukraine, there’s humanitarian aid running, there’s health systems running, there’s cash and banking systems working. In significant parts of the world, that’s not the case. And so it’s the severity of the crisis and the absence of mitigation that pushes a country like Somalia up to number one, where we know there are famine conditions from our own health centres around the country.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. And Afghanistan, you know, I suppose one can make a contrast between the huge aid that the west is trying to provide to Ukraine and the apparent abandonment of Afghanistan, albeit after, you know, 20 years’ effort. I remember going there with you in the 2010s.

David Miliband
Yes.

Gideon Rachman
The situation’s pretty dire now.

David Miliband
Well, I think that our diagnosis is that in 2022, the consequences of Ukraine for the global economy — consequences in terms of food prices, energy prices, rising interest rates — that’s been the kicker on countries like Afghanistan or Somalia or Ethiopia or Yemen or Syria, where there’s long-term conflict and the climate crisis together. So in our report, we identify conflict as a driver of 70 to 80 per cent of humanitarian need, often exacerbated by the climate crisis. And now an economic kicker in the form of this rather striking statistic — food price inflation in the 20 countries on our watchlist is two or three times higher, 40 per cent over the year than in the advanced industrialised countries where it’s been bad enough.

Gideon Rachman
Right. And of course, these are much-poorer countries that are much less well-placed to absorb food price inflation.

David Miliband
That’s exactly the point, I was in eastern Ethiopia at the end of November, and when a farmer where we just stopped by the side of the road and we talked to him about how the crisis was affecting, he said, “Look, I used to have 40 livestock, now I’ve got one.” You can’t invent that. That’s the consequence of effective penury on that family, and that is quite widespread.

Gideon Rachman
There’s another very striking statistic in your thing where you say seven watchlist countries of your 20 import 66 per cent of their grain from Ukraine and Russia.

David Miliband
Yeah, I think this is important because there is an argument going on, and you hear this from a number of countries who’ve refused to condemn the war in Ukraine or the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the grounds that there’s too much hypocrisy in the west, of which there is plenty.

Gideon Rachman
I was thinking about that hypocrisy point when you were talking earlier, because you talk about the big effort being made for refugees from Ukraine. And I’ve heard here in the corridors of Davos people saying, “Well, why do you think the global south is kind of a bit cynical? Because where’s the welcome for the refugees from other places?”

David Miliband
Exactly. Now, my point would be as follows: it’s right to point out the double standards; it’s wrong to think that Ukraine is just a provincial European crisis. It’s more than that, because it represents such a gross violation of international law and therefore is a test case of impunity. Secondly, it has direct and important effects on living standards around the world because of the dependence on Russian and Ukrainian grain fertiliser and the rest of it, of course. Thirdly, there’s the geopolitics as well, which are being scrambled in some ways by this invasion. And I think that the fact that Ukraine is getting so much attention as well as resources is undoubtedly draining the attention that’s required on what are 54 other civil conflicts around the world. Some countries, like Ethiopia, you’ve got two or three conflicts going on within the country.

Gideon Rachman
And the number’s rising. I mean, is it possible, as I suggested in the intro, to join the dots and step back and say, why are there so many conflicts and why are we getting more of them?

David Miliband
Yeah, I think that there are more conflicts and they are more virulent, which is part of the explanation for the increased number of refugee flows. Why is this happening? First of all, these are civil conflicts rather than wars between states. And so the first point I would make is that the tools of diplomacy that were developed to regulate wars between states are not working well when it comes to wars within states. Secondly, we’re seeing a very striking trend of the internationalisation of civil conflicts to the extent that outside powers are taking sides. You can see five, 10, even 15 countries taking a side militarily.

Gideon Rachman
And that tends to prolong the conflict?

David Miliband
That prolongs the conflict. It also increases the virulence of the conflict. So you’re far more likely to die in a civil war if you’re a civilian than if you’re a combatant. And this is one of the striking features of the modern world, it partly reflects more urban warfare, but it’s also the fact that civil conflicts take civilian lives, not just those in the organised military. And the international engagement tends to add to the impunity rather than subtract to it.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, I mean, it strikes me as slightly uncomfortable feeling about all this military aid that’s pouring into Ukraine. Again, you know, you have interesting conversations with different perspectives here in Davos. A Chinese person said to me, you know, why are you doing this? The only way that was going to end is if somebody wins and you just prolong the conflict. I mean, that doesn’t make me think it’s wrong to give aid to Ukraine, but it’s certainly made me think.

David Miliband
What did it make you think?

Gideon Rachman
It made me think that, yeah, you know, as you were saying, the internationalisation of these conflicts does prolong them.

David Miliband
But I think that the truth is that if Ukraine wasn’t getting international support, it would be getting rolled over, and that wouldn’t be the end of it. I mean, that’s the reason that you’ve seen this remarkable upsurge in support in countries like Sweden and Finland to join Nato is out of fear. I think you’ve discussed that on your podcast before. I thought where you were going was the end of the peace dividend means there’s less money for international aid and of course the costs of international aid are very small. Military costs of diplomacy are small as well.

What we say is that there are three agenda items, really, that are needed to try to turn this back. First is the cycle of conflict that we’re seeing. Fifteen of the 20 countries on our watchlist have been there for more than 10 years. So you have to break the cycle. Secondly, if we can’t protect civilians in conflict, this age of impunity is gonna be on the march. Thirdly, we’re seeing globalisation of risks: health risks, economic risks, climate risks. Resilience is only local at the moment. We’re not getting the kind of global action that’s necessary. And I think as I try to take a bird’s-eye view as well as a ground-level view on these crises, it strikes me that unless we’re able to act across those three dimensions, we’re gonna see the numbers that you mentioned rise. Just for the benefit of your listeners, the UN reports 340mn people in need of humanitarian aid, 90 per cent of whom live in the 20 countries on this watchlist. 100mn people on the run from conflict. Those numbers have more or less tripled in the last decade and I think that from our point of view, we can’t rely on the aid system alone to catch up. The aid system’s more or less doubled in the last decade, but unless we can get to the roots of these crises, which do lie in this age of impunity, I think, that is fuelling conflict and failing to address the climate crisis, we’ve got this very toxic combination and with the kicker of the economic difficulties that have been produced by the war in Ukraine, we’re in a very dark tunnel unless we can put the brakes on.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, I’ll get to the age of impunity, which is a really interesting idea, one you’ve been talking about for some time, in a second. But since we were talking about Davos in this peculiar environment, I mean, it inspires a great deal of cynicism. You know, there are all these billionaires wandering around the place and people say all they do is go to cocktail parties and sort of blather about improving the world. And in fact, they’ve got really nothing to do, nothing helpful to do about all these crises. I assume you think because you’re here that it is actually worth coming to Davos. So what can you achieve?

David Miliband
Well, I’m trying to find the billionaires. If you see any of them, please send them in my direction. Since I’m running an NGO, I’m always on the lookout for . . . 

Gideon Rachman
Like a billionaire?

David Miliband
A billionaire who wants to do good. Look, I think that this conference has become the symbol of a period of globalisation when global risks were not well-managed. Those risks relate to the climate, they relate to inequality, they relate to health, they relate to diplomacy. And I’m here to try and say that if you want the blessings of globalisation, you have to take on the burdens. What I perceive is that there is a massive gap between the globalisation of risk and the localisation of resilience, and that’s the gap that tens of millions of people are falling into. And unless we can match local resilience with global resilience, we’re not going to be able to . . . 

Gideon Rachman
By which you mean that . . . 

David Miliband
Well, take the example of . . . 

Gideon Rachman
Somalia, you get hit by a global crisis by climate change, and they say, “Sorry guys, you’re on your own.”

David Miliband
Your money for adaptation is effectively zero. The tools of diplomacy are not effective, the famine is threatening you and the UN’s high-level task force on famine doesn’t have an operational plan that can really mitigate the worst effects. And obviously that is all compounded in a country that’s just trying to come out of the health crisis as a result of the pandemic. I do think the pandemic is instructive in this regard, but not in a healthy way. I mean, three years on, the vaccine rollout remains a question for the advanced countries, now for China as well, but not for the poor countries in the world. Preparedness — thanks to the efforts of the African CDC, the Centre for Disease Control, they’re making some efforts on that. But there isn’t a global plan for the next pandemic. And that’s what I mean by matching global resilience efforts with local ones. And here in Davos, you’ve got to say that with power comes responsibility, and there are people with power and resource here. And we’ve got to call out the greenwashing. We’ve got to call out when there’s talk or “blather”, in your words, that isn’t really speaking to the realities of a mismanaged globalisation.

Gideon Rachman
But I suppose at least it’s better that actually, you know, compared to other international meetings, it seems to me there’s often more talk. Maybe it’s just talk, but about issues like refugees, climate change and so on. It’s certainly on the agenda.

David Miliband
Yes. And I think that . . . I don’t know if it’s in terms of credit or not, but there is plain talking. Some of it’s on the open platforms. Some of it’s in private meetings. You can see changing balance of power by the size of the different exhibition stalls that are set up around. But I think that we need more effective global conversation, not less. So I think taking a pop at Davos is easy. The hard thing is actually how to figure out how to manage a world where interdependence is increasing risk. But as the title of this year’s Davos says, co-operation is insufficient.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. So taking on this issue of impunity, you wrote an article about it for Foreign Affairs. It was the theme of a speech you gave on British foreign policy at Chatham House. Why do you think impunity is so . . . or what do you mean by it?

David Miliband
Well, I’ve been thinking about this partly driven by my experience running an NGO. When your own aid workers get killed by a Russian missile in north-west Syria, two aid workers driving an ambulance, that’s impunity. Impunity is the abuse of power. It is crimes, in this case, war crimes without punishment.

But I’ve also been thinking about it because of the debate significantly sponsored by President Biden, about this being an era of democracy versus autocracy. And what I have come to think is while within countries, democracy versus autocracy is a real issue — I mean, we’re living through a democratic recession where the number of people living in what Freedom House call fully free democracies is now less than 20 per cent — but at the international level, what’s at stake is the rule of law versus the rule of journalists, whether or not there is accountability and checks and balances on the abuse of power versus impunity. And impunity, as you know, means decisions without accountability. It means crimes without punishment.

And I’ve been more and more thinking that this issue of impunity isn’t just confined to the world’s war zones where there are war crimes. I think the aspects of the climate crisis represent an example of impunity because the planet has no votes and the future has no votes. And that’s significant part of the reasons for the abuse of the planet.

I think it’s applicable in the economic domain, and that’s driven me to work with the Eurasia Group and the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations next month. In the middle of next month at the Munich security conference, they’ll be publishing the world’s first atlas of impunity, and it’s gonna rank every country in the world across five dimensions of impunity: conflict, governance, human rights, economic exploitation and environmental degradation. And it’s going to use credible, verifiable data sets between 12 and 15 for each of those indicators. And it’s gonna try and say two things. One, that this is a lens through which to understand global politics and the future of the globe, actually. And secondly, it’s a means through which to compare the performance of different countries.

Gideon Rachman
OK. So that brings us back to the H-word: hypocrisy, which, you know, we’ve already talked about and the global south often accuses the west of. And it seems to me that a weakness for a US-based, west-based NGO talking about impunity is they will say, Iraq. And of course, you were in the British government at the time of the Iraq war.

David Miliband
First of all, we’re a global NGO and we operate in 40 countries around the world. And without fear or favour we take on the wrongdoings of any government who we feel are breaching fundamental humanitarian principles. And we discussed in this podcast a year ago criticism of the US government and its policy towards Afghanistan. We do that without fear or favour, even though the American government give us significant sponsorship. And when people say, “What can you do about impunity?” the first thing is those who claim to be against it put their own houses in order. Actually, it’s rather striking that at the New York Times dinner last night, the New York Times exposed the air strike by the US government . . . 

Gideon Rachman
After the . . . 

David Miliband
The drone strike.

Gideon Rachman
It’s an amazing piece of journalism.

David Miliband
Amazing piece of journalism. It was an independent inquiry by the New York Times. The Pentagon then had to accept that the New York Times’ explanation was right, and subsequently, the defence department has issued much tougher guidelines about civilian protection in conflict. And that’s the sort of thing that we’ve argued should be spread. We say that in our emergency watchlist, actually, that one of the ways of protecting civilians in conflict is for those governments that are willing to be transparent, to actually state very clearly and follow through on commitments to civilian protection. So yes, the house has got to be in order. But secondly, I don’t think that argument is sufficient to say we can’t frame a global debate that says, after 1945, for the first time, the rights of people were put alongside the rights of states in the international system. We don’t need new laws. We need to uphold those that exist. And if we don’t, the consequences can be seen in the kind of places that the IRC works today.

Gideon Rachman
And another thing that made me think about this theme of impunity. So yesterday I was moderating a session with a lot of very brave Ukrainians who are documenting war crimes. And sort of gut-wrenching stuff, you know, torture of people, kidnapping of children, abductions, just terrible. And their goal is precisely that there should not be impunity for this, that there should be trials even of kind of on a Nuremberg style. But it was interesting talking to some of the international panellists kind of sense that there will be impunity. Actually, there ain’t gonna be a Nuremberg trial for what Russia is doing in Ukraine. One of the panellists said he had documented what Isis did and he said, “Really, you know, even as deeply unpopular organisations, that was not ever really held to account.”

David Miliband
No, although Isis never signed the UN charter. So I think that the determination of your Ukrainian interlocutors is very well founded, because without accountability, it’s very hard to achieve progress. And I think that it is very striking that it’s organisations like Bellingcat, like the New York Times, that are doing more to expose this than the official UN or other tribunal systems that are blocked by global geopolitical gridlock. I think it’s striking that in the German courts the legal principle of universal jurisdiction should have been used to prosecute Syrian generals for war crimes. Again, it was an NGO that brought the material to light. But what we know is that every time there is a war crime and there isn’t a prosecution, that simply fuels the sense of impunity, and impunity feeds on itself. It’s like the law is for suckers. And that’s a very dangerous principle.

Gideon Rachman
And it’s quite striking.

David Miliband
Old practice.

Gideon Rachman
Isn’t it? I mean, you know, I occasionally try to watch old clips of Russian television. The Hague comes up quite a lot. You know, they do talk about the danger that this will end in war crimes . . . 

David Miliband
You want it to be in people’s minds that if they are committing a war crime, they’re gonna be found out for it. And I think that we’re seeing the consequences of effectively criminality, impunity that has not been counted. And I’m fearful that if we only have a debate about democracy versus autocracy, we’re actually gonna lose significant parts of the world who need to have an interest in a rules-based system. And it’s the rules-based system that I think is at stake at the moment.

Gideon Rachman
But are autocracies gonna obey them? Isn’t it one of their characteristics that they tend to break?

David Miliband
Of course, almost by definition. But it’s striking to me if you read Rana Mitter’s work on how the Chinese system now views the creation of the UN charters and the whole UN system of 1945, the current leadership is trying to claim some credit for it even though it happened before 1949 and the creation of the People’s Republic. And I think that if we can’t build a coalition around the rule of law, then we really are sunk, because I can see the argument, you know, you have a country like Singapore that says, we have our own internal political system, but we’re determined to stand up for the international rule of law; that’s why we’re condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And this is a struggle. But I think it’s the struggle of the decade of whether or not impunity further gains the upper hand or whether it can be held back. When you look at the streets of cities across Iran, when you look at what the Ukrainians have done, you’ve gotta say 2022 was a year in which there was a significant popular pushback. But it’s at stake today.

Gideon Rachman
It’s very in the balance isn’t it?

David Miliband
Yes.

Gideon Rachman
Because Iran could fail. We don’t know how Ukraine’s gonna turn out. And one of the things that does concern me is, as you say, you can see this popular pushback against autocracy. But one sort of feels that people power is getting weaker, that you saw in the Arab Spring, governments fell. But here you look at Belarus, you look at Iran, you look at Hong Kong, they seem to have discovered a new method of suppression. Maybe it’s determination, maybe it’s new technology.

David Miliband
Well, the counterpart of autocracy at home is impunity abroad. And my point is that we have to make the link. After all, after 1945, the construction of the international system was done precisely to provide a bulwark for democracy at home. What we’re seeing today is a weakening of democratic systems at home and a weakening of international law on the foreign front. And it’s that nexus that I think we’ve got to try and get into.

Gideon Rachman
OK. Now, I can’t let you go without asking you a question about Britain and British politics.

David Miliband
It’s all going very well, I’m told. Isn’t it?

Gideon Rachman
(Laughs) Yeah, absolutely. Well, it might be going well from the point of view of your team, the Labour party. I mean, it does look like, we don’t know, but the long period of Tory rule may be coming to a close. Keir Starmer, the current leader of the Labour party, is here in Davos and I’m sure they talk to you and maybe one day you’ll come back and play a role in British politics. But what do you think when Labour comes in, Britain, as you say, it’s not in great shape either domestically or internationally. What do they mean to . . .?

David Miliband
Well, I think Britain has been failed by its government in the last decade, but I’m very sad to say that it was failed by the Labour party as well, which didn’t present an electable alternative. Thank goodness, from my point of view, there’s now leadership that is determined step by step, methodically and effectively, to present itself not just as an effective opposition but as an alternative government. The seriousness of purpose of Keir Starmer and his colleagues, I think, is really striking to me. You said when there’s a Labour government, the first thing they would say is war against complacency. You can’t take anything for granted. And I think they’re absolutely right. But Britain has been weakened at home and weakened abroad over the last decade, and that pains me, obviously, as a British citizen, albeit one who’s living abroad at the moment. And I think that there is a massive reconstruction task of the UK. I don’t just mean the reconstruction of its reputation, which has been trashed in various ways, but I mean the reconstruction of the fundamentals of its economic and political strength. And I’m very encouraged by the way Keir Starmer and his team are making the links between economic reform and political reform at home. I also think that they are clear that in an interdependent world, there’s an international dimension to this as well. But look, it might be two years until the next election. There’s a lot of water to go under the bridge. The fact that the current government are bringing some order to governance is actually a good thing, not a bad thing for the country.

Gideon Rachman
I mean, Rishi Sunak is not as chaotic as Boris Johnson.

David Miliband
Yeah. Or as dangerous as his immediate predecessor, who obviously spooked many people around the world with the way she was approaching economic issues. So I think it is a big repair job and sometimes it’s the fate of Labour governments to come in and do those big repair jobs.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. Last thing, though. I mean, Brexit. Can you do a repair job without, I don’t know, reversing Brexit. It’s gonna be, maybe the work of a generation if that ever happens. But how do you improve that relationship with the EU?

David Miliband
Well, I think that there are many, many ways you could improve the relationship with the EU, because for no good reason, even after Brexit, the mode in which Brexit has been taken forward has been so damaging. I mean, just to take one obvious example, it’s been the policy of the British government to pretend that the European Union didn’t exist as a foreign security player. If you read the Integrated Review of foreign policy, it pretended that the EU didn’t exist. That should be easy ground to make up. And I think that Ukraine has demonstrated the folly of believing that somehow geography has disappeared as a factor in international relations in a world that is more connected than ever before. And Britain still is a European country, even though it’s not a member of the European Union. It needs the EU as an anchor of European prosperity and security, even though the UK is not in it. I think a strong and united Europe is good for Britain and I think there must be a better way of organising productive relations between Britain and the European Union. I think that applies across the economic, social and political and foreign policy space and I think it will be the business of serious people going forward.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Gideon Rachman
That was David Miliband in Davos ending this edition of the Rachman Review. Thanks for joining us and please join again next week.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Comments

Comments have not been enabled for this article.