Our Age of Impunity
This month marks a year since Russian tanks first crossed the border with Ukraine, signaling the start of the most extensive land war in Europe since the end of World War II. The invasion has left Ukrainians fighting for their nation and their democracy against a regime that is repressive at home and expansionist abroad.
The war’s impact goes far beyond the region. It has driven up food and energy prices worldwide, contributing to the record 349 million people experiencing food insecurity and to famine-like conditions in East Africa. And the conduct of the war has flouted the most basic international laws and conventions, posing a fundamental threat to the global order. As such, it offers a textbook example of the Age of Impunity.
Impunity is the exercise of power without accountability, which becomes, in starkest form, the commission of crimes without punishment. In Ukraine, this goes beyond the original invasion. It has included repeated violation of international humanitarian law, which is supposed to establish clear protections for civilians, aid workers and civilian infrastructure in conflict zones every day. The danger is that few people will ever face consequences for these crimes.
The impunity in Ukraine is only one part of a broader global trend. In conflicts around the world, attacks on health facilities have increased by 90 percent in the past five years, and twice as many aid workers have been killed in the last decade as in the one before that. In recent years, civilians account for 84 percent of war casualties — a 22-percentage point increase from the Cold War period.
The lack of accountability for crimes in places like Syria and Yemen has fueled the culture of impunity we now see in Ukraine and elsewhere.
It’s not just war zones. Impunity is a helpful lens through which to understand the global drift to “polycrisis,” from climate change to the weakening of democracy. When billionaires evade taxes, oil companies misrepresent the severity of the climate crisis, elected politicians subvert the judiciary and human rights are rolled back, you see impunity in action. Impunity is the mind-set that laws and norms are for suckers.
That is the significance of the “Atlas of Impunity” released today. Published by the Eurasia Group team that I lead, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, it scores all 197 countries and territories across five different areas of impunity: abuse of human rights, unaccountable governance, conflict and violence, economic exploitation and environmental degradation. All represent the abuse of power. The Atlas uses more than 65 independent, credible and comparable data sources to produce a score for each country.
The results show that while the fight for democracy is real, dividing the world into democracies and autocracies does not capture key aspects of the global power balance. While accountability is critical to democracy, a democratic system of government alone is insufficient to fend off impunity. Several democratic countries, including the United States, underperform against the highest standards to which they are committed on measures of human rights and conflict and violence, while democratic Canada performs poorly on environmental degradation.
The most powerful countries in the international system are part of the problem. China and Russia both score among the 50 worst ranking countries on impunity. The United States performs much better, but still scores worse than economic and Global North peers. There is a quantitative evidence in our project for the adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The Atlas also offers striking data about the long-term impact of colonialism and the slave trade, how gender discrimination crosses geographical and cultural boundaries, and how conflict multiplies inequality and decimates the rule of law. But there are lessons on how to counter this syndrome.
First, impunity thrives in darkness so we need more tools to shed light. With the U.N. system often gridlocked, investigative efforts by major news organizations as well as smaller, independent outfits like Bellingcat and the Ukrainian-led 5 AM Coalition, are critical. The formal investigation by Ukrainian and international authorities of more than 50,000 potential war crimesis the first step to accountability for the current war.
It is also vital to support countries formally committed to checks on the abuse of power. The U.S. Department of Defense has taken an important step in this direction through the recently released Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan, which puts the protection of civilians at the core of military missions, creates conditionality for U.S. security partners and establishes better pathways for accountability when civilians are killed.
Building greater accountability requires changing the incentives of would-be abusers. Germany, for instance, has used a legal concept called universal jurisdiction, which realizes that some crimes as so seriousthey should be prosecuted outside the state in which they were committed. Victims have sought justice there from crimes committed in Iraq and Syria. Then there are diplomatic approaches like the Liechtenstein veto initiative, which forces U.N. Security Council vetoes to be defended in front of the General Assembly and shows the importance of diplomacy. The most direct path targets the wallet, whether by governments through Magnitsky-style sanctions, which penalizes foreign government officials who perpetrate serious human rights violations, or by the private sector through divestment campaigns.
Because impunity is the result of an imbalance of power, the forces of accountability must develop “countervailing power.” This notion was first coined by the American economist John Kenneth Galbraith as a way to offset the concentration of corporate economic power that threatened workers and consumers. It now needs wider application.
The systems and cultures of impunity are built over time. Stopping them needs more than laws and norms. It requires not just their defense, but a counterculture of accountability. As Ukrainians fight to defeat impunity on the battlefield, there is a wider job for the rest of us.
Mr. Miliband is a former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom and is a co-chair of the advisory council for the “Atlas of Impunity.”
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