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“Above the State and Beyond History:” The Human Rights Situation in Ukraine

“Human rights exist above the state and beyond history. They cannot be rescinded by one government any more than they can be granted by another. They inhabit the human heart, and from there, though they may be abridged, they can never be extinguished.”

When Senator John McCain wrote those poignant words five years ago, the world looked very different than it does today. With Vladimir Putin’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and his threats of “consequences you have never seen,” we are living in the most dangerous moment the world has seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

Ukraine’s unexpectedly strong defense has frustrated Putin and Russian leadership, leading to widespread human rights abuses and war crimes as the Russian Army wages an “increasingly relentless assault that is taking an unspeakable toll” on the country. 

The heaviest fighting has occurred in Mariupol, a city under siege and cut off from food and essential supplies. The Red Cross has spoken of the “immense” human suffering in the city, and warned the world that “time is running out for the hundreds of thousands trapped by the fighting. History will look back at what is now happening in Mariupol with horror.” Just days ago, Russia bombed a maternity hospital in the city killing at least four and injuring 17 Ukrainians – the harrowing and now infamous photo of a pregnant woman being carried out of a maternity hospital Russia had bombed revealed just how brutal Russian tactics have become. Officials have said that 2,400 people killed in the city have been formally identified, but that number is a severe undercount as the true death toll may be as high as 20,000. The situation is too dangerous and unstable to get an accurate count – in all war zones, it’s difficult to get accurate fatalities statistics, let alone in a war that is being fought on so many fronts (including Russian disinformation online) as this tragedy unfolds in real time.

In recent days, Russia has increasingly targeted civilian areas and buildings, causing an unknown number of civilian deaths. On March 16, Russia bombed a theater sheltering up to 1,200 Ukrainian citizens. The death toll is unknown, but what is clear is that the word “children” was spelled out in Russian on the ground outside of the theater, visible to satellites. Russia’s use of cluster bombs and indiscriminate missiles and artillery has killed thousands of civilians, and the country has begun to target medical facilities, residential areas and critical infrastructure. The U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Michael Carpenter  said that he “can say with certainty that a lot of civilians [in Ukraine] are being killed by Russian missiles and artillery and aircraft. And we have credible reports that Russia is deliberately targeting civilian objects.” These attacks are war crimes, and they equate to grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. Further solidifying Putin’s lack of concern for human rights, he revoked Russia’s ratification of Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Convention in 2019, which makes indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations and destruction of food, water, and other materials needed for survival illegal. Thanks to social media, Russian war crimes are being filmed and instantly disseminated across the world. As journalists have increasingly come under attack, four journalists have been killed thus far: Pierre Zakrzewski, Oleksandra Kuvshynova, Yevhenii Sakun and Brent Renaud.. A harrowing video from March 6 shows a Sky News team under heavy fire, including after they identified themselves as journalists. Remember, this has all occurred in only three weeks of fighting. 

While the true extent of Russian human rights abuses, atrocities and war crimes committed in Ukraine is unknown, even given the limited information we have at this point, it is clear that Russia has ignited the largest conflict in Europe since World War II and the most severe humanitarian crisis that Europe has seen in decades. The United Nations Refugee Agency has said that Ukraine is experiencing the fastest growing refugee crisis since WWII. 

The West has tried to step up by providing military aid to Ukraine and putting unprecedented sanctions on Russia. However, there is more the United States and our Western allies can and should do. Western leaders believe, at this point, that a no-fly zone would dramatically escalate the war into a potentially global conflict. Short of a no-fly zone, the West must maximize the economic punishment on Russia for this war and increase our military assistance to Ukraine. Russia must be completely shut out from the international economy. The United States has taken a bold step on this front, banning Russian oil and gas imports, and the European Union should work further to restrict Russian gas imports. Recently, the Prime Minister of Poland proposed that the E.U. impose a complete ban on all trade with Russia, arguing that “fully cutting off Russia’s trade would further force Russia to consider whether it would be better to stop this cruel war.” Militarily, countries must continue to send weapons and other military aid to Ukraine, and a deal to provide the country with fighter jets must be pursued. Since the two sides are still far apart in ceasefire negotiations, these steps are part of a maximum pressure campaign from the United States and our allies that serve as the only thing we can do to try and protect the human rights of innocent Ukrainians. 

The United States’ reaction to the war raises questions that Senator McCain faced. After a speech made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Senator McCain responded in The New York Times arguing that “it is foolish to view realism and idealism as incompatible or to consider our power and wealth as encumbered by the demands of justice, morality and conscience.” America has always been a “country with a conscience,” Senator McCain wrote. “We have long believed moral concerns must be an essential part of our foreign policy, not a departure from it.” All too often, our foreign policy neglects to give proper consideration to human rights. During his long and distinguished career, Senator McCain’s support for human rights was central to his world view and an inspiration to many activists around the world. This is a worldview that America must return to, especially at a time when human rights crises rage on across the world, not only  in Ukraine, but in Myanmar, Xinjiang, Syria, Venezuela, and far too many other countries. Like Senator McCain said, these rights exist “above the state and beyond history,” and American policy makers need to treat them as such. In the spirit of Senator McCain, the United States must change the narrative on human rights and realize that human rights must be an essential consideration in our foreign policy.

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Daniel Russell
Publish Date
March 25, 2022