By Aleksandra Sidorova
The Institute of Ethics in Public Life hosted a virtual discussion on transitional justice in Ukraine March 22. More than weekly events about niche topics, they help participants navigate and uphold democracy.
Daniel Lake, director of the Institute of Ethics in Public Life and professor of political science, invited SUNY Oneonta Political Science Professor Matt Murphy to host a talk on transitional justice in Ukraine. It has been more than a year since Russia’s launch of an active invasion Feb. 24, 2022.
Murphy first introduced the concept of transitional justice — policies intended to address injustices linked to a previous regime and smooth the transition to a new regime. The term “regime” does not refer specifically to an authoritarian government, but any form of government or political control that the nation is distancing itself from. Transitional justice can appear in the form of purges, trials, truth commissions and amnesty.
Murphy has studied transitional justice for more than 25 years: “Luckily for me, unluckily for the world, the issue doesn’t go away.”
Some of Ukraine’s current domestic acts of transitional justice include introducing legislation outlawing collaboration with an aggressor state and intensifying post-Soviet efforts to “de-Russify” the nation. Street names have been changed, statues dismantled and literature removed from libraries, as reported by the international news channel France 24. More people are choosing to speak Ukrainian over Russian as well.
A major point of discussion was the International Criminal Court’s recent arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The ICC accused Putin of war crimes and “personal responsibility for the abductions of children in Ukraine,” according to an Associated Press article March 17. Sharing the latter accusation is Maria Lvova-Belova, commissioner for Children’s Rights in Putin’s office. Such a gesture, as well as the establishment of the International Centre for the Prosecution of Crimes of Aggression against Ukraine by the European Union March 7, can be viewed as acts of transitional justice.
However, neither the ICC nor the EU have the power to enforce their jurisdiction: Putin may be arrested only if a country he is visiting takes it upon itself to send him to ICC’s headquarters in The Hague, the Netherlands, or if his political successor does so.
The ICC would not have been able to make its ruling had Ukraine not invited its jurisdiction, either.
Yet, it “doesn’t mean nothing,” Murphy said. While he has low expectations of Putin being punished, he sees value in the ICC’s indictment because it serves as a record and requires the accused to respond — Moscow denied the accusation, as AP reported. It also allows other nations to respond and take action while limiting what Putin can do.
Additionally, it is symbolic and potentially stigmatizing to the accused country.
“Being stigmatized, being the rogue nation, the country nobody wants to deal with or nobody wants to cooperate with, it doesn’t cause change directly, but it’s not something that countries like, either,” Murphy said. “It’s quite frustrating and irritating for countries to get labeled as ‘rogue states’ or as ‘bad apples.’”
Murphy noted the “transitional justice” label implies the measures are temporary, when, in his view, “it doesn’t ever end.” This idea came as a surprise to Lake, who specializes in why international conflicts happen.
Lake has held discussions on campus about the invasion of Ukraine shortly after it began.
At the beginning, he was “skeptical” of Ukraine winning the war, but has been surprised at “how much weaker the Russian military is than anybody thought it was.” Lake also thinks the world has learned more about Russia and Ukraine’s internal politics within the past year, himself predicting Ukraine will emerge from the war with “certainly a much stronger civil society” and a stronger democracy.
While there is little that individuals and international organizations like the ICC can do in response to international conflicts, learning about war can bring the world closer to peace. For example, the concepts of “war crimes” and guidelines for war did not exist until the late 19th century.
“Change is slow,” Lake said, relating the idea to war and social values alike.
Lake thinks recognizing and discussing world issues shows some change in values.
“Back then people would suffer and nobody cared,” Lake said.
By engaging in such conversations, one learns to “disagree without being disagreeable” — a quote that is “almost a proverb” to Lake.
There is no “common rule” to ensure the success of conversations on world issues, especially on polarizing and divisive topics, but Lake believes they are important to be had because “civil discourse is a value in democracy.”
That’s what the Institute of Ethics and Public Life has been striving toward since its founding in 1998, and its work continues in the weekly events it hosts now.