Opinion: Ukraine, Israel and Gaza show us a new age of mass violence

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Since the October 7 attacks by Hamas on Israeli civilians and Israel’s retaliation, the world’s attention has shifted from Ukraine to the Middle East. But while we’re moving on to Gaza, large-scale violence against civilians is taking place elsewhere.

Almost all of the population of the former Armenian state of Nagorno-Karabakh had to flee, displaced by more than two decades of conflict after Azerbaijan’s decisive victory. In Ukraine, investigators are constantly uncovering new and gruesome evidence of war crimes, torture, rape, child abduction and deliberate Russian genocide against civilians. In Israel and Gaza, 1,200 Israelis and more than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed in brutal attacks, indiscriminate attacks, bombings and blockades by warring parties that have led to claims of genocide or genocide.

In Sudan, more than 360,000 innocent citizens have recently become refugees to flee the mass violence and crimes against humanity committed by the Rapid Support Forces in the country’s civil war. In the Balkans, Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina are on the brink of violent armed conflict. These and other cases of mass violence are all part of an emerging global tide. A new era of ethnic cleansing and mass murder is upon us, and more horrors are coming.

Genocide and ethnic cleansing may seem like simple solutions to complex problems for politicians. There is no need to negotiate and negotiate – concepts that are abhorrent to extremists and populists – if there is no body to negotiate with. With increasingly polarized and intolerant politics and perceptions of existential threats – from opposing military alliances, different ethnic groups, religions, ideologies or identities – the message of disengagement becomes attractive. And most importantly, the international community and the US in particular seem unable and unwilling to do anything about this trend, even though the perpetrators face little or no consequences.

The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide and the broader framework of international humanitarian law seem completely irrelevant and far removed from actual events. Scarred by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US – the only country in the world with the resources and capacity to stop mass killings – has lost interest in such actions. But without the US, preventing mass atrocities is a disaster. Joint statements by scholars and practitioners imploring governments and armed groups to stop violating international law and warning of genocide or ethnic cleansing are of little use.

The record of accountability and punishment for the atrocities committed is no less. So far, Russia’s well-documented crimes against humanity have resulted in only two prosecutions at the International Criminal Court and arrests of the main perpetrators. The main effect of the charges was to limit Putin’s ability to travel abroad.

Can this wave of global mass violence be stopped or reversed? Probably not. Neither the US nor NATO will start spending resources to save lives in remote areas. Actors who ignore international law will not suddenly begin to respect it, and the conflict between Russia and the West will prevent a wider international action.

But the West can still reduce the destructiveness of this attack. The first task is to realize that each case of mass violence is different, but they are interconnected, and that solving the sources of one will help to reduce the others. Limiting the ability of Russia or Iran to export violence would have implications beyond Ukraine or the Middle East. Influencing and, if necessary, dissuading allies is as important as taking action against opponents. Investing heavily in accountability and punishment is cheaper and less controversial than military intervention, but it could force perpetrators to rethink their policies.

At some point, the combined effect of images, testimonies, and evidence of unspeakable suffering can make the public more willing to prevent and intervene in mass violence. Until this happens, even limited policies can save thousands of lives. We owe them.

Eugene Finkel is an associate professor of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University and the author of the forthcoming book “Intent to Destroy: Russia’s Bicentennial of Domination in Ukraine.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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