Oscar van Heerden | Ukraine crisis: where is our United Nations and rules-based international system?

Dualism in the international system must end. We must defy it on all fronts and we must apply international law without fear or favour, writes Oscar van Heerden.


There’s the legality, and then there’s the reality, it seems.

When the United States and the West refer to our rules-based system, they are essentially referring to the Charter of the United Nations. The system is designed to ensure that all member countries adhere to international law as set out in the Charter.

Invading a sovereign country is certainly not allowed, so Russia committed an international criminal act by invading Ukraine. But what does the Charter say about fundamental rights of people in the Donbass region?

Can his own government bomb, kill and terrorize his own citizens for eight years without consequences? Is it correct? Shouldn’t they fight back or may be allowed self-determination? After all, when Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia, most members of the UN immediately accepted this declaration. Why not for the inhabitants of the Donbass region?

Terrorist acts

Article 2 of the Charter of the United Nations, paragraph three, obliges all States to negotiate. Who doesn’t want to negotiate peace? Ukraine, the United States, NATO and the EU? This is clearly a violation of Article 2 by these countries. Similarly, Article 2(4) prohibits the use of force and the threat of use of force and aggression. All parties to this conflict are guilty in this regard.

Then there are the terrorist acts that have also engulfed this conflict: the bombing of the civilian infrastructure of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines, the car bombing and subsequent murder of Darya Dugina, the daughter of a prominent Russian philosopher, and the terrorist act and bombing of the Kerch Bridge, connecting Crimea and Russia. Today, the Charter of the United Nations stipulates that the Security Council has the primary responsibility for adopting measures to combat terrorism as a threat to international peace and security.

Where is the objectivity of the UN human rights body in this conflict? There is talk of “war crimes” and the United States declares that it will not let this go unpunished. They will hold Russia and Vladimir Putin responsible for war crimes. I am sure we will see the International Criminal Court also come into the corner of the United States and it will be more than worth pursuing in this regard.

READ | Oscar van Heerden: If we’re not vigilant, we could sleepwalk into the next world war

Where was the court when it came to war crimes committed by Israel? Or the war crimes committed against the peoples of Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen, to name a few, in the past 15 years alone? Where was the Western media’s enthusiasm to show us pictures of pregnant women and killed children? Residential buildings have also been bombed and civilians killed indiscriminately in these countries.

War is war, and it’s ugly everywhere and the moment we selectively apply our outrage and disgust, we become complicit. Why are we shown these brutal images from Ukraine, but then we have to wonder where our bleeding hearts were for Palestinians, Libyans and other people in the Middle East? Or do they not matter?

I have been preaching this dualism in our international system for many years now, but to no avail. It’s like no one wants to discuss these double standards that exist in our international system because that would expose us all to who we really are.

Because this war involves permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), none of the above will be applied to hold Russia or the United States accountable for nearly bringing the world to nuclear Armageddon. Yes, US President Joe Biden has told us himself that this is probably what the peoples of the world will face, and yet the US, NATO and the EU have decided to escalate the war and show no signs of wanting to resolve it anytime soon. Meanwhile, Ukrainians are dying every day.

After World War II, a new world order was established, a global institution of some repute was established, and a global financial system was established pegged to the US dollar as the reserve currency.

Angry USA

Everything was going wonderfully well until the superpower’s hegemony was threatened. The growing dominance of China, India, and Russia meant that the United States had to step back and accept that it was no longer the only kid on the block. This proved very difficult for the United States to accept, and instead of graciously accepting their new status in the international constellation of nations, they decided to do what they do best: fight.

And so he chose to fight with Russia, using Ukraine as a proxy. He threatened China and pissed them off by visiting Taiwan and South Korea. The United States is telling American citizens working in China to leave otherwise, and it is now telling Saudi Arabia and other sovereign states that if you support Russia in any way, sanctions will also be imposed on your country. It seems that the US government and its military-industrial complex are very angry indeed. Where will all this end?

READ | Oscar van Heerden: The Star-Spangled Banner Can Still Fall

It is we who give oxygen to the United States and the EU, to their Western media and to their international organizations by allowing ourselves to fall into the very trap called dualism. It is we who turn a blind eye to certain atrocities committed by Western powers. We are the ones who argue so passionately against this war but conveniently forget the others. We are the ones who allow the Western media to continue spouting falsehoods and lies. They told us that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; therefore, the Allied forces had to go there, find them and kill Saddam Hussein. We were told we had to have a no-fly zone over Libya, which resulted in the brutal death of Muammar Gaddafi.

They tried to do the same with Bashir al-Assad from Syria. Is this the kind of world we want to experience? Where some countries claiming to defend democracy and freedom can wage a brutal war against innocent people? But when others claim they are doing it to liberate people who have been bombed, bombed and killed for eight years by their own governments, it is doomed.

What is our responsibility?

This dualism of the international system must end. We must challenge it on all fronts. We must apply international law without fear or favour. But we don’t. As long as there are five permanent members of the UNSC with respective veto powers, we will never see the end of dualism. Double standards serve the interests of these powers.

So, I repeat, there is legality and reality in our international system and I would advise Western powers to think carefully before wanting to invoke the Charter of the United Nations. With today’s technology where everyone is a journalist and many people can share the reality on the ground, lies and deception can no longer be easily peddled.

The UN, through the office of the Secretary General, must ask itself what is our responsibility to ensure the end of this conflict. Anything less will also expose the General Assembly as an active participant in this international system of double standards.

– Dr Oscar van Heerden is a specialist in International Relations (IR), where he focuses on international political economy, with a focus on Africa, and SADC in particular


* Want to answer the columnist? Send your letter or article to [email protected]with your name and city or province. You can also send a profile photo. We encourage a diversity of voices and points of view in our readers’ submissions and reserve the right not to publish all submissions received.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages free speech and the expression of diverse opinions. The opinions of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of News24.

Christi C. Elwood