One year of war: how international Geneva stepped up for Ukraine

An anti-war protest, after Russia launched a massive military operation against Ukraine, in front of the United Nations office in Geneva, 26 February, 2022. (Keystone/Reuters/Pierre Albouy)

A year since Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, UN and other humanitarian organisations have made their presence felt in the war-torn country and beyond.

Just days after Russian president Vladimir Putin sat at a telephone-flanked desk to announce a “special military operation” had begun in Ukraine, western diplomats at the UN Human Rights Council walked out during a video speech by Moscow’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, before repeating the exercise hours later at the Conference on Disarmament.

The effects of the invasion by Russian troops into Ukraine in the early hours of 24 February 2022 quickly extended beyond the country’s borders, triggering Europe’s largest refugee crisis since the Second World War and food insecurity in distant places as exports from the world's bread bowl, turned into a warzone, were halted.

From Geneva, international organisations and NGOs kicked in to respond to humanitarian needs of populations in Ukraine as well as beyond, and provide oversight to the respect of international humanitarian law and human rights on the battlefield.

Now, a week after Western countries warned that the invasion represented a threat to the entire world at the Munich Security Conference, concerns over military escalation are increasing, with a conclusion of hostilities nowhere in sight.

“Non-military solutions are not a priority for states,” Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International lamented at a press briefing in Geneva on Monday, referring to the talks in Munich. “There was a strong hegemonic emphasis on military solutions.”

On Thursday afternoon in New York, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of a non-binding resolution calling for Russia to withdraw from the country. China and Brazil have both spoken about the need for a negotiated peace agreement.

Meanwhile, some feel that Switzerland, host to many of the organisations now committed to the complex crisis, may have lost its ability to assume a role as a mediator, after aligning with European Union sanctions against Russia. A former Russian diplomat in Geneva said Moscow was “surprised” at the time by the decision taken by the neutral country.

Standing ground on human rights

Following the latest upswing of the conflict in Ukraine, eight years after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, the Human Rights Council stepped in when the Security Council remained stymied by Russia’s veto power.

With the Security Council’s inability to sanction Russia, the Human Rights Council voted to put the wartime abuses up for discussion, and agreed that a mission of inquiry be initiated. The UN General Assembly soon after voted to oust Russia from the Council.

Volker Türk, the UN high commissioner for human rights, who visited Ukraine in December, has condemned “war crime” violations, incuding torture, summary executions, disappearences and summary killings of civilans.

On Tuesday, Matilde Bogner, head of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission, said according to their own investigations, there were tens of thousands of dead and injured in the country, but that the actual toll was certainly higher than their numbers. Her team has also documented and verified hundreds of cases of sexual violence.

Their documentation of the human rights abuses, Bogner said, could be later be of use elsewhere. ”If a(n international) prosecutor collects evidence against one specific case, they can compare that to the overall violations and the documented patterns that we have to show that their case is consistent with what was happening across the country, and it increases the credibility of their allegations.”

On the ground response

Meanwhile, an army of UN humanitarian agencies have mobilised in Ukraine as well as to a more reduced extent in Russia to provide assistance to millions of residents still in the country. Recently the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) launched an appeal for $3.9 billion to help 11.1 million of the 18 million people in need of aid in the country.

UN assistance over the past year has included education and healthcare for children from Unicef, food assistance, including in cash form, from the World Food Programme (WFP), and winterisation support to refurbish shelters, repair damaged homes and provide heating systems to some 700,000 from the International Organizations for Migration (IOM).

Richard Gowan, UN director for the think tank International Crisis Group, told Geneva Solutions on Thursday that Geneva-based UN agencies, as well as other organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), have played “an underappreciated role” in providing assistance to the country.

“The UN is very, very active in Ukraine and not getting very much publicity,” he said. “The Ukrainians do not want to be seen as dependent on the UN. This is a government that is obviously very proud of its record in resisting Russian aggression, and do not want to be seen as going cap in hand asking for assistance.”

Guidance on the rules of the war

Amid growing evidence of abuses recounted by survivors, including the horrific assaults on the cities of Bucha in the northwest and Mariupol in the southwest Donetsk region, where homes and a maternity ward were targeted and civilians killed, one organisation has been engaging with combatants to improve compliance to international humanitarian law.

Marie Lequin, Euroasia director of Geneva Call told Geneva Solutions that while fighters have been willing to understand what humanitarian law in the battlefield means, the biggest challenge for the NGO has been to carve out the time to discuss these with them.

“They are busy fighting,” she said, adding that assembling a group of soldiers in a given place also involves security concerns, as they may be targeted by the opposing front. The organisation informs itself of violations that either side may have committed, but said that educating fighters about the Geneva Conventions and its protocols on the conduct of warfare is most effective when sensitivities are taken into account.

“It is easier to find entry points and arguments that resonate in their minds, and gradually go to the very problematic issues,” she said.

When asked whether a similar strategy could be employed in moving closer to a negotiated end to hostilities between the two countries, Lequin commented that, “any room for discussion is a positive step”.

She said that like elsewhere, humanitarian gestures such as prisoner exchanges led by the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (ICRC) or by third states, can be powerful confidence building measures . “We need to mention how important minor steps are toward future discussions. Any small humanitarian discussions or agreements can be a positive step.”

The ICRC, which operates from Geneva a tracing facility for missing persons and prisoners of war, has been pushing for regular, unimpeded visits to prisoners of war and has been pressing for a general all-for-all prisoner swap by both countries. The organisation has come under criticism by Ukraine for not doing enough amid Russian violations of international humanitarian law.

“It is important that both parties understand that the better they behave in hostilities, the more respectability they will get in the future, at the time that peace talks happen,” Lequin said.

“Eventually it will happen, in one year, in five years, in ten years.”

Deal-making in the name of food

Critical negotiations between the opponents were made possible in mid-2022 in response to global concerns over food shortages, through the involvement of various UN and Geneva-based organisations, as well as Turkey.

The discreet Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) coordinated initial discussions between Ukraine and Russia ahead of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, after halted grain shipments from Ukraine set off hunger and food inflation in Africa, Asia and Latin America.  Talks over the export of Russian ammonia, a key ingredient in agricultural fertilisers, see HD still involved as a facilitator.

Read more: Mediation expert on Ukraine-Russia negotiations: ‘It’s important to explore the various options’

Jan Hoffmann, the head of the logistics branch at the UN Trade Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad), which helped broker the grain deal, told Geneva Solutions how important the agreement was. He said that while economies were able to quickly adapt to lower energy supplies from the region by lowering consumption and changing energy energy, he said the same is not possible with food. “You cannot not eat.”

With food inflation rising due to greater demand for basic commodities such as grain and rising shipping costs for those goods, Hoffmann said his office presented a report to UN secretary general António Guterres showing that no other transport options to shipping existed that would supply sufficient volumes to impact food security issues. As a result, Guterres requested that a deal be concluded allowing for sea-bound shipments to be resumed, with security assurances from belligerents.

An Unctad report showed that Ukraine grain exports returned to near prewar levels by late September. WFP was able to deliver aid to countries facing acute food insecurity, such as Ethiopia and Afghanistan, while food inflation has eased somewhat. But a recent joint statement by the Food and Agricultural Organization, the World Trade Organization, the WFP and the International Monetary Fund warned that the world still faces an unprecedented food insecurity crisis.

The grain deal, which is up for renewal in March, has recently been under pressure with Ukraine accusing Russia of holding up inspections of ships. Meanwhile, Russia is waiting for an agreement on ammonia, seen as what had sweetened the pill to sign onto the Black Sea initiative. Moscow is also asking for sanctions on its own agricultural exports to be lifted.

The critical role that the grain deal has played for Ukraine, according to Gowan, means that Unctad’s secretary general Rebeca Grynspan is one of the top three UN leaders the Ukrainian government has relied on the most, right behind Guterres and OCHA’s chief Martin Griffiths.

“It is Guterres, Grynspan and Griffiths running the show in Ukraine,” Gowan said, while dampening any hopes that any possible peace discussions were being considered at this point.