Political theatre of the absurd: Ukraine Peace Conference in the Swiss Alps

Source: https://www.eda.admin.ch/eda/en/home/das_eda/aktuell/dossiers/konferenz-zum-frieden-ukraine.html

In a few days’ time, high up in the Swiss mountains, where the glaciers are melting faster than ever before, there will be a “peace conference” of the most ambitious kind. It won’t be about climate change in the literal sense of the term but drastic climate change it is supposed to achieve. A conflict that has frozen for a couple of years now, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, is expected to melt down and reveal a peaceful day after, where the good will prevail and the evil will be cooperative and remorseful. Or will it?

We are of course referring to the “Summit on Peace in Ukraine” (latest title), scheduled to take place at Bürgenstock (Canton of Nidwalden), Switzerland, on 15-16 June 2024. It is definitely a noble project: to end a destructive war that has led to large scale death and destruction, avoid a further escalation that may even lead to nuclear war, and reestablish peace between Ukraine and Russia, the East and the West. Looking closer, though, into the specifics of the event, there are some elements that undermine its legitimacy and potential impact, and even cause serious concern.

Referring to this event as a “peace conference”, as has been the case till very recently, has been dangerously misleading. The exclusion of Russian representatives and the expected overwhelming presence of Ukraine’s allies indicate an intent to dictate rather than negotiate the terms of ending the war, or even an intent to propagandise “peace” rather than propagate it. A peace conference worth the name would strive to effectively end the conflict by facilitating a framework for negotiations that should take the positions of all parties into account, or so conflict resolution theory and practice tell us.

Well, there is at least one precedent of not involving one of the sides to the conflict in a peace conference, and that is the Paris Peace Conference that resulted in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919-1920, officially ending World War I. Those were different times, though, and most importantly the side not invited were the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria) that had been clearly defeated. Instead of including them in the peace conference, the victorious Allies chose to impose the conditions of peace on them. That may have worked for a while, until the draconian conditions contributed to the rise of Nazism in Germany, and an even deadlier and more destructive World War II ensued. In any case, Russia does not seem to have been defeated or to be close to giving up, so once again history seems to be repeating itself as a farce, but who can laugh?

Maybe the countries of the Global South will have the last laugh. They have been under  protracted pressure to take a strong stance on the conflict. Nevertheless, a significant number of them have chosen to remain neutral, pursuing their own priorities and interests. For these countries, the diversion of billions of euros to armaments and the continued disrespect towards commitments made by the developed world for development assistance / SDG implementation and climate action / Paris Agreement implementation just shows how not serious the Northern “partners” are. Countries like South Africa and Brazil could play a role of intermediary between the parties to the conflict but apparently hesitate to commit to attending a Summit that is convened at the request of and involves only one of the sides.  Such a setting puts in doubt the declared aim of the Summit “to develop a common understanding of a path towards a just and lasting peace in Ukraine” that will serve as “the basis for a peace process”.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been condemned directly or indirectly by a clear majority of states, practically all of them one can say. Even those that wish to maintain a level of neutrality clearly do not condone such a breach of the UN Charter and the violation of internationally recognized borders. Strong and clear condemnation of breaches of international norms is essential to uphold their integrity, but as on previous occasions (see US invasion of Iraq) the doors cannot be fully closed on the recalcitrant party. It is through engagement that attitudes can be changed, not by sheer cornering and isolation that can have a reverse effect, reinforcing negative attitudes and feeding paranoia.

Moreover, the absence of United Nations involvement in the upcoming conference is alarming. The UN should be at the center of peacemaking efforts, not marginalized, as we see to be happening in the Middle East and other conflicts. Its exclusion, beyond general references to the UN Charter, rings even more alarm bells about the conference’s intentions and legitimacy. Marginalizing the UN undermines the principles of international cooperation and collective security, which are crucial for finding a comprehensive and lasting peace. By the way, that does not mean one country capitulating to another but jointly reaching a mutually acceptable outcome for the higher-level common interest that only the UN through its principal organs can collectively represent. The Council of Presidents of the UN General assembly (UNCPGA) presented succinctly a possible solution in their Doha Declaration on 3 May 2024, when they called “for the launch of a credible peace process based on the Istanbul agreement of April 2022, which includes the neutrality of Ukraine along with a decision on the self-determination of the occupied territories in the form of a referendum under the auspices of the United Nations.”

It is time to get real, honest and effective. Peace has to be reestablished between Ukraine and Russia, and a new security and political deal has to be struck to ensure peaceful co-existence between the EU, the US/NATO and Russia for decades to come. It is a must to involve all stakeholders and reflect the fundamental principles of dialogue, negotiation, and mutual understanding, with the United Nations playing a central role.


* The authors wish to thank Tapio Kanninen, former UN colleague of theirs and member of the FOGGS Advisory Board, for the ideas he contributed on certain parts of the article. They also thank Eleonora Lucia Cammarano, post-graduate student at SAIS Bologna and FOGGS summer 2024 intern for supporting them with background research. Of course, the views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect the views of those thanked above or of FOGGS as a whole.

Richard Kinley

Richard Kinley is the President of the Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability (FOGGS). Richard was a senior official at the UN Climate Change Secretariat (UNFCCC) from 1993 to 2017. He served as Deputy Executive Secretary from 2006 to 2017 and was intimately involved in the development of UNFCCC as an organization from its establishment and in its management and operations. He also led or oversaw the secretariat’s support to the climate change negotiations, including the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, and to the intergovernmental institutions. Prior to joining UNFCCC, Richard was an official of the Government of Canada working on international environmental policy issues. He holds a B.A. in political studies and an M.A. in international relations.

Dr Georgios Kostakosis Executive Director of the Brussels-based Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability (FOGGS). He has been extensively involved in global governance, sustainability and climate-related activities with the United Nations and beyond. The starting point for the work of FOGGS is the need for a new Grand Narrative for a fair, human-centred and inclusive globalization. One of its projects is the UN2100 Initiativefor UN reform, which includes the proposal to establish a Global Resilience Council to effectively address non-military threats to human security like climate change and pandemics.

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