Saturday, June 22, 2024

Africa: What Ukraine's Nobel Peace Prize Winner Oleksandra Romantsova Said About Russia's War and its Impact on Africa

As Africa and the world claws back from the devastating impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia dealt another blow. A year later, and the world is still grappling with the lingering repercussions of the war. Africa is no exception.

The ongoing war significantly impeded the continent’s economic development and recovery efforts. The continent is bearing the brunt of food shortages, climate shocks, a massive public debt burden, and inflation, given its heavy reliance on imports. According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), the invasion resulted in a significant deficit of about 30 million tons of grains in Africa, coupled with a steep increase in costs. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) said that Africa’s food security faces more threats because of the disruptions in the supply chain of critical agricultural inputs, such as fertilisers imported from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

Rising global inflation and soaring global food prices were triggered worldwide. Africa is now grappling with the worst food crisis in four decades, leaving millions of people in a state of acute food insecurity.

However, many African countries remain neutral about the ongoing war, ostensibly because of historical ties due to the Soviet Union’s support for pro-independence movements during the time of Western political dominance. For example, South Africa refused to condemn the invasion of Ukraine and expressed a preference for neutrality and dialogue in order to bring an end to the war.

But are African countries going to pay a heavy price for neutrality?

Oleksandra Romantsova, who is the executive director of the Centre for Civil Liberties and the country’s first-ever Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 2022, discusses the effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine on African nations. The human rights defense organisation has operated in Ukraine since 2007, and since 2014, the centre documented war crimes in the whole territory of Ukraine, particularly in Crimea and Donbas, as a result of Russian aggression – in relation to stability, security, and economic well-being. She also provides insights on Russia’s growing involvement in Africa, often described as a “new scramble for Africa“.

When did you realise that it was important to stand up for others?

In 2014, we realised that there was a lack of international mechanisms that could effectively respond to the situation. It was the first major conflict in Europe after World War II, and many international organisations were ill-equipped to respond. Therefore, we felt the need to push for the establishment of such mechanisms through our advocacy efforts. However, on February 24th, we realised that we cannot do it alone as an organisation. So we proposed the idea of creating a coalition of organisations to work together, with each organisation taking responsibility for a specific region or province in Ukraine.

This way, we can ensure that every person who has suffered from war crimes has a partner to whom they can appeal and share their story. We have gathered numerous testimonies and evidence, even from occupied territories, through information provided by people still living there and through open sources, as many Russian soldiers are involved in the conflict.

Over the past eight years, together with other human rights organisations, we have been working to document war crimes and started to command hold the territory of Ukraine, including Crimea and Donbas. We have formed a coalition of more than 30 organisations, covering different regions of Ukraine. So far, we have documented over 37,000 cases.

So far, most of the Ukraine refugees have gone to neighbouring countries in Europe. Do you have any concerns that those countries hosting Ukrainian refugees might eventually become less welcoming?

I believe it’s not just about money, but also about the loss experienced by many people, especially those without family connections when they are forced to flee to neighbouring countries. In places like Australia, Latin America, and even Africa, refugees often go to countries where they have relatives or previous job opportunities. In Europe, however, countries like Germany, Denmark, and Norway have special programmes to support refugees, but they may not accept as many people as they could due to factors like weather conditions or concerns about safety.

Many Ukrainians who have fled their country due to conflict or other dangers are hoping to return home when it becomes safer, particularly to the western part of Ukraine which is perceived as safer compared to the eastern and southern parts where the conflict is ongoing. Despite the challenges of language barriers and lack of social connections, most Ukrainians want to return to their own professions and rebuild their lives in their home country. Therefore, when discussing refugees, I believe that many people will return, especially during the upcoming summer. There are concerns about children being scared of winter due to President  Vladimir Putin’s alleged plan to freeze Ukraine. Because in winter, we don’t have any connections with heating.

Unlike refugees from countries like Syria or Afghanistan who usually do not go back once they leave, many Ukrainian women and children want to go back. Many men stayed behind in Ukraine.

What actions do you believe African countries should take to address the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine, especially in terms of economic stability and security?

Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that the food market plays a crucial role in the world. As a country that produces a significant amount of grain, flowers, oil, and other agricultural products, we rank among the top exporters globally. However, we only realised the true importance of our role when we faced logistical challenges that disrupted our supply chains. This had a significant impact on other exporters and highlighted the issue of food security.

Secondly, the situation with the largest nuclear power station in Europe being occupied by heavily-armed Russian forces is a grave concern. It’s not just about soldiers being stationed there, but also about the presence of artillery and explosives, which pose a serious threat. Even a small mistake could result in a catastrophe worse than Chernobyl or Fukushima, given the magnitude of the nuclear station.

Lastly, there is a critical issue of international law at stake. If it becomes acceptable for a country to occupy and create a new territory from occupied territory, as Russia has done with Ukraine, it would set a dangerous precedent. Denying the existence of a nation or a language, as Putin has done with Ukraine, goes against the principles of international law and threatens global security. This conflict is not just between two countries, but also between two systems, as Ukraine has chosen democracy … It’s imperative to find ways to protect ourselves from such aggression.

In addition, trade through economic means is only possible during peacetime. Using the funds gained from economic partnerships for war and aggression instead of domestic development is detrimental to free markets and global stability. The presence of nuclear weapons and nuclear power stations in the hands of countries that exhibit a willingness to destroy entire regions is a grave concern for the world.

The issues we face with Russia go beyond a simple war between two countries. It’s about the impact on the international economy, the dangers of nuclear weapons, and the violation of international law. It’s crucial to address these challenges and find ways to safeguard global security and stability.

What is your perspective on Russia’s increasing engagement in Africa?

There is a special rating that measures corruption, and Russia is known to be a country that exports corruption. This is a big problem for developing democracies in Africa that are struggling to build democratic societies where people have a say in their government through elections and participation. Russia sees this as an opportunity and tries to gain influence in African countries …. where they manipulate the system to gain power and money through illicit means, often using private armies like the Wagner Group. When African societies try to challenge this behavior and advocate for true democracy, Russia uses its power and resources to maintain control and silence dissent. This is dangerous for the people of Africa who are trying to establish a functioning democracy with fair elections and governance. Russia’s economic relationship with African countries is not necessarily based on benefiting the general population, but rather on gaining control and manipulating the system for their own interests. Russia’s actions do not contribute to the well-being of the entire population but rather serve the interests of those in power who are willing to disregard democratic principles. If Russia were to promote genuine democracy, leaders like Putin would not be able to maintain their grip on power, which is why Russia exports the same flawed model to other countries.

The Russian leader Putin planned to attend BRICS Summit in August at South Africa’s invitation, but ICC issued an arrest warrant for war crimes in Ukraine and the deportation of Ukrainian children. You’ve suggested that Putin could attend the BRICS summit via Zoom or send a minister who is not wanted by the ICC. How can the international community hold Russia accountable?

We spoke with the ICC prosecutor about why this case was escalated. He explained that they were trying to stop the forcible deportation of children from the Russian Federation. Just three days ago, near the city where a nuclear power station is located, children were taken from their parents using buses belonging to the nuclear station organisation and sent to Crimea. This is happening every day, not just last year, but ongoing. The first priority is to stop this process of children being forcibly deported.

The second point is that there is irrefutable evidence, with a 100% guarantee, that Putin himself signed a special order regarding these children. This is a significant crime that requires a reaction from the international community. Even if Putin participates in the BRICS forum online or sends Sergey Lavrov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs as he does not have any warrant. He should have one after the investigation and litigation. Putin’s actions and influence on the situation in Ukraine and other countries need to be addressed.