A permanent member of the UN Security Council engages its democratic neighbor in a war of aggression, and Russian state media spreads the view that this country and its people ought to be destroyed. The UN Security Council is blocked. Twenty years after the Yugoslav wars, massive war crimes are again taking place in the middle of Europe, International law is being disregarded, and high-ranking politicians are threatening to use nuclear weapons. The world order built after World War II is threatened. Where are the ways out? Is there potential for a turning point?

The opening words of the 1945 Charter of the United Nations are: “We the peoples of the United Nations – determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind – have resolved…” Now we do have another all-out war. Since the turn of the millennium, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, demonstrates daily that he thinks nothing of multilateralism, of the international legal order.

We asked Gerhart Baum, former German Minister of the Interior (1978-82), for his thoughts. Baum was born in 1932 and still knows war and flight from his own family’s experience. His maternal grandfather comes from Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine and his mother was a refugee twice, once in 1917 during the Russian revolution and a second time fleeing from Dresden in 1945.

1. What hope do you have in the UN to stop the suffering of the Ukrainian people?

I would not talk down the United Nations in the way that is happening now. I headed the German delegation to the Human Rights Council for six years and know what happens there. Reports are currently being written at full speed, such as on torture, political prisoners, and human rights violations committed over the internet, and resolutions are being passed. In this way, a wealth of knowledge, evidence, and opinions is gathered. The United Nations has, in a historic decision based on the “Uniting for Peace” resolution, in a sense overruled the Security Council. The UN General Assembly condemned the breach of international law by Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine by 140 votes with some abstentions – a historic majority. Only Belarus, Syria, North Korea, and Eritrea still sided with Russia.

Even though General Assembly resolutions are only recommendations, which have no legally binding effect, unlike Security Council decisions, they are a way to mitigate the de facto effect of a veto. The resolution is an important basis of appeal for us and for all states that rely on multilateralism when we help Ukraine. I don’t think we should disparage the UN. They have a function now, too. Guterres (António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations) was just in Moscow and Kyiv. That is a signal. The UN is not staying out of it; it is judging the war and has clearly condemned it.

2. What other possibilities do you see for stopping Russia’s actions?

We have the instrument of sanctions, which obviously works. We have the instrument of arms deliveries. Both instruments are important for supporting Ukraine in its defense, although a certain hesitation accompanies their use on the German side, which, to me, is incomprehensible. And we have international law – the strength of the law against “might makes right.” There are different levels here. On the international level, we have, since 2002, the International Criminal Court in The Hague as an independent institution outside the UN structure. It is also investigating in Ukraine.

And at the German national level, we have international criminal law. This means that, in accordance with the principle of universal jurisdiction, we can hear and judge in Germany any war crime that occurs anywhere in the world, in parallel to what happens in The Hague. This has implications for the war! We signal to those who attack the civilian population: You are guilty of war crimes as well as crimes against humanity. If there is sufficient suspicion, criminals can be charged and convicted in Germany for crimes under international law that they have committed abroad.

This does not require a German crime scene or German perpetrators or victims. If there is urgent suspicion of a crime, an arrest warrant can be issued, which can also be distributed worldwide via Interpol. The German Chief Prosecutor can use this instrument to prosecute offenders in German courts. In an exemplary manner, the Chief Prosecutor and German criminal courts have already applied the principle of universal jurisdiction, particularly in the recent past, to prosecute crimes committed in Syria. There, after all, the civilian population has been just as severely afflicted as the Ukrainian people are now. The message is: We can bring charges and issue arrest warrants, regardless of where you are. That is the German contribution to the field of law.

3. You personally (together with former German Justice Minister Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger) have filed criminal charges with the Chief Federal Prosecutor in Karlsruhe, Germany, for alleged Russian war crimes. What are your aims in doing so?

Our goal is to help ensure that crimes are met with the law. And not just to prosecute after the factual crime, but to impact the ongoing war. Every individual who participates in these crimes must know that they are criminals. So, we are concerned not only with holding accountable the perpetrators at the top of the state but all the perpetrators. Vladimir Putin, for example, awarded a medal for bravery to the troops that murdered in Butcha.

We want to do something to counter this use of violence, arbitrariness and impunity. We have presented a dossier of 140 pages of information and analysis to determine who is guilty. We show that it is possible today to identify perpetrators from publicly available sources alone for specific investigative procedures. We base this on the “Völkerstrafgesetzbuch” (universal jurisdiction statute), which has been in force in Germany since 2002. With this, our country implements the so-called principle of universal jurisdiction.

The German Chief Prosecutor has already started doing so. Our dossier is intended to help him in his investigations, which are fully supported by current German Minister of Justice Marco Buschmann. We listed a whole series of war crimes in Ukraine, classified them under German international criminal law, and named groups of perpetrators and those responsible, especially perpetrators at the command level.

We expect that the German Chief Prosecutor, who takes international criminal law very seriously, will now quickly bring charges against some of the war criminals and issue arrest warrants, regardless of whether they can already be brought to trial. That would be an important signal in the war, possibly with a deterrent effect. All those who murder civilians, bomb homes and hospitals, or shell a nuclear power plant are war criminals and will remain so for the rest of their lives because there is no statute of limitations for these crimes.

4. We started our talk with the founding of the United Nations after the two world wars of the 20th century. Are we facing a caesura today comparable to the one back then? In Germany, there is talk of a “turning point in policy”?

There were already reasons to proclaim a turning point before the war. Let’s just consider the dangers that already threaten our life and freedom. We have only a limited amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. The climate catastrophe is already affecting the lives of millions of people. We are consuming resources that cannot be regenerated, living beyond our means. We will have to make sacrifices, financial ones included. The pandemic has shown us that we are a global community. We can only successfully combat pandemics through international cooperation.

The goal of increasing prosperity and ensuring the survival of many people can also only be achieved through global cooperation based on the division of labor. How do we activate the forces of a free economic order, without which progress is not possible? How do we use the opportunities of globalization without disregarding its dark sides? We take advantage of internet communication but often ignore the attacks on privacy as an embodiment of our human dignity. This goes as far as the manipulation of our societies, from elections to cyberattacks into systems of the economy and the state.

Many of the good intentions in the treaties and declarations since 1945 have not been fulfilled. Nevertheless, these rules, based on the principle of human dignity, have changed the world. Even if sometimes only the deficits became visible – the rules are a crucial benchmark. Nevertheless, the post-war order is coming to an end.

It is time for a critical assessment, which the European Union must also make. We need to make Europe stronger. How do we deal with authoritarian states? How do we counter the trend toward authoritarian behavior? How do we assert ourselves in the world conflict of democracies versus the many dangerous authoritarian developments?

Democracies must not allow themselves to be put further on the defensive. Mankind has the potential to overcome crises. The admirable progress made by science and research in recent years alone, and the many contributions in the arts, give us hope. Let us take the numerous astute analyses, the future-oriented discourses on world events. Let’s translate their findings into political action and win the trust of the insecure through credible policies.

About the authors

Gerhart Baum was Minister of the Interior (1978-1982) and a member of the German Bundestag (1972-1994). He has been a member of the German liberal party FDP for almost 70 years. As a politician and in numerous publications, he was concerned with civil and human rights, environmental protection, and cultural policy. From 1992 he worked for the U.N. As a lawyer, he has been involved in several successful constitutional complaints. Regular lecture tours in Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia, where he experienced firsthand how oppressed civil society suffers under authoritarianism and dictatorship.

Miriam Kosmehl has been Senior Expert in the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Europe’s Future Program since 2017 working on the Eastern Partnership region from Berlin. She held this interview with Gerhart Baum on May 2nd.

Read More Policy Implications from the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Germany’s 180° Turn on Foreign and Security Policy in the Wake of Russia’s War Against Ukraine – European and Transatlantic Implications

From Ambiguity to Adaptation: How to Shift Gears in EU-Ukrainian Relations

Caught between Russia and the West? China’s Struggle for a Position on Ukraine

Like what you’re reading? Get Global Europe blog posts in your inbox! Sign up to receive our newsletter here.