Reality sets in on Ukraine, a deep dive into Israel and international law, Ottawa lantern ceremony and more!
We begin with the latest Belfer Centre Report Card on the Russia-Ukraine War
Belfer Russia-Ukraine War Task Force
August 22 update: Territorial stalemate…. Net territorial change in the past month: No significant change.
Window for earlier peace talks missed
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley “had a point” in November when he said Ukraine’s then-strong military position and the upcoming winter season combined to make it a good time to consider peace talks.
The unnamed official further acknowledged:
We may have missed a window to push for earlier talks.
Another US official told the media outlet that the Biden administration is increasingly asking itself,
If we acknowledge we’re not going to do this forever, then what are we going to do?
Counteroffensive failing to meet key objective
The Belfer report next reviews an article by Washington Post journalists John Hudson and Alex Horton citing “people familiar with the classified forecast” to the effect that
The U.S. intelligence community assesses that Ukraine’s current counteroffensive will fail to reach the key southeastern city of Melitopol, thus remaining unable to disrupt the land bridge from Russia to Crimea.
According to the Belfer summary, these two journalists are echoed by Felicia Schwartz of FT, who reports that
U.S. officials are increasingly critical of Ukraine’s counteroffensive strategy and gloomy about its prospect of success.
Schwartz also writes:
Ukraine’s sluggish counter-offensive is souring the public mood inside Ukraine, where conscription officers are now down to recruiting mostly among the unwilling.
Ukraine’s counteroffensive needs a rethink
For a more in-depth analysis of the implications of the failing counteroffensive, we turn to Ukraine’s Counteroffensive Needs a Plan B (George Beebe and James Webb, quincyinst.org, 28 July 2023), the under banner for which reads:
America’s “Plan A” in Ukraine is on life support.
Co-author George Beebe is director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and a former director of Russia analysis at the CIA. James Webb is an advocacy associate at Quincy and a former Marine Corps infantryman with combat service in Iraq.
(Note that the full article is in Time Magazine, and linked on the Quincy Institute site, but is not under a paywall.)
They begin by summarizing a problem that had to have been evident to military experts all along but which simply didn’t fit with the then-prevailing Western public narrative of ‘whatever it takes for as long as it takes’:
Despite vigorous recruiting and conscription efforts, Ukraine has too few soldiers to muster the three-to-one manpower advantage generally considered necessary for a successful offensive.
The article discusses the blame game now underway:
Increasingly, Ukrainian officials openly blame the West for not providing enough armor, aircraft, artillery, missiles, and ammunition.
Anonymous American officials blame the Ukrainians for not conducting Western-style combined arms operations to outmaneuver and outpace their plodding Russian opponents.
In the view of the authors, regardless of who is at fault, there are no fast or easy solutions to the problems besetting the counteroffensive. In addition to the shortage of weapons, they write:
Combined arms operations are among the most sophisticated endeavors in conventional warfare, and not learned on the fly.
And then there is the critical gap in this war: air power. Citing the Congressional Research Service, Beebe and Webb note that
Ukraine’s air force has 132 aircrafts, compared to 1,391 in Russia’s. Providing Ukraine with a couple of dozen F-16 fighters, whose complex maintenance requirements make the aircraft ill-suited for conditions in Ukraine, will hardly bridge that gap.
The authors also recall this statement from back in May 2023 by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley:
There are no magic weapons in war, F-16s are not, and neither is anything else.
Importantly, the article goes beyond the grim battlefield assessment to consider Kyiv’s choices now. They assess the following options for Ukraine:
- Maintaining the current course, with the dire risk of exhausting its resources and becoming vulnerable to a successful Russian counterattack or
- Shifting their focus from offence to defence.
Beebe and Webb argue that
Making this shift now could enable Ukraine to hold onto areas of the Donbass region that Russia has officially annexed but has yet to seize, putting Kyiv in a stronger bargaining position than its failing counteroffensive is likely to produce.
The authors hasten to point out that such a shift by Ukraine would not, by itself, drive Russia to the bargaining table. However, they conclude:
if coupled with a diplomatic approach that incentivizes Russia to end the fighting rather than prolong it to keep Ukraine out of NATO, it could well prompt Russia to aim to secure its still quite limited gains through a negotiated end to the war.
In their view, and we strongly agree:
It is time to try.
Canada’s support for Ukraine has been longstanding and, in the most recent words of Foreign Minister Joly on Ukraine’s Independence Day, “unwavering”.
But that does not mean it needs to be blind.
We call on the Government of Canada to vigorously pursue, within NATO and through bilateral channels with the Biden administration, a diplomatic strategy for consideration by Ukraine that takes full account of the military realities of the Ukraine war.
Postscript: The implications of Prigozhin’s apparent death
For one of the best analyses we have seen on the implications of the apparent death of the infamous Wagner Group leader, see Prigozhin’s death spells end of Wagner but Russia won’t abandon its missions (Anton Mardasov, al-monitor.com, 24 August 2023).
REDUCING NUCLEAR RISKS
Nuclear war would be catastrophic with cascading consequences that potentially scale all the way to collapse of human civilisation.
Assessing new research on nuclear risks and the consequences of use
In the last 10-15 years, there has been a growing body of scholarship, building on past knowledge, but significantly broadening the scope of research and results. In the words of Austrian Disarmament Ambassador (and President of the first meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons) Alexander Kmentt:
The gist of this research is that the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons are more complex, more serious and potentially catastrophic on a global and existential level.
The same goes for the complexity of risks associated with nuclear weapons.
Accordingly, the Austrian Foreign Ministry commissioned Dr. Nick Ritchie and his team at the University of York, UK to produce an
overview of some of the most significant peer-reviewed scholarship about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons explosions and the risks related to these weapons.
To cite but one example, important new research on the potentially catastrophic interaction of artificial intelligence and nuclear weapons is examined.
In his forward to the report (from which we quoted above), Ambassador Alexander Kmentt, Director for Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation at the Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe and International Affairs, concludes:
It took a long time for the scholarship and the warnings about climate change to lead to global policy responses to address this existential threat. It is high time to see this happening much more on the continuing existential threat posed by nuclear weapons.
In an email accompanying the report, Ambassador Kmentt provides further insight into its purpose, writing:
It is intended to counter the assertions of some of the nuclear weapon states that there is nothing “new” i.e. any pertinent new research that would warrant urgent policy considerations. It is also intended to be helpful for states who may not have the capacity to look through scientific journals to find the relevant research for the nuclear policy debates.
It is my hope that it will help stimulate more informed discussion about these issues.
For a link to this important report, see Understanding the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons – New findings from Recent Scholarship (July 2023) available in PDF format here.
MANAGING ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI) RISKS UPDATE
On a topic that is generally full of dire warnings, we are extremely pleased to highlight a recent NY Times podcast full of good news. Host Ezra Klein discusses with Demis Hassabis, the chief executive of DeepMind, how Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems can accelerate scientific research, including important medical breakthroughs that have already been made.
See A.I. Could Solve Some of Humanity’s Hardest Problems. It Already Has (nytimes.com, 11 July 2023).
For those without access to the New York Times, Demis Hassabis has also given a number of lectures on using AI to accelerate scientific research that are available on Youtube. Click, for example, HERE, where the talk by Hassabis begins at the 6:30 minute mark after a lengthy introduction about the history of the John Kendrew Lecture.
ISRAEL PALESTINE UPDATE
Today, we consider a vitally important international legal process now underway in the International Court of Justice regarding Israel’s long occupation of Palestine.
We turn first to a Guardian article entitled UK ‘seeking to block ICJ ruling’ on Israeli occupation of Palestine (Bethan McKernan, 24 August 2023).
McKernan references a 43-page legal opinion, seen by the Guardian but not linked in the article, that the UK government submitted to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) during the fact-finding stage of a legal process that is expected to culminate in an
advisory opinion from the court on the legal consequences of the “occupation, settlement and annexation” of Palestinian land.
The UK brief opposes the hearing of the case in the ICJ altogether with the result that international humanitarian law experts say
Unlike the International Criminal Court (ICC), which tries individuals for alleged international crimes, the ICJ is the top UN court for dealing with disputes between countries.
The article outlines the potential importance of the Court’s ruling:
while various UN bodies have found that aspects of the occupation are illegal, to date there has never been a judgment on whether the occupation itself, now in its 56th year, either is or has become unlawful.
McKernan also cites experienced human rights lawyers who argue:
It is a matter of concern that the UK is seeking to block the court from addressing such important matters, something I am sure it would not do were the court asked to address comparable issues … such as Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territory.
The Guardian article also underscores that the UK submission, unlike those of France and Ireland, among others
does not reference relevant UN findings since 2016 that Israel has repeatedly failed to fulfil its obligation to uphold the rights of the Palestinian people and violated international humanitarian law.
States party to the Statute of the ICJ have until 25 October to make comments on statements to the ICJ submitted by others. If the court accepts the request for an advisory opinion, as is expected, deliberations will last at least a year.
The article recalls that
the last conclusive action related to Palestine at the ICJ was in 2004, when the court decided Israel’s West Bank security barrier was illegal.
The Guardian article also recalls another legal proceeding relating to Israel Palestine:
An international criminal court (ICC) investigation into alleged war crimes committed by both Israeli army personnel and Palestinian armed groups officially opened in 2021, but is progressing slowly.
Australia, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and International Law
With the election of the Labour government in Australia in May 2022, that country moved from being a hardline supporter of Israel, to what the Albanese government refers to as “rebalancing” its approach to Israel and Palestine.
Steps to this end include:
- Reversing the previous Coalition’s recognition of West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel;
- Supporting a UN resolution that criticizes Israeli settlement policy;
- Announcing plans to double aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) from AU$10 to AU$20 million;
- Using the term “Occupied Palestinian Territories” for the West Bank and Gaza;
- Accusing Israel of “systemic repression” of Palestinians; and
- Vowing to strengthen objections to “illegal” Israeli settlements.
In the lead-up to the 2023 Australian Labour Party National Convention in August, former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans made a powerful case that, in accordance with the party platform, the time was right for the Albanese government to recognize Palestinian statehood.
After pointing out that the State of Palestine has now been recognised as such by 138 of the UN’s 193 members, over 70% of the total, but not by Australia or the United States and most of its allies and partners (including Canada), he went on:
So the question for us now is whether any further equivocation on this issue is in fact justified, or whether it is time for Australia to grasp the moment and explicitly recognise Palestinian statehood.
I believe we should….
Evans then outlined the moral, legal and political arguments for why Australia should do this, ending with the need to confront a domestic political reality — powerful donors — that applies equally to the Liberal Party of Canada:
Maybe recognising Palestine statehood will put at risk some of our strongest traditional sources of party fundraising. But sometimes those considerations just have to take second place to decency. It is not a bad principle in politics — when in doubt — to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do.
The situation of Palestine under international law
In a clear and concise and compelling manner, Professor Amy Maguire of the University of Newcastle, Australia outlines the relevant international law on the situation of Palestine.
She starts with the significance of the move by the Albanese government to describe the territories in the West Bank and Gaza that Israel occupied in 1967 with the phrase “occupied Palestinian territories”, writing:
This move by Australia is an important means of signalling condemnation of Israel’s expansion of illegal settlements on Palestinian lands.
It reorients Australia towards the orthodox position on the occupation under international law.
Since the election of the hardline Liberal government in 2014, Australia had generally avoided using the terms “occupied or “occupation” in relation to Palestine, notwithstanding its accuracy under international law.
With respect to the issue of Australia recognizing Palestine as a state, Maguire writes:
She then sets out the status of Palestine under international law, beginning with the following:
The UN General Assembly and Security Council have resolved that Israel violates the prohibition on the use of force through its occupation of Palestinian territories.
The Rideau Institute comments:
Against the backdrop of the oceans of ink that have been used to justifiably castigate Russia’s clear violation of the UN Charter’s prohibition on the use of force, contemplate for a moment that Israel has done this — and is continuing to do this — with virtual impunity since 1967.
2004 ICJ Advisory Opinion
Like McKernan, Professor Maguire also discusses the 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the implications of Israel’s construction of a wall in the occupied Palestinian territories, writing in part:
The ICJ concluded the wall served to protect illegal settlements, shore up annexation of Palestinian lands and deny self-determination for the Palestinian people.
In short, the Court found that
the construction of the wall and its associated regime are contrary to international law.
Maguire notes that the UN’s longstanding condemnation of Israel’s occupation was reasserted in a General Assembly resolution on December 30, 2022.
The resolution outlined Israel’s obligations, as the occupying power, to:
- comply with the Geneva Conventions on the protection of civilians during war
- cease violating the human rights of the Palestinian people
- cease efforts to modify Palestinian territory through illegal settlements, and bring an end to the occupation
- stop construction and dismantle the wall it has been constructing in the occupied territories
- respect the right to self-determination of the people of Palestine and the territorial unity of the occupied territories
- end the blockade of the Gaza strip and other onerous limitations on freedom of movement for people and goods.
The voting record is available HERE. 87 countries voted YES, 26 countries voted NO, 53 countries ABSTAINED and 27 countries did not vote at all.
Note that 5 NATO members voted in favour of the resolution and 9 abstained, the latter indicating support for the substance of the resolution but disagreement over tone or emphasis. 10 NATO members, including the USA, the UK and Canada, voted NO to the resolution.
New Advisory Opinion from the ICJ
Professor Maguire next discusses the new advisory opinion expected from the ICJ on the legal implications of Israel’s continuing occupation — the case which the UK does not want the court to take up.
The request for this new ICJ advisory opinion is made in paragraph 18 of the above-noted resolution, which reads as follows:
- Decides, in accordance with Article 96 of the Charter of the United Nations, to request the International Court of Justice, pursuant to Article 65 of the Statute of the Court, to render an advisory opinion on the following questions, considering the rules and principles of international law, including the Charter of the United Nations, international humanitarian law, international human rights law, relevant resolutions of the Security Council, the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, and the advisory opinion of the Court of 9 July 2004:
(a) What are the legal consequences arising from the ongoing violation by Israel of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, from its prolonged occupation, settlement and annexation of the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and from its adoption of related discriminatory legislation and measures?
(b) How do the policies and practices of Israel referred to in paragraph 18 (a) above affect the legal status of the occupation, and what are the legal consequences?
The ICJ is now reviewing submissions by UN member states on these questions. It is likely some submissions will explicitly raise the question of whether Israel’s policies and practices in Palestine amount to the crime of apartheid.
Status of the Advisory Opinion once delivered
As to what happens when the opinion is delivered, Professor Maguire writes that it will not be a binding decision on Israel, which has not accepted the jurisdiction of the World Court:
However, it will be an authoritative view by the world court. Based on extensive precedent in international law and practice, the ICJ will surely conclude that Israel remains in illegal occupation of Palestine.
She concludes with a message to the Australian government that is equally applicable to Canada:
Australia, along with all UN member states, is obliged to promote respect for international law and universal human rights.
Israel and apartheid
Another Guardian article that we consider today is a commentary by Benjamin Pogrund, a former anti-apartheid activist in South Africa who, until recently, was an adamant opponent of applying that term to Israel. His article is entitled:
I have long rejected claims that Israel is an apartheid state. Now I believe that is where it is heading.
The under banner reads:
I grew up in South Africa, and vigorously refuted parallels with Israel. But in the Netanyahu era, the charge is becoming fact.
In his detailed article, Pogrund outlines the growing parallels he sees between the apartheid he experienced in South Africa and what is happening in his home of Israel today. For example, he writes:
the nation-state law elevates Jews above fellow citizens who are Arab – Muslim, Druze, Bedouin and Christian. Every day sees government ministers and their allies venting racism and following up with discriminatory actions.
We are heading toward annexation, with calls to double the population of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, which currently stands at around 500,000.
On the role of the Israeli Defence Force:
The army is fully complicit in the illegal seizure of land and the creation of settlement outposts…. Settlers kill Palestinians and destroy houses and cars. The courts seldom intervene. Soldiers stand by and watch.
At one point in the article, Pogrund laments:
I did not want to write this article. It was torn out of me, addressed to Israelis because the rightwing government is taking the country into institutionalised discrimination and racism. This is apartheid.
For the full article, which we highly recommend, see I have long rejected claims that Israel is an apartheid state. Now I believe that is where it is heading (Bejamin Pogrund, theguardian.com, 19 August 2023).
Shamefully Canada joined the USA, Israel and selected Western allies in voting against the resolution providing the basis for the ICJ’s consideration of “the legal implications of Israel’s continuing occupation.”
Their initial efforts having failed, countries like the UK are now arguing that the ICJ should not proceed to do its job and hear the case.
The Rideau Institute comments:
If the government of Canada lacks the courage to file a brief in support of the ICJ doing the work it was established to do, then at least let it have the decency to do nothing to impede that work.
CLIMATE CHANGE – some good news!
Against the backdrop of the terrible, ongoing forest fires in Canada, which experts tell us are “twice as likely” due to climate change, we offer some extremely good news from Ecuador.
As Dan Collyns reports from the capital Quito:
Ecuadorians have voted in a historic referendum to halt the development of all new oilwells in the Yasuní national park in the Amazon, one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet.
For the full article see Ecuadorians vote to halt oil drilling in biodiverse Amazonian national park (theguardian.com, 21 August 2023).
For the broader implications, see an article by Jonathan Watts, who writes:
The question now is whether this is a one-off triumph, or something that can be replicated in other countries.
Nagasaki 78th Peace Memorial in Ottawa 2023: Lantern Ceremony
On 9 August 2023 a number of Ottawa-based peace groups, including Ban the Bomb Ottawa and the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, along with many members of the public, gathered on the banks of the Canal for the 78th commemoration of the first — and to date — the only use of nuclear weapons, in Hiroshima, Japan on 6 August and then on 9 August in Nagasaki.
We are gathered here this evening to remember the horrific — and to date only — use of atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, on 6 and 9 August 1945 respectively.
Emceed by veteran peace movement organizer Bill Bhaneja, speakers included RI President Peggy Mason, Morgan Gay (co-founder of Ban the Bomb Ottawa) and Rory Willis, a young activist member of the Ban the Bomb Ottawa committee. Other peace groups involved in organizing and/or attending the event were Canadian Peace Council, Canadian Peace Initiative, Ottawa Quakers, Mahatma Gandhi Peace Council, Soka Gakkai Ikeda, Voice of Women, Centre of Global Nonkilling, Ottawa Interfaith Council, Civilian Peace Service and Canadian Pugwash Group.
Distinguished attendees also included Mr. Tokuro Furuya, the Deputy Head of the Japanese Embassy to Canada and Ottawa Centre MPP Joel Harden. Musicians included Tim Kitz and Just Voices choir group, and Kris Wilson-Yang on violin.
Photo credit: Robin Collins (cover photo andPeggy Mason by floating lanterns); Event photographer: Koozma J. Tarasoff (choir, Japanese Deputy Head of Mission, MPP Joel Harden).