Responsibility to Protect: Coming of Age
Responsibility to Protect: Coming of Age
Toward a Common Set of Signals from the G20 about Russia’s War in Ukraine
Toward a Common Set of Signals from the G20 about Russia’s War in Ukraine
Op-Ed / Global

Responsibility to Protect: Coming of Age

Was 2008 the year when the concept of "responsibility to protect" finally jumped from the obscure paragraphs 138 and 139 of the World Summit Outcome document into the consciousness of policymakers, civil society activists, and international organization officials around the world?

For several years, many supporters of this concept have feared that its October 2005 unanimous adoption by the United Nations General Assembly would be its pinnacle of acceptance by the community of nations, and that in the wake of inaction to operationalize the concept and growing resentment against the heavy-handed approach of western actors, especially the administration of George Bush, the tide had turned.  A new  "coalition of the unwilling", primarily from developing countries like India, Egypt, Pakistan and erstwhile ally South Africa, even went so far as to suggest that the world had rejected the concept of responsibility to protect at the 2005 summit. 

By contrast, 2008 began with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointing a special representative, distinguished academic Edward Luck, to outline a strategy required to implement the responsibility to protect in support of his newly upgraded office of the special adviser for the prevention of genocide.  Luck's white paper, released in January 2009, provides a useful roadmap for UN action, focusing equally on protection responsibilities of the state, assistance to states to meet their responsibilities, and "saving lives through timely and decisive action."  The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect was established at City University of New York, and formed associative relationships with other key centers in Australia, Indonesia, Ghana, Spain and Norway. 

A Task Force on the Prevention of Genocide completed its work in December under the leadership of former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Secretary of Defense William Cohen: its impressive set of recommendations, especially in the area of early warning, preventative diplomacy and early response - while addressed primarily to the incoming Obama administration - has broad applicability for other governments and international organizations alike.  The publication of papers and holding of conferences on responsibility to protect became almost a cottage industry during the year.

While these developments helped promote responsibility to protect as an evolving norm, the real utility of the concept as a conflict prevention tool must be measured through its real-world and real-time application.  In this sense, 2008 was indeed a pivotal year, as the concept was increasingly invoked by political leaders and journalists alike as a lens for viewing emerging crises.  The application - or in some cases, misapplication - of the concept in four crises during the year provided fascinating, although not necessarily consistent, lessons.

  • " When failed elections in Kenya were followed by vicious inter-ethnic riots and killing in January, international actors almost instinctively asked if we were seeing the first stages of a Rwanda-style genocide, and engaged in pre-emptive international action that responsibility-to-protect advocates have long encouraged.  International leaders, especially from Africa itself, refused to allow claims of sovereignty by President Mwai Kibaki to forestall their political intervention.  Their efforts also demonstrated the willingness of the international community to look beyond calming the immediate crisis and address root causes of mass atrocities.
     
  • " When the Myanmar junta's first reaction in May to the worst natural disaster in the country's recorded history - Cyclone Nargis - was to keep out desperately needed foreign assistance, key international policymakers asked whether this constituted a prima facie crime against humanity and thus justified coercive international action.  The resulting international pressure empowered regional leaders to press the Myanmar military leaders to permit relief and recovery assistance throughout the Irrawaddy delta. 
     
  • " When Russian troops crossed into first South Ossetia and then into Georgia proper in August, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev invoked the responsibility to protect, arguing that their actions were designed to prevent genocide against the South Ossetian people.  Almost in unison, the international community rejected this misapplication of the concept, thus helping to clarify the limits of such claims. 
     
  • " And when some in the international community were prepared to say "enough-is-enough" at year-end to Robert Mugabe's campaign of repression and manipulation of assistance, calls for forceful action under the responsibility to protect rubric began to proliferate.  The unwillingness of regional leaders in particular, however, to use all appropriate levers short of military intervention - coupled with the unfeasibility of military action itself - demonstrated some disturbing limitations on the concept in the real world.

Other situations - including conflicts in Somalia, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, northern Uganda, Darfur and Sri Lanka - were also increasingly seen through the responsibility to protect lens.  In each case, the international community viewed these situations not only as garden-variety conflicts, but also to ask pointed questions about the extent to which international actions were compelled by actual or imminent cases of genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and/or war crimes.

To understand better what these developments mean, it is useful to review the situations of Kenya, Myanmar, Russia-Georgia and Zimbabwe in greater depth.

Kenya

Arguably, the situation in Kenya constituted the "purest" version of responsibility to protect.  On January 2, 2008, a week after the failed Kenyan elections, I sent a message throughout the International Crisis Group network.  It read in part:

For me, the burning of the church in Eldoret with three dozen Kikuyu inside; the history of violence in the Rift Valley; and the hate speech prevalent among Kikuyus, Kalenjins, Luos and Luhyas takes this out of the context of usual post-electoral conflicts and puts it squarely into a pre-R2P stage.  While the parallels between Kenya and Rwanda can be easily overdrawn, the deterioration in other seemingly solid regional African countries such as Cote d'Ivoire and Zimbabwe could easily be repeated in Kenya to tragic effect.  It's time to sound the alarm bells.

Within days, literally, the international community was on the move, led by the African Union and the neighboring states.  Several international leaders spoke in terms of responsibility to protect, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon; others did not.  But in any case, the world adopted preventative actions straight out of the responsibility to protect "manual." Then-African Union (AU) chairperson John Kufuor, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Mozambican President Joachim Chissano and others descended rapidly on Nairobi.  Subsequently, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Benjamin Mkapa and Graca Machel were empowered by the AU to help resolve the crisis.  They adopted a sophisticated approach that had two goals: end the immediate threat of escalating violence and create a framework and a national dialogue to address the underlying roots of the conflict, including ethnic divides, disempowerment and alienation among large parts of the population, inadequate checks on the exercise of executive power by the President and inequitable distribution of wealth and land. 

The first step was to reject the false assertion of sovereignty and legitimacy that Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki sought to shield himself behind through a pre-emptory inauguration.  The international community rejected this claim and instead asserted that the people's interests in forestalling potential mass atrocities insisted on a power-sharing arrangement between Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga, who eventually became Prime Minister.  

Their work was supported by the willingness of the United States and European Union to apply sanctions on those resisting a peaceful solution, by expressions of concern and commitment by the UN Security Council and Secretary General, and by the work of groups such as Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and International Crisis Group to inform the dialogue and discussion. For those who suggest that responsibility to protect is being thrust on the developing world by the so-called global North, it is instructive that those seizing the initiative and designing the outcome in Kenya were Ghanaian, South African, Mozambican and Tanzanian.   

What was also significant about the Kenyan experience is the understanding that applying responsibility to protect does not mean seeking a short-term fix to complex problems, leaving the underlying conditions in place to emerge again when conditions are ripe.  The international mediation understood that the political accommodation reached between the Kibaki and Odinga could not become an elitist substitute for actions needed to bring about a society able to absorb social strains without resort to ethnic violence.  The accord insisted on constitutional and legal reform that reduces the power of the executive and overhaul the electoral framework; economic policies to ensure a more equitable distribution of land and income; a framework for addressing ethnic violence and humanitarian crises; engagement of civil society and the business community in governance issues; accountability for crimes committed in the post-election violence; and dismantling of militias, especially ones that are ethnic based.  Regrettably, the pace of implementation of these steps has been slow and halting, and there is a strong possibility of an unraveling of the compact with disastrous effects.

Myanmar

In Myanmar, A few months later, the initial response to the May 2 Cyclone Nargis was shockingly inadequate. The military junta not only failed to launch a substantial relief operation of its own; it selectively blocked access for international agencies and private donors to the worst-affected areas. Images of junta generals assuring the world that everything was under control and proceeding with a referendum designed to achieve its political objectives were juxtaposed on international media with pictures of obliterated villages and mass suffering.  It was not only sworn opponents of the regime who responded with public condemnation; loud demands for full, unfettered access for foreign personnel; and threats of intervention or sanctions.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, the father of "ingérence humanitaire," raised the spectre of coercive international intervention to address this.  While deaths occurring as a direct result of natural disaster do not fall under the mandate of responsibility to protect, Kouchner and others suggested a twist, one that had been envisioned in the original International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) study, if not explicitly picked up in the World Summit Outcome document.  If deaths were occurring not from the cyclone itself, but from the government's refusal to allow assistance to reach vulnerable population, might this negligence constitute a crime against humanity that could invoke the responsibility to protect?  Kouchner proposed that the UN Security Council pass a resolution that "authorizes the delivery and imposes this on the Burmese government." 

While the rejection of this concept by responsibility to protect naysayers like China and Russia was immediate and predictable, even the concept's supporters seemed uncertain about how it applied in this case.  Former ICISS Chairman and International Crisis Group President Gareth Evans warned against broad expansion of the rationale for coercive action under responsibility to protect, but pondered whether international action such as military airdrops should be taken against the military government's will "in the name of humanity."  He wrote, "If what the generals are now doing, in effectively denying relief to hundreds of thousands of people at real and immediate risk of death, can itself be characterized as a crime against humanity, then the responsibility to protect principle does indeed cut in." 

It was in the political realm where this public debate had the most impact.  The responsibility to protect concept gave further clarity to international outrage, and it became clear that China and Myanmar's friends in the ASEAN - in particular Singapore and Indonesia - were embarrassed by the situation, even if the Myanmar government perhaps was not.  These governments explained to the junta that their capacity to protect Myanmar's regime from external interference was being dramatically undercut by its intransigence and its seeming indifference to the suffering of its own people.   Within weeks the regime's stance had substantially changed, not only welcoming aid channeled through regional actors, but also establishing a unprecedented coordination mechanism that opened the door to the possibility of expansion of recovery assistance throughout the country - not just the Irrawaddy Delta.  Within weeks, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes could state that the situation in Myanmar had become "a normal relief and recovery effort."

Russia-Georgia

Russia's unfounded suggestion that its August military offensive in South Ossetia and subsequently into Georgia was justified by "responsibility to protect" concepts further helped sharpen the edges of what constitutes a legitimate application of the concept. 

Russia, which has been strikingly unreceptive to applying responsibility to protect globally, tried to pull the equivalent of a diplomatic shell-game by arguing that its military operations in Georgia were justified by that very concept.  President Dmitri Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin laid the groundwork early on by describing Georgia's actions against populations in South Ossetia as "genocide".  Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov explicitly argued that Russia's use of force was an exercise of its responsibility to protect:

According to our Constitution there is also responsibility to protect - the term which is very widely used in the UN when people see some trouble in Africa or in any remote part of other regions. But this is not Africa to us, this is next door. This is the area where Russian citizens live. So the Constitution of the Russian Federation, the laws of the Russian Federation make it absolutely unavoidable to us to exercise responsibility to protect.

This claim was roundly rejected on many grounds.  In the first place, the primary ground stated for intervention - "to protect Russian citizens" - blurs the distinction between the responsibilities of a state to protect its populations inside its borders, and the responsibilities that a state maintains for populations outside its borders.  Responsibility to protect refers to the duties of a sovereign state to protect populations within its own borders, and of other states to assist it to do so or take appropriate action if it fails to do so.  Protection of populations outside their borders falls more appropriately in the context of "self-defense," as defined under Article 51 of the UN Charter.

Reviewing the criteria cited by the recommendations of the UN High Level Panel, A More Secure World, in 2004, it was not clear that "genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity" were being committed or were about to be committed by Georgia against South Ossetians.   Russia did not make the case that the threat to South Ossetians was of a nature and scale as to legitimize the use of military force.  While Georgia's attack on Tshkinvali was generally seen as an unjustified overreaction to provocations and resulting in violations of international humanitarian law, even in retrospect a Human Rights Watch report suggested that the only likely cases of mass atrocities were attacks by South Ossetians on ethnic Georgia, which may have been ethnic cleansing. 

Similarly, international observers questioned whether the primary purpose of the Russian military intervention was to protect South Ossetian civilians or instead to establish full Russian control over both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where there was no claim of genocide; to dismantle Georgia's military capability; to scuttle its NATO ambitions; and to send a clear signal to other former parts of the Soviet Union as to what would and would not be tolerated by Moscow.  In addition, the introduction of some 20,000 troops and 100 tanks not only into South Ossetia but also into Abkhazia and Georgia proper appeared manifestly excessive. The Russian naval blockade in the Black Sea as well as aerial bombings of Gori, Poti, the Zugdidi region and an aviation plant in Tbilisi went well beyond the necessary minimum.

Against this backdrop, the fact that the Russians never made any effort to seek UN Security Council approval is a clear contradiction with paragraph 139 of the World Summit Outcome document.  There are times when many in the international community view military intervention without UN Security Council approval as "legitimate" if not "legal", such as the NATO action in Kosovo in 1999.  However, the exercise of walking through the High-Level Panel criteria helped the international community reach the conclusion that this was not one of those cases.


Zimbabwe

As Zimbabwe descended into the growing humanitarian, economic, and political crisis toward the end of 2008, more and more international actors, including Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, called for forceful international action in responsibility to protect terms.  Even those who rejected the idea that mass atrocity crimes were already occurring generally accepted that Zimbabwe action was needed to ensure that the situation does not deteriorate to that extent.  The argument was reinforced by the facts: atrocity crimes have certainly been committed in the past in Zimbabwe, as in Matabeleland in the 1980s; conflict-generating tensions were spiraling out of control; Zimbabwe's coping mechanisms were vanishing; the authorities were resistance to external advice or pressure; and the quality of government leadership was disastrously low. 

Others were arguing more robustly that mass atrocity crimes were already being commited, citing widespread reports of organized violence - including murder, torture, rape, and denial of access to food - that Mugabe's regime had launched against supporters of the political opposition.  To the extent that such were "widespread or systematic," they met the definition of "crimes against humanity" laid down in the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court (ICC). 

Further, mirroring the discussion on Myanmar, others argued that the Mugabe regime was showing "reckless indifference" to the humanitarian crisis - involving the complete collapse of the country's health system, the emergence of cholera, massive displacement and hunger bordering on starvation - and thus the situation could be characterized as involving the commission of a crime against humanity under the Rome Statute definition of this crime.

Irrespective of the strength of these arguments, the Zimbabwe case displays the disturbing limitations on the use of responsibility to protect, especially in the absence of a common stance from the international community and, in particular, the regional actors.  Even those tempted to call for military intervention to address the crisis had to acknowledge that this was simply not in the cards: sending in an invasion force without the active support of Zimbabwe's neighbors, and especially South Africa, could have extremely destabilizing regional consequences. 

Further, the feasibility of a coercive military action to stop cholera, feed starving populations, return displaced persons to their homes and re-establish viable medical systems in the face of armed resistance from the local military and government-supported militias was uncertain.  And such action was not going to gain the necessary legal authority from the UN Security Council in the face of likely Russian and Chinese vetoes, nor was it likely that troops could be found for such a mission even if it did.

If the international community understood that coercive military action was off the table, so too did Mugabe and his regime.  Thus, to the extent that the threat of military intervention could have been a tool to press the regime to desist in its behavior or to fulfill its commitment to a power-sharing agreement negotiated in September, it was immediately neutered.  But SADC negotiator Thabo Mbeki's obsequious approach toward Robert Mugabe, backed generally by the SADC Heads of Government, meant that even the more modest elements of pressure stemming from the invocation of responsibility to protect were no threat. 

Mugabe knew that he was safe from such measures as adoption of much broader targeted sanctions against regime members and supporters; UN Security Council referral of actions in Zimbabwe to the ICC for investigation and possible prosecution; expulsion of Mugabe's regime from regional bodies, such as SADC and the AU; and placement of the situation in Zimbabwe on the UN Security Council agenda as a threat to international peace and security.

The agreement by the Movement for Democratic Change in January 2009 to enter into a power-sharing government with ZANU-PF has changed the dynamics of this situation, at least for now.  But, the fact remains that there is no sign that the increased invocation of responsibility to protect threats and arguments had the least impact in encouraging flexibility, accommodation or even enlightened self-interest on the part of Mugabe and company.

Conclusion

The broad acceptance of norms such as responsibility to protect is not a linear process, and the global reaction to the four cases noted herein might be simplistically described as three steps forward, one step back.  This progress should not blind us to the fundamental challenges to be met if this concept is to be translated into effective action to protect people from mass atrocity crimes at the international, national and community level.

Advocates must advance and consolidate the World Summit consensus, resist backsliding, and enshrine its principles in relevant international, regional and national institutions and forums beyond the United Nations.  They must protect the integrity of the concept, ensuring that it is not viewed too narrowly as only about non-consensual military intervention, or too widely as a synonym for addressing all human security issues.  They must clarify when non-consensual military force can and cannot be used consistent with its principles.  They must build capacity within international institutions, governments, and regional organizations: civilian and military, preventive and reactive.  And they must help put in place mechanisms and strategies needed to generate an effective political response as new R2P situations arise.  Let the work continue.


 

Members of the police stand in front of banners of the G20 summit near a venue for the G20 Finance Ministers Meeting in Nusa Dua on Indonesia's resort island of Bali, on July 14, 2022. Sonny Tumbelaka/Pool via REUTERS
Commentary / Global

Toward a Common Set of Signals from the G20 about Russia’s War in Ukraine

The G20 countries’ positions on the war in Ukraine contrast starkly, yet the conflict raises issues of global concern – economic shocks and nuclear risks – that the leaders cannot pass over in silence.

When the Group of Twenty (G20) leaders gather in Bali, Indonesia, on 15 November, one head of state who belongs to the Group will be notable by his absence. Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided not to attend the event. This news will be a relief for Western participants, who hardly want to share photo opportunities with Putin while he pursues his war in Ukraine. The Kremlin’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, will be in Bali, but he may not be relishing the prospect. Lavrov walked out of a G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in July after his Western counterparts accused Russia of sparking the global food price crisis by invading its grain-producing neighbour.

Putin’s absence will not relieve the leaders who go to Bali of the challenge of how to address the war. The G20 is primarily an economic coordination mechanism, which was thrust into the limelight during the global financial crisis in 2008. Unlike the G7, which brings together like-minded Western countries with shared political interests, the G20 encompasses geopolitical rivals – the U.S. and China foremost among them – that are not apt to adopt strong common positions on international affairs. Yet Russia’s assault on Ukraine raises issues of global concern, including the widespread food and energy price shocks and the risks of nuclear weapons use, that the world’s most powerful politicians cannot pass over in silence.

The G20 meeting is, therefore, an opportunity for leaders to signal common positions about the war. Their primary focus should be on concrete commitments by the G20 countries to help poorer ones navigate economic turmoil. But the powers present in Bali could also use the occasion to underscore that they all expect Russia to refrain from nuclear use, in word as well as deed. Ideally, they would be as clear as possible that if Moscow does cross the nuclear threshold, it will face consequences not only from the West, but globally. A joint statement condemning Russia’s prosecution of the war or setting out potential peace terms will likely be impossible, given G20 members’ widely divergent positions on the war. But if G20 members can find common ground on economic issues and the nuclear taboo, the Bali summit will be a worthwhile diplomatic endeavour.

Diverse Ukraine Policies

The G20 members’ positions on the war differ starkly. The U.S. and most of its allies in the Group have imposed sanctions on Moscow and voted to condemn the invasion in the UN General Assembly. Most of the other members have at least condemned Russia’s aggression and illegal efforts to annex Ukrainian territory at the UN, but not resorted to sanctions (see map). Yet three weighty non-Western G20 members – China, India and South Africa – have not only declined to place sanctions on Russia but also abstained in UN votes on the war.

This map shows which G20 members have sanctioned Russia, and which voted to condemn its illegal "annexations" in Ukraine at the UN in October.

Various non-Western members of the G20 have at times tried to establish a diplomatic role in the war, although the results have mainly been negligible. South Africa attempted to take a lead at the UN in March by tabling a General Assembly resolution on humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. Western and Ukrainian diplomats rejected the draft out of hand because it made no reference to Moscow’s responsibility for the war (in contrast to an alternative UN text worked up by France and Mexico), although South African officials insisted to Crisis Group that theirs was a good-faith initiative to bolster multilateral cooperation.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited both Kyiv and Moscow over the summer, promising to facilitate communication between the warring capitals. Many observers suspected that his main concern was to make sure that the war would not stop the G20 summit from going ahead. Indonesia has raised the possibility of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attending the summit, although Kyiv has indicated he will most likely only intervene via video link.

Other G20 members have also dipped their toes in Ukraine diplomacy. Mexico surprised and confused UN officials at September’s high-level UN General Assembly week by tabling a proposal for the Pope, the UN secretary-general and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to lead a ceasefire effort. This idea has not taken off to date. There has also been a sporadic flow of speculation among Western commentators that India – which has increased trade with Russia since the February assault – could eventually prove a useful facilitator of Russian-Ukrainian diplomacy, and Modi urged President Putin to take a “path to peace” at September’s Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit.

In contrast to these fledgling and tentative peace efforts, Türkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has emerged as one of the main diplomatic actors in the crisis. Türkiye hosted early, fruitless Russian-Ukrainian peace talks, but had success when it worked with the UN over the summer to broker the Black Sea grain deal. This deal permitted Ukraine to export its harvest by sea without Russian military interference. Türkiye and another G20 member, Saudi Arabia, also facilitated a sizeable prisoner swap – involving some 215 Ukrainians and 55 Russians – in September. Behind closed doors, G20 participants will surely probe Erdoğan as to whether his frequent interlocutor Putin is ready to compromise. But there is no sign in advance of the Bali summit that Ankara sees a breakthrough coming.

 

For the U.S. and Ukraine’s other allies, Beijing’s view of the war has been a constant source of anxiety.

But, however much attention Erdoğan garners in Bali, leaders may focus even more closely on what China’s President Xi Jinping has to say. For the U.S. and Ukraine’s other allies, Beijing’s view of the war has been a constant source of anxiety since February. In recent months, Western observers believe they have seen increasing signs of frustration in China with the course of the conflict. Beijing has indicated its concern that Moscow’s nuclear sabre-rattling, bad enough in itself, might be more than dangerous talk. This concern was heightened by the Kremlin’s vague, erroneous intimations that Ukraine, not Russia, wants to raise the nuclear stakes with a “dirty bomb”. Xi articulated these issues most clearly in a joint statement with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz opposing the “threat or use of nuclear weapons” in Ukraine.

Points of Agreement

While G20 members have, therefore, no shortage of opinions about Russia’s war in Ukraine, it is difficult to see how they could reconcile their divergent views in Bali. It is hard, for example, to square Mexico’s advocacy for an early ceasefire (which Brazil and Argentina also advocated for at the UN in September) with Western powers’ worries that Moscow could use a pause in hostilities to consolidate control over parts of Ukraine even as it rearms and repositions for the next phase of conflict.

Rather than focus on the specifics of how to end the war, G20 leaders may be better advised to identify broad areas of agreement about how to contain the war and its fallout. The most obvious would be for those G20 leaders who are in Bali to endorse the Xi-Scholz condemnation of nuclear threats and nuclear use. Alternatively, or additionally, they could reiterate the basic principle that a “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”, which the five nuclear weapons states (the UK, China, France, Russia and the U.S.) affirmed in a statement to the UN in January. Such a declaration might be complicated by the G20’s incompatible positions on non-proliferation issues (Brazil, for example, has lobbied for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, whereas India is not even a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty). Given Russia’s recurrent allusions to nuclear use in Ukraine, however, the leaders should at least be able to agree they are opposed to nuclear threats and nuclear war.

The goal of such a declaration, however minimal or vague, would be to signal to Moscow that it will face global diplomatic and other penalties, rather than just consequences from the West, if its nuclear rhetoric turns to action in any way. Russia has shown some interest in how its moves in Ukraine – such as its agreement to the Black Sea grain deal – are seen in the non-Western world. G20 leaders are not likely to spell out in concrete terms what steps they would take if Russia does cross the nuclear threshold – indeed, it might be better they do not try to be too explicit, as doing so might only highlight their differences. But some sort of common signalling, especially one that by definition has both U.S. and Chinese buy-in, could help strengthen the nuclear taboo.

G20 members can offer common support to efforts to reduce the global economic damage the conflict is doing.

Turning to the war’s impact, G20 members can offer common support to efforts to reduce the global economic damage the conflict is doing. They could start by making a statement in support of the Black Sea grain deal (which is up for renewal by Russia and Ukraine on 19 November) and calling for this deal, which now has to be reaffirmed every 120 days, to continue indefinitely until hostilities cease. Such a statement would be a fillip not only for President Erdoğan, but also for UN officials working on implementing the agreement, which Russia threatened to quit in October after a Ukrainian attack on its navy.

More broadly, G20 leaders can use the Bali summit to help prop up the teetering global economy, much as their predecessors did in 2008-2009. Potential priorities include pushing multilateral development banks to boost lending to poor countries to handle economic challenges that could foment political instability. In 2021, G20 members committed to support liquidity in the global economy by making available to poor countries $100 billion in International Monetary Fund Special Drawing Rights (a reserve asset that Crisis Group discussed in detail in a briefing prior to the 2022 G7 meeting). They have been slow to follow through with this pledge, and they need to pick up the pace as the international economic picture gets bleaker.

Given its origins and membership, the G20 has greater credibility as an economic crisis management mechanism than as a security forum. Its actions on the global economy will carry more weight than its members’ political statements about Ukraine. Yet the last year has made it clear that global economic affairs cannot be insulated from security shocks, and big powers must tend to both. At the same time, Russia’s nuclear menacing amid the conflict it is waging in Ukraine is simply too big an issue to ignore. The Bali summit is an opportunity for the leading Western and non-Western powers to at least articulate their shared interest in not letting the war escalate out of all control.

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