The unprovoked and barbaric war brought within the borders of Ukraine, and Europe, by a Russian dictator has succeeded in uniting the world in an unprecedented way. We all look on in horror at Russia’s aggression as it has unleashed massive human suffering, death, and wholesale destruction on Ukraine and its people. The barbaric actions of Russia should trouble us all and deserves to be a focus of international attention, front and center in all our minds. It is important that the media, politicians, and all people rally together to help support the Ukrainian people. What we are seeing in reaction to the horrific aggression is international collective cohesion that hasn’t been seen in a very long time, the challenge is sustaining this cohesion and using it as a template for action moving forward.
There is a danger of short memories, have we forgotten Putin’s attack in Syria which unleashed great pain and resulted in a surge of refugees fleeing for their lives? There are other conflicts and humanitarian disasters around the world which are no less legitimate and deserve attention as well. The war in Yemen, conflict across Africa, the barbaric actions of a military junta in Myanmar. A similar collective response and action is required to address these situations and relieve human suffering. Ukraine is at the forefront of minds right now, it is receiving the necessary coverage in media, parliaments and in general discourse across the world, other situations are not getting the necessary coverage. This partly reflects an unconscious bias at play which it is important to gain an understanding of.
What are unconscious biases and why do we have them? Unconscious biases are social stereotypes and beliefs that we hold about situations and groups of people that are formed outside individuals own conscious awareness. Everyone has unconscious beliefs about various situations, social and identity groups which are triggered by our brain automatically making quick judgments and assessments. They are influenced by our background, personal experiences, societal stereotypes, and cultural context. Ukraine is a country the western world can identify with and a country which wants to belong to the Western Bloc of nations and the European Union. It is an independent democratic state, based on a set of ideals and people may feel they can relate to the way of life and how society works as it is like their own. Other countries with different ideals and political systems, such as Yemen for example, and countries in Africa or Asia dealing with humanitarian crises may be seen as not as relatable. People may not see enough of themselves in these situations and this can affect how people react to these situations.
It is a natural human reaction to pay more attention to people who seem more like us even if we are not aware of it. This is unconscious bias at play. The media coverage of the war in Ukraine has showcased the huge disparity in how certain conflicts or humanitarian disasters are reported, often showing conscious rather than unconscious bias. As a French news personality recently said, “We are not talking about Syrians fleeing bombs of the Syrian regime backed by Putin; we are talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives”. This is not unconscious bias; this is very conscious bias and it is shameful. If we examine this statement, he is saying that Syrians fleeing death and devastation don’t matter as much as people who look like Western populations fleeing death and devastation. Coverage framed by this sort of conscious bias has a role to play in creating unconscious bias in viewers.
The BBC reported a former Deputy Prosecutor General of Ukraine commenting, “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed every day”. Biases have not only been seen in the media, politicians’ comments too reflected unconscious biases. The Bulgarian Prime Minister said Ukrainian refugees are “intelligent, they are educated . . . not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, they could have been terrorists”. These sorts of comments show that some believe human suffering and devastation is a more serious issue when white Europeans suffer than when people from different backgrounds and locations suffer whether that be Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis, or Yeminis. This is something which is repugnant and should be called out as such. Human suffering is human suffering and all people are equal no matter where they originate. Look at all the conflicts that are not getting the responsiveness they warrant. The actions taken in Ukraine can be applied to many of these conflicts. What we can take from this situation is an unprecedented cohesive collective response from the international community. What we have learned is that a collective response is far more effective than isolated responses by individual nations. It shows how powerful that response can be. It is a template to bring forward and one which should be applied to all human suffering and disasters around the world whether it be the result of conflict or natural disaster. We are stronger united, we can do more good untied and we can create a better world united.
Russia is a case in point, especially when one considers the military might and significant resources of Russia being thwarted by the response of the international community in relation to sanctions, military and humanitarian aid, and the bravery and will of the Ukrainian people. This collective cohesive action has shown that just because a superpower decides to invade another country, they will not necessarily get their way. The result of this collective action has crippled Russia and its economy, led to some withdrawal from Ukraine and will ultimately lead to defeat in their objectives.
Applying these lessons of collective, cohesive action in Ukraine and using what was learned in other conflicts can show the United Nations a way forward. It can show the United Nations what it can be doing and what it was designed to do – to be that collective solution. The response to Ukraine has highlighted that. Although there are elements in the United Nations which have no interest in a collective response, other countries have shown that if you consider collective action and apply it to other conflict-ridden countries progress can be achieved. This is what the world needs today.
When we speak about a broad coalition coming together for Ukraine, we can begin to apply a political forgiveness framework. Political forgiveness is an inclusive process bringing all groups affected by a conflict together from the community to the political level. It needs to have that broad approach whereby it is bringing in as wide a community and coalition as possible to support any action taking place and to enable a range of views to be heard, considered, and then responded to. That is its strength. The process does not marginalize or exclude people, for it to be effective it needs to take in the experiences of everyone in a considered way. This is a template for how we should approach things as we assess these conflicts, and how to make progress in achieving a sustainable solution to them, even if it means taking small steps forward. If we proceed in a way which does not include everyone, we will not achieve a sustainable solution or sustainable progress.
As people begin to work with one another, especially those who never have had relationships before, and begin to learn about one another, they can begin to see each other differently, dispelling stereotypes and becoming more aware of the implicit or hidden biases. Working together provides an opportunity to build trust and a greater understanding which is key to moving forward whether it be in a political forgiveness process or in a collective, cohesive approach taken by the international community in trying to solve these intractable conflicts. Building trust and understanding provides the foundation for constructive partnerships to develop where both sides can agree on the best interests of all people and develop a bespoke solution and way forward.
What we have learned from political forgiveness is that unified action, inclusion, and the collective is extremely powerful. Any action taken on the international stage to relieve human suffering or address conflicts should seek to include a broad spectrum of partners where different opinions and ideas can be put forward, debated, and considered. This would support a cohesive approach in moving forward in a way that can sustain peace and help countries progress in a direction to avoid falling back into a cycle of violence or repeating the mistakes of the past. This is the importance of taking collective action and of a political forgiveness process which can have great impact and be effective especially in the healing of nations. Let us use the response to Ukraine as a roadmap for the future. More can be achieved together than separately so to do the most good and the most for humanity let us move forward as a collective.