The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer, just completed a two-day visit to Moscow where he met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Only a few months earlier, on June 16, 2021, Presidents Putin and Biden met in Geneva. Both high-level meetings reveal the limitations of a fundamental principle of law, pacta sunt servanda, that all agreements must be kept.
While neither the Maurer-Lavrov meeting nor the Biden-Putin summit led to legal documents or formal treaties, and one should be positive about any form of bilateral dialogue, the list of broken Russian promises continues to grow. Despite the well-known dictum that “diplomacy is the public act of lying for one’s country,” how does one deal with endless lies?
President Biden has one solution. In his virulent Warsaw diatribe against Vladimir Putin, Biden said all he could to denigrate the Russian leader, including “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” A far cry from the handshakes before and after three hours of negotiations in Geneva.
Biden went out of his way in Warsaw, and out of script, to demonize the Russian leader. Can one imagine any future summits between the two? Can one ever imagine their meeting face-to-face again in any situation?
Biden closed the door to future bilateral interaction. His off-the-cuff remark about Putin’s not staying in power revealed a profound disgust that the Russian had caused a humanitarian catastrophe by not keeping his word. Post “We will not invade,” and only “a special military operation,” the breaking of pacta sunt servanda had taken its toll on Biden.
Peter Maurer’s meeting was different from a summit, but only up to a point. He was still talking to the Russians. He had no choice. Talking to all sides in a conflict is a fundamental principle of the ICRC as a neutral and impartial humanitarian organization. It is not supposed to take political positions. But still. How does one deal with Russian officials who have continually violated international humanitarian law by bombing hospitals, schools, and civilians? Who have continually lied?
As a former ICRC delegate asked me years ago after his experiences in the former Yugoslavia with the then leader Slobodan Milosevic, “How does one continue to dialogue with Milosevic when his troops fire on humanitarian corridors after a cease-fire had been agreed upon?”
The beginning of an answer can found in the ICRC press release after the Maurer/Lavrov meeting in Moscow: “We speak to all sides with the same goal: saving lives and reducing suffering during armed conflict.” In addition, to speaking, Maurer “stressed,” “urges,” “is concerned,” and reminded the Russians that “Wherever they may be, civilians and those no longer directly participating in the hostilities remain protected by international humanitarian law.”
In short, Maurer repeated to the Russians the obligations they have agreed upon as signatories to various international legal documents. The Russians have obligations they must, should, ought to respect. And the job of the ICRC is to make sure the rules are respected.
Whereas President Biden has imposed sanctions on Russia, including oligarchs close to Putin, the neutral ICRC has no such weapons. It must continue to speak with all sides, however difficult that may be. Even Maurer’s handshake with Lavrov was criticized by those who think any polite gesture to Russians must now be avoided. Maurer’s broad smile during the handshake was seen by many as jarring and unwarranted.
Two lessons from this: First, euphorias are dangerous. Just as the journalists reporting the June 16 Biden/Putin summit were looking for a breakthrough and a serious “reset” in U.S./Russian relations, events since February 24 have shown quite different U.S/Russian relations. The June 16 summit has not turned out to be the historic 1985 Reagan/Gorbachev meeting which established cordial relations between the two leaders and was followed by significant nuclear arms reduction agreements.
The fragility of pacta sunt servanda should never be underestimated. One must insist that people who give their word and sign documents should be held accountable for what they agree to. Believing in words or signatures is not enough.
Another example is the February 11 visit to Geneva of Taliban leaders who promised education for girls and women. Once again there was hope. How long did it take from the meeting and signing of agreements for the Taliban to renege on their promises? Not very long. On March 23, six weeks later, the Taliban backtracked, announcing that female students above the sixth grade would not be able to attend school.
While pacta sunt servanda applies to signed legal agreements, negotiating in good faith is also part of best practices. Ronald Reagan’s statement that we should “trust but verify” loses relevance in the current situation when Russia continues to act in ways contrary to what it has said and promised. There are good reasons for skepticism about Russian proposals in the current negotiations. “Attacks Reported Where Russia Had Vowed to Ease Combat” screams headlines. How can they be trusted?
In any given moment, there is a natural tendency to hope for the best, to trust. The Biden/Putin summit as well as the Maurer/Lavrov meeting can be seen in that light. But pacta sunt servanda is only as viable as the follow-up. All agreements should be kept and verified is a pragmatic modifier to any jubilant euphoria as is a significant skepticism about trusting in the first place.