top of page

Human Dignity Amid Violence in Ukraine


Taras Dobko



Senior Vice Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University




Wars are not all alike. They differ in intensity, strategy, and weaponry. But ultimately, all are violent and remain an affront to human dignity, whether they are small in scale or genocide.


Pondering integral human development (IHD) in times of war might appear absurd, an attempt to square the circle. IHD prioritizes human dignity at every level: in founding principles, policies, laws, and institutions. True development is possible when people have the resources to flourish; but war is about surviving, not living. That said, IHD provides an invitation to build a dignity-centered, dignity-sensitive, and dignity-affirming culture regardless of circumstance, in war and in peace.


Scarred by unbridled violence in history, humankind has developed many mechanisms to deter war, such as diplomacy, mediation, and negotiation. Further, international structures, multilateral agreements, and international legal conventions help mitigate or resolve interstate conflicts, reduce tensions, and address grievances. If war becomes a fait accompli, we have also developed ways to curb its brutality, including codes of conduct, the concept of just war, rules protecting prisoners of war, principles for peacefully resolving conflicts, bans on certain kinds of weapons, and nuclear nonproliferation agreements.


These conventions have gone out the window in Russia’s total war against Ukraine, the largest war in Europe since World War II. Bombing and shelling by Russian armed forces have damaged or destroyed more than 2,700 educational institutions and 270 sites belonging to Ukraine’s many faith communities, including churches, mosques, and synagogues. A third of Ukrainians have been forced from their homes, creating one of the world’s largest human displacement crises in recent years. Most recently, Russia began targeting Ukrainian thermal power plants and energy grids. On multiple occasions, Vladimir Putin has hinted that Russia may use nuclear weapons.


How can IHD possibly apply in such a context?How does it apply when a nervous nuclear power, driven by conspiracy theories, weaponizes the resentment of its people? How does it apply when that power shows sheer contempt for international agreements and borders by invading its neighbor—a neighbor that had voluntarily relinquished its own nuclear weapons by trusting the international community? How does IHD apply when the civilian population and civic infrastructure are systematically targeted? How do we talk about human dignity while experiencing war crimes, and what role could religious actors and civil society play?


I believe that there are two major areas of inquiry that an IHD mindset inspires under such grave circumstances: one that considers human dignity from the perspectives of innocent victims of violence, and another that seeks to preserve the dignity of combatants, to help them hold onto their humanity before it is too late.


Institutional and personal resilience


First,

to advance the dignity of ordinary people in times of violence, it is vital to maintain social order.

In his book Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder shows that the Holocaust became possible when Nazis moved into the lands where the legal and social structures had been decimated by the Soviet Union. It is in these areas where the Germans attempted the total extermination of the Jews. To convince a soldier to kill other people with impunity, one needs to first destroy law and order.

Putin started this job of dismantling the Ukrainian state well before the military war by means of psychological war: a narrative about Ukraine as an artificial, fake, and failed state created to antagonize Russia and diminish its glory. Putin’s cynical talk reminds me of how Stalin’s minister of foreign affairs, Viacheslav Molotov, called Poland “the ugly brainchild of the Versailles Treaty,” justifying the partition of Poland in 1939.