The historical courses and appeals are back. Selassié’s lesson. How the similarities between the invasion of Ukraine and the aggression of fascist Italy on Ethiopia explain the current UN crisis.
Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine dealt the final blow to the United Nations Organization. The UN existential crisis, which we certainly do not discover these days, is before the eyes of the world. The Russian attack is, paradoxically, the right time to carry out a concrete reform. We need new regulations capable of overcoming the inertia of bodies such as the Security Council, paralyzed by the right of veto, and the General Assembly.
Haile Selassié’s lesson
It all starts with the intervention of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassié in Geneva on June 30, 1936. The negus appeals before the board of the League of Nations. The original name is League of Nations. It was created after the First World War to prevent future wars. It anticipates the United Nations, which will be born in San Francisco in 1945 right on the ashes of the League of Nations.
Selassiè asks for help to stop the further devastation of his country by the fascist army. Ethiopian forces fight against an enemy equipped with modern and more powerful weaponry. In exchange, the Emperor of Ethiopia receives solidarity and demonstrations of sympathy from the League of Nations. However, no commitment is made to trigger collective security mechanisms. The League of Nations is only committed to sanctions. How can we fail to identify a similarity with the current situation?
The failure of sanctions
The only choice therefore are sanctions. The embargo affecting Italy concerns consumer goods and raw materials. Among these is oil, necessary for Mussolini’s war. The problem is that the United States has not entered the League of Nations. They are Italy’s main oil suppliers and can continue to do so. Similarly today China, and in part Turkey, are among the main countries that have not accepted, in whole or in part, the sanctioning regime for Russia.
Against Italy, the League of Nations applies economic and financial sanctions. The military ones are reduced to the ban on selling weapons to Italy. However, and here is the mistake, the possibility is left to sell some fundamental materials for a war economy. Copper, zinc, iron, steel, for example, can be exported to Italy. Consequently, the effects of the sanctions are mild and hardly affect the military machine and the Italian economy. Article 16 of the League’s statute provides for “the immediate severance of all commercial relations with an aggressor state”. State representatives seem to forget this article in the Italian-Ethiopian case.
In the Ukrainian war, the UN stops on the implementation of article 41 of its statute. This provides for the adoption of measures not involving the use of force. Measures that may include a total or partial interruption of economic relations.
The failure of collective security
Haile Selassié invokes article 10 of the League of Nations pact. This involves creating a regime to protect a member of the League of Nations under attack. But it doesn’t say how to do it, highlighting the weakness of an entire system. With two resolutions of May 25, 1935, the League of Nations attempts arbitration to prevent events from precipitating. Unsuccessful arbitration, as we know. Shortly after, fascist Italy began the aggression. Mussolini uses chemical weapons because he cannot quickly conquer territory. Similarly, Vladimir Putin fires on civilians, driven by the same frustration as Mussolini.
The Council of the League of Nations votes on the condemnation of aggression. Rome violated the pact, or rather the statute, by attacking Ethiopia. All votes in favor, except Italy. The Assembly approves the resolution condemning the Council. There are 50 states in favor. Austria, Hungary and Albania vote against. Switzerland puts the reserve. Also in this circumstance it is possible to see the analogies with the current situation. At the UN, the Security Council is blocked by cross vetoes. The General Assembly votes to condemn Russia, implicitly recognizing it as an aggressor state. China abstains, as well as other countries. The historical courses and appeals of Gianbattista Vico are real.
The story that returns
Three years after the attack on Ethiopia, the world is at war. The League of Nations was unable to prevent the Second World War for reasons very similar to those for which the UN is unable to move any pawn today.
The Italo-Ethiopian affair reminds us 86 years later of the same patterns of that time. Just like Italy, and then Germany, challenged the international order, Vladimir Putin goes on an attack on the current international system. In this he hopes for help from China and other autocratic states, such as Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, Iran or North Korea. And it trusts most of all in the existential crisis of the UN and other international institutional agencies, also emptied of the role of diplomatic mediation. Because the talks take place elsewhere, promoted by leaders of individual states as referees. In this the tyrant seems to have achieved his goal. But it is far from winning the war. Mahatma Ghandi said: “Remember that in all times there have been tyrants and murderers and that for a time they seemed invincible, but in the end, they always fall, always”.