Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with members of the United Russia party to discuss its election platform in 2021. Photo: AFP via Sputnik / Mikhail Voskresenskiy

Vladimir Putin’s barbaric, gratuitous invasion of Ukraine should make us all reflect on the status of civilization and our place in it.

The end of World War II was thought to mark the point from which the Earth’s population would strive to end conflict on a global scale.

The primary objective of the United Nations was to permit the various nations to co-exist in peace, and though there have been what might be described as “bushfires” in various parts of the globe, so far we have managed to avoid a terrestrial conflagration.

Great strides have been made to alleviate poverty, combat fatal infectious diseases, and make greater provision for food, shelter and fresh water, and the Internet has made us more globally interconnected. 

Each of these factors has contributed greatly to mankind’s improved freedom to co-exist in relative peace.

But the moral force of humanity has not prevented internecine strife and genocidal campaigns that are driven by blind obsessions of racial or religious purity, concepts of political superiority or blatant territorial acquisition.

Almost without exception these conflicts have been driven by men – it is usually a man – whose insatiable lust for power has grown exponentially.

Such men attract a coterie of sycophantic followers who, riding on the coattails of their leader, implement his rule in return for a share of the spoils, their vested interest ensuring its maintenance.

Dictatorships and their collective iterations can only exist and survive by the fear of force.

It is mafia writ large.

The anatomy of such gangs was exposed in the course of the Nuremberg trials of Adolf Hitler’s henchmen. It was the hegemony of institutionalized murderers, evil personified.

The evolution of dictatorships continues to follow the same basic course with, all too often, the same outcome.

The hallmarks of the totalitarian state in gestation are there to be seen by those with the eyes to see and recognize them, but all too often societies fail to act in time to arrest that process.

Worse, the democracies turn a blind eye to dissipation of the plunder for short-term economic advantage, mindless of the long-term consequences; London is not the only place to be awash with ill-gotten Russian cash.

Populations not only lack sufficient wisdom to prevent the accession of mobsters posing as statesmen, they readily succumb to the demagogue’s calls to the most base of common denominators.    

The world stage boasts a top-heavy cast of such actors.

What starts out as a minor zit develops into a cancerous tumor.

Despite the truly remarkable progress the world has made to improve the condition of men, women and children across the globe, we have yet to reach the critical point at which societies have a level of wisdom that sees the nascent mobster for what he is and stops him in his tracks. In time.

Even democracies fall victim to the hogwash, hokum, baloney and twaddle of snake-oil salesmen like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. 

The false “weapons of mass destruction” excuse for the invasion of Iraq, and the Israeli seizure of Palestinian West Bank territory should never have been countenanced by liberal democracies.

But it is not long before the political frauds begin to introduce authoritarian legislation partly camouflaged by the apparent democratic process; a good example is the UK’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021. 

Another marker buoy is when the power of an independent judiciary to monitor the abuse of power is restricted, or packing the judiciary with political appointees. Trump’s Supreme Court appointments and Viktor Orban’s reshaping of Hungary’s judiciary are just some examples.  

The governments of genuine liberal democracies are answerable to their electorate, but the electors need to be politically sophisticated.

The absurdity and irony is that authoritarian regimes fear any criticism, whether or not constructive, or simple disagreement with any basic tenet of the principles from which they derive their power.

These regimes are founded on nothing more complex than the naked power at their command.

Their legitimacy comes from the barrel of the gun, the policeman’s cosh and the torture chamber.

Only the simple-minded buy into their bare-faced lies and propaganda that a five-year old child would see through.

So how is the individual of conscience living under the dominion of a such a totalitarian regime expected to respond?

This is an especially critical question for the liberal common lawyer practicing in a jurisdiction that is subject to the overwhelming force of a totalitarian state, when merely to voice disagreement is characterized as sedition.

The solution is more for the future than the present. 

Individuals at every level of society have to become much more politically involved, especially at the grassroots level. Political involvement does not require membership of a particular party, it means becoming much better informed about decisions that affect our daily lives and learning to question their validity.

But for far too many of those living under the direct or imminent threat of a totalitarian regime, it may well be too late.

Neville Sarony QC is a noted Hong Kong lawyer with more than 50 years at the Bar.