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Ukraine - The UN: words, but no teeth

Anne McMillanWednesday 16 March 2022
Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia speaks during the Security Council meeting and vote on resolution on Russian aggression in Ukraine at UN Headquarters. 26 February 2022. lev radin/Shutterstock.com

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has horrified the world and spurred regional bodies, notably the EU and NATO, into taking concrete action to help Ukrainian refugees and provide military assistance to the country. But what of the global organisation, the United Nations? The world’s peacemaker seems confined to the shadows as one of the greatest world crises since the Second World War unfolds.

The war in Ukraine has bought into sharp focus the known weaknesses in the structure of the United Nations, especially the Security Council (UNSC). When the UN was founded in late 1945, five ‘great powers’ were chosen as permanent UNSC members: UK, France, China, Russia and the US. Unlike the other ten rotating members of the UNSC, these five were vested with veto powers. The permanent members have in the past used their veto in a partisan manner, for example in proxy wars or to further their own geopolitical interests. But with Russia’s blatant aggression in Ukraine the system is being put under enormous, if not unprecedented, strain.

Due to Russia’s veto, the Security Council is hamstrung in the actions it can take to deal with the war. For instance, at a meeting on 25 February the UNSC was unable to pass a resolution demanding that Russia withdraw from Ukraine and facilitate humanitarian access to the country. During the debate the UN delegation from Ireland said that ‘The veto is an anachronism that has no place in today’s world’, though added with more than a touch of wishful thinking: ‘Nor will it hinder the international community’s response to Russia’s blatant breaches of international law.'

‘Jaw jaw’ not the answer to this war

But, is it true that the veto will prove no hindrance? Internationally coordinated UN sanctions, with which member states would be obliged to comply, would require a binding resolution in the Security Council.

Despite overwhelming condemnation of Russia’s actions in the UN General Assembly (141 of 193 UN states), the world’s nations show less solidarity in the application of non-UN sanctions, with some countries drip-feeding measures against Russia while others do nothing at all.

The majority of countries in Latin America and Africa have demonstrated no appetite to join in attempts to economically isolate Russia, nor have significant countries like China, India, Brazil, Pakistan, Indonesia, and NATO ally, Turkey.

...this malevolent misuse of the veto power diminishes the standing and respect of the UN as the only really effective body to stop threats to international peace and security

Richard Goldstone
Honorary President of IBA Human Rights Council

Without the Russian veto a range of escalating coercive measures used by the UN in past conflicts would have been available, perhaps starting with sanctions. As Richard Goldstone, Honorary President of the IBA’s Human Rights Council, explains: ‘Russia's veto precludes any meaningful action by the Security Council. So, there is no way to compel or enforce a humanitarian corridor or to refer an investigation of the crime of aggression by Russia. Any offers to mediate would require the consent of Russia.’

Such initiatives, even if initially resisted, could be part of a graduated response leading to authorisation, in extremis, of military action. Such a route would surely confer wider legitimacy than the current NATO and EU–led actions, which feed Putin’s false narrative of aggression by Western nations. Instead, during discussions at the UNGA and UNSC member states are left only with words of condemnation and symbolic demonstrations of global solidarity. For instance, during the UNSC debate of 25 February the US representative emphasised the moral importance of rallying behind the UN:‘...so long as we have a Security Council, I believe that we should strive to ensure that it lives up to its highest purposes: to prevent conflict and avert unnecessary war. Russia has already subverted that mission, but at a minimum—the very minimum—the rest of us have an obligation to object and stand up for the United Nations Charter.’

But perhaps it is this very inability of the UN to take concrete action that threatens not only the present but also the future authority of the organisation. As Goldstone, says, ‘...this malevolent misuse of the veto power diminishes the standing and respect of the UN as the only really effective body to stop threats to international peace and security.’

‘Uniting for peace'

Taken out of the historical context of the UN’s creation, it is difficult, in 2022, to justify that a mere five countries — the UK, France, China, Russia and the US — should continue to wield such massive influence over the capacity of the UN to act when a major war threatens not only the security of Europe, but also the world.

In 1950 the UNGA passed the ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution, authorising the General Assembly to ‘recommend’ a range of actions, including military intervention, where international peace and security is at risk. The veto-frustrated Security Council used this mechanism on 27 February to pass the baton to the UNGA, resulting in the massive vote against Russia’s aggression on 2 March.

Beyond that, the UN has used other structures in an attempt to apply some pressure. The Human Rights Council has launched an international commission of inquiry into abuses in Ukraine. The International Court of Justice is considering an application by Ukraine against Russia. And the UN has appointed a United Nations Crisis Coordinator for Ukraine to harmonise humanitarian assistance. While important, such initiatives cannot substitute for action at the UNSC, which has ‘primary responsibility’ under the UN Charter for the ‘maintenance of international peace and security’.

So, the problem has always been, and remains, that the power to mandate coercive action, as opposed to merely recommend it, remains the sole prerogative of the UNSC. And when global war threatens it is no time to be without the strongest weapon in the UN’s armoury.

The UN will always be plagued by the inevitable compromises involved in banging together the heads of 193 countries. Although a high-minded and sometimes imperfect tool, its role is crucial if the world is to stand firm against the destabilising evil of blatant aggression. But it must function properly to be effective.

What is happening in Ukraine is, conceivably, the starkest reminder in living memory of the UN’s limitations. Reforming the structure the Security Council has long been considered a huge undertaking, but this current conflict provides the most powerful argument for action since the end of the Second World War. While pessimists may see the UN’s current impotence in the face of Russian aggression as its death knell, optimists will be hoping for change.

Image: Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia speaks during Security Council meeting and vote on resolution on Russian aggression on Ukraine at UN Headquarters. 26 February 2022. lev radin/Shutterstock.com

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