CNEWA Connections: Ukraine, Russia and the United Nations

Six months ago on 24 February, Russia invaded Ukraine, unleashing a number of crises around the world. One of the less dramatic, though no less important, is the crisis caused at the United Nations. The credibility of the United Nations as a worldwide guarantor of peace is being called into question.

Some background is necessary here. The United Nations was founded by the victorious allies of World War II. On 26 June 1945, in San Francisco, the United Nations Charter was signed and “came into force upon the deposit of ratifications by the Republic of China, France, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America, and by a majority of the other signatory states” (U.N. Charter, Article 110, 3).

The opening line states: “We the Peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.” The reference is to World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945). It is estimated close to 20 million people, military and civilian, were killed in the former and approximately 60 million in the latter. Thus, in a period of 31 years, 90 million human beings lost their lives. The U.N. Charter was not exaggerating in speaking of untold sorrow.

When the United Nations was established, there was an understanding that Nazi annexations in Europe and the Japanese occupation of China and Korea were among the main causes of World War II. In Article 2, 4, the U.N. Charter states: “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” It is fair to say that the principle of the sovereign integrity of nations is critical to the United Nations.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (in brown pants) visits the besieged town of Irpin, Ukraine. Soldiers and bodyguards walk alongside him.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (in brown pants) visits the besieged town of Irpin, Ukraine, on 28 April, as the Russian invasion continued. (photo: CNS/Gleb Garanich, Reuters)

The structure of the United Nations is rather complicated, with member states — presently 193 from an original 51 — U.N. organizations, such as UNICEF, WHO, and civil society or nongovernmental organizations. Most people would think the General Assembly is its most powerful organization, as it represents almost every nation in the world and operates on parliamentary and democratic principles.

In point of fact, the Security Council is the most powerful body. Only the Security Council passes legally binding resolutions and proposes states to be considered by the General Assembly for membership. Only the Security Council is permitted to use coercive force. Article 42 of the U.N. Charter allows the Security Council to “take…action by air, sea or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

While the General Assembly operates on parliamentary and democratic principles, the Security Council is considerably less democratic. The council is composed of 15 members, five of which are the Permanent Five (P5), China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. The other 10 members of the council are elected by the General Assembly for staggered two-year terms. Each member has a vote. However, each of the P5 members — and they alone — has the power of absolute veto. In both theory and practice this has handicapped the Security Council and the United Nations on more than one occasion.

It is precisely the major powers of the world who have the ability to cause the most widespread destruction. … the greatest threats can come from those countries whose absolute veto power provides them with a type of immunity from accountability to the international community.

In response to the 24 February Russian invasion of Ukraine, a resolution came before the Security Council on 26 February, demanding the immediate cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of Russian troops. Russia exercised its right of veto, and the resolution was defeated with 11 members in favor, three — India, China and the United Arab Emirates —  abstaining and one veto, Russia.

After the Russian veto, the 11 other members of the Security Council requested an emergency session of the General Assembly. Such emergency sessions, often referred to as “Uniting for Peace,” allow the assembly to “take up matters of international peace and security when the Security Council is unable to act because of lack of unanimity among its five veto-wielding permanent members.” Only 10 such sessions have been convened since the Korean Conflict in 1950.

The emergency session of the General Assembly convened and passed a resolution demanding Russia “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.” The motion passed with 114 in favor, out of a possible 193, five (Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, Russia and Syria) opposed and 35 abstaining.

It is difficult to see how this resolution can be enforced since the Security Council is the enforcement agency of the General Assembly. And Security Council action can be halted by the veto of any of the P5, in this case Russia. While the resolution of the emergency session of the General Assembly is important, it does not of itself even begin to solve the crisis.

Many who have worked with the United Nations are fond of saying that it may not be the best organization in the world, but it is the best organization we have right now. There are two crises at work here. The first and more obvious is the war of aggression being waged against Ukraine. The second is less dramatic but dangerous, nonetheless.

Melanie Joly, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, Yevheniia Filipenko, Ukraine’s permanent representative to the United Nations at Geneva, and other delegates gather with a Ukrainian flag after walking out of the U.N. Human Rights Council meeting during the video speech by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the United Nations in Geneva on 1 March. (photo: CNS/Denis Balibouse)

The United Nations was founded specifically to prevent the type of armed aggression of larger powers against smaller nations, which was a major cause of World War II. In its founding, the victorious powers gave preeminence to themselves in the nascent United Nations, the clearest example of which is the absolute veto power of the P5. Although there have been several attempts to make the Security Council more democratic over the years, the opposition from members of the P5 have frustrated all attempts.

Now the United Nations faces the problem of what happens if one of the P5 goes rogue. There is no clear structure to deal with this. It is precisely the major powers of the world who have the ability to cause the most widespread destruction. Countries such as Liechtenstein and Monaco cannot pose a threat to international security. Yet, the greatest threats can come from those countries whose absolute veto power provides them with a type of immunity from accountability to the international community.

After 75 years, the United Nations is facing a serious challenge to its credibility. It was unable to prevent the crisis in Ukraine. In the sixth month of destruction and credible accusations of Russian military war crimes against civilians, the United Nations continues to be unable to achieve a cease-fire, to say nothing of a just and peaceful solution. 

Will the United Nations continue to be an institution that holds all its members to responsibility and mutual accountability or an institution that grants practical immunity to its most powerful members and their friends? Will the United Nations be found incapable of accomplishing one of the major reasons for its existence and protect smaller nations from the aggression and rapacity of larger ones?

The dangers of the military aggression in Ukraine go far beyond the borders of the two countries and impact the entire world. A just and speedy conclusion is critical to the wellbeing of the planet.

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