Jennifer Welsh on how Putin’s war in Ukraine is testing the UN

Putin's invasion of Ukraine presents a high-stakes challenge for the United Nations

A condensed version of this article was originally published in The Globe and Mail on March 3rd, 2022. Read that version here.

International crises like the one unfolding in Ukraine are always moments of truth for the robustness and relevance of international institutions. In the 1930s, an increasingly hobbled League of Nations proved unable to address the interventions that were threatening the peace – including Mussolini’s invasion of what was then Abyssinia, and Hitler’s defiant march into the Sudetenland.

Some of our post-war institutions are finally rising to the challenge posed by Putin’s designs on Ukraine. NATO’s members have been more united than the Russian leader anticipated, and the European Union – shamed and inspired by Ukrainian President Zelensky – has not only imposed unprecedented forms of financial punishment, but also announced that it will purchase and deliver weapons and military equipment to Ukraine.

Security Council paralysis

Both NATO and the EU, however, are institutions with limited membership. Solidarity among the (relatively) like-minded is reasonable to expect when crisis hits. But what of the United Nations, the global body created precisely, in the words of the preamble to its Charter, to ‘save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’? The UN’s broad membership means that at times it can appear more as a reflection of the world’s divisions, rather than as a solution to them.

It’s important to remember that the UN is an umbrella covering different forms of engagement in conflict and crisis. Its various agencies, including the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization, and the Offices of the High Commissioner for the Human Rights and High Commissioner for Refugees, are already mobilized. With more than a million Ukrainians now on the move, the latter agency is facing its greatest test since the early years following World War II.

By contrast, the key intergovernmental chamber of the UN, its 15-member Security Council, has fallen woefully short of the aspirations set by the founders of the organization, who intended the Council to fulfill two main tasks: the management of great power rivalry and the negotiation of collective action to meet international security challenges. Council decisions, unlike those of most other international organs, are binding on all member states of the UN, even when implementation of those decisions might conflict with other international obligations.

Instead, the circular table around which Council members sit has been the site of surreal moments over the past week – ones that have solidified the view of many that growing geopolitical competition has rendered the body incapable of discharging the responsibilities entrusted to it.

Just minutes into a late-night meeting of the Council, as the UN Secretary General and state diplomats were urging restraint, President Putin was on state television announcing the launch of his ‘special military operation’.  Two days later, Russia’s top diplomat in New York predictably vetoed a draft resolution condemning his country’s invasion of a sovereign UN member. It was Kenya’s envoy in New York – whose country currently holds a non-permanent seat – who was left to speak the uncomfortable truth: “Multilateralism is on its deathbed.”

Working around the gridlock

But the story did not end there. In response to the deadlock, Security Council members voted on February 28th to call for an Emergency Special Session of the General Assembly to consider the crisis in Ukraine and recommend collective action. (Given this was a vote on procedure, not on substance, it avoided the requirement of ‘no veto’ from a permanent member and needed only 11 votes in favour.) Under the little-known Uniting for Peace Resolution – passed in 1950 to circumvent vetoes during the Korean war and used in the Suez Crisis in 1956 – the Assembly can convene in response to a ‘threat to the peace’ in situations where the Security Council, ‘because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members’ fails to fulfill its primary responsibility under the Charter to manage international security crises.

The Uniting for Peace procedure - invoked only ten times in the history of the UN and most recently four decades ago – offered a chance to demonstrate that the conflict unfolding is not one of Russia vs. the West, but Russia vs. the world. This was a message only the United Nations General Assembly could deliver.

The result was a powerful diplomatic rebuke of Putin’s actions. 141 states supported an Assembly resolution deploring ‘the aggression of the Russian Federation,’ demanding that Russia ‘completely and unconditionally withdraw’ its forces from Ukraine, calling on Russia to effectively reverse its recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk, and condemning violations of international humanitarian law. Assembly members also specifically denounced the Russian President’s move to increase the readiness of his nuclear forces. In a powerful address to assembled diplomats, Canada’s own Ambassador to the UN, Bob Rae, implored Putin to take his “finger away from the nuclear button” and to “never put it back” for as long as he lived.

As the sceptics will say, a resolution of the General Assembly is primarily symbolic. It cannot end the war in Ukraine and is no substitute for concrete punishment. But words are not meaningless in international politics, particularly when considering who uttered them.

The shrinking minority standing behind Russia

The vote on this General Assembly resolution garnered significantly more support than a similar one tabled after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Those voting in favor represented all parts of the world, including close Russian allies like Serbia and Bolsonaro’s Brazil, powerful countries in Africa such as Kenya, Nigeria, and Egypt, and Gulf Arab countries that came under intense lobbying from the Biden Administration. The five states voting against the resolution constitute a small club of which, as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken remarked, no one should desire to be a member: Russia, Belarus, Syria, North Korea, and Eritrea.

The abstentions spoke volumes too. They included a number of African states where Russia has been painstakingly seeking to gain influence. Of particular note here is South Africa, which has tried to walk a fine line between condemning Russia’s attack on the territorial integrity and political independence of a UN member state and maintaining ties with an historic ally – one that was a staunch supporter of the anti-apartheid struggle. Other key geopolitical players also abstained on the resolution, such as India, Pakistan, and, of course, China. The latter’s top diplomat in New York argued that the UN’s goal should be to promote peace rather than to take sides.

Still, an overwhelming majority of states concluded there could be no prevarication when the founding document of the organization had been blatantly violated.  There was no taking sides on the essence of the UN Charter. States not stepping up to explicitly condemn President Putin’s actions may find themselves increasingly isolated in a world in which Russia becomes a pariah - not unlike South Africa in the era of apartheid. Already, there are signs China’s position of “studied neutrality,” which amplifies the idea that Russia is pursuing “legitimate security concerns,” is straining under the weight of mounting civilian casualties, a drawn-out war instead of the quick win that President Putin promised President Xi, and intensifying criticism of Beijing by both the West and prominent developing countries.

Rethinking global security governance

And so the General Assembly largely rose to meet the challenge of this moment. But it could have done, and still could do, even more. In the past the General Assembly has used Uniting for Peace to call on a wide set of states to impose sanctions and to break off diplomatic ties with countries that are in violation of the Charter, as it did in relation to the self-determination struggle in Southern Rhodesia in 1960s and 1970s. It could also mandate a Commission of Inquiry into potential atrocity crimes committed in Ukraine and lay the groundwork for future accountability.

More broadly, the General Assembly’s response to the paralysis in the Security Council could and should give greater energy to calls to rethink the architecture we have to manage threats to international peace and security. Writing two decades ago, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan stated “If the collective conscience of humanity … cannot find in the United Nations its greatest tribune, there is a grave danger that it will look elsewhere for peace and for justice.” The Council’s recent performance – in relation not only to Ukraine, but also to Syria, Yemen, and Myanmar – suggests we have already entered that dangerous terrain.

Coming out of this crisis, diplomats should thus resume deliberation on how the membership of the Security Council could be reformed, and how the Council’s working procedures – including the veto power of the so-called P5 (the five permanent members) - could be amended or constrained. There are long-standing proposals, for example, for states to adopt a ‘code of conduct’ on the responsible use of the veto or for the General Assembly to seek an Advisory Opinion from the International Court of Justice as to whether international law places limits on veto use.

Other proposals focus less on trying to change the behaviour of the P5 - which many view as futile, at least in the short run - and more on encouraging a new institutional balance between the Security Council and other intergovernmental bodies.

One of these paths might eventually lead to a positive outcome from the tragedy of Ukraine. But they will all face strong headwinds, not least from China, which seeks to position itself as the guardian of the principles of the UN Charter and as a responsible member of the Security Council. It is likely to dilute or resist any major reform efforts.

Today’s determined diplomats will therefore need to trod an additional path, searching for alternative mechanisms through which the great powers can engage in negotiation. The crisis in Ukraine shows that the future of peace and stability depends upon it.

Professor Welsh recently moderated a Max Bell School panel discussion on Russian's invasion of Ukraine. Watch the recording to hear the perspectives of Dr. Timofiy Mylovanov, Ambassador Kerry Buck, and Professor T.V. Paul.

Professor Jennifer WelshJennifer Welsh is the Canada 150 Research Chair in Global Governance and Security at McGill University, and Director of the Centre for International Peace and Security Studies. From 2013-2016, she was Special Adviser to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

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