Ukraine urgently needs help – and if the organisation can’t act effectively now, the global consequences could be catastrophic
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s address to the UN security council came at a crucial moment for the United Nations as well as Ukraine. Russia’s illegal war of aggression, and the collective failure of the other 192 member states to stop it, represents the biggest crisis for the UN since Iraq in 2003. This visceral threat to the organisation’s authority – practical, legal and moral – is one from which it may not recover.
The principles enshrined in the 1945 UN founding charter, primarily aimed at upholding peace between sovereign states, have been torn up by the Kremlin. Repeated pleas by the UN secretary general, António Guterres, for an immediate end to hostilities are ignored. And the humanitarian laws of war are being brutally disregarded, as the multiple crimes committed in Bucha, Mariupol and across Ukraine show.
The UN did not happen by accident. Nor should its aspirations and responsibilities now be considered optional or somehow secondary. Following the collapse of the League of Nations, it emerged from the smoking ruins of the second global conflict of the 20th century. The shared, urgent motivation was simple: “never again”. Seventy-seven years later, governments and nations badly need reminding of its central message.
Amid febrile talk that the invasion of Ukraine could spark a third world war, the UN charter has renewed relevance. Its preamble 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, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights [undertake]… to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security”.
Unsurprisingly, Vladimir Putin’s regime has trashed the obligations entered into by its Soviet predecessors. Dismayingly, China – like Russia, one of five veto-wielding permanent security council members (the others are the US, the UK and France) – is also failing to abide by the charter, while other leading states, such as India, unhelpfully twiddle their thumbs.
The UN has not been silent on Ukraine. At the beginning of March, 141 countries in the 193-member general assembly adopted a resolution demanding that Russia immediately end all military operations – more than the required two-thirds majority. Only North Korea, Eritrea, Syria and Belarus (and Russia) voted against. So what happened? Nothing. Were penalties issued or enforcement action taken? No.
Three weeks later, the assembly overwhelmingly passed another resolution, insisting on aid agency access and civilian protection and criticising Russia for creating a “dire” humanitarian situation. This must have been about the time that, as we now know, civilians in Bucha were being executed, raped and tortured by Russian troops. Once again, the UN vote was largely ignored by Moscow.
The 15-member UN security council, the one body that really could make a difference, had already proven its impotence. In the days following the invasion, a resolution condemning the assault failed after Russia used its veto. China, India and the UAE abstained. Ukraine’s furious ambassador memorably told the council: “ Your words have less value than a hole in a New York pretzel”.
Not giving up, Zelenskiy called on Tuesday for council members to stop what he says is a genocide and expel Russia from the security council, which he said was paralysed and ineffective. Kyiv, he said, wants a transparent, international investigation. In fact, the UN human rights council has already begun an inquiry. And later this week the US and Britain, which currently holds the security council presidency, will attempt to expel Russia from the UNHRC.
“We cannot let a member state that is subverting every principle we hold dear to continue to participate,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the UN. “Russia’s participation in the human rights council is a farce.” Most objective observers would certainly agree. In truth, her words may be said to apply to Russia’s presence in the UN as a whole.
How can the rank behaviour of a violently aggressive, out-of-control rogue regime possibly be tolerated indefinitely? And how can the UN be made more effective?
These fundamental questions now hang over the UN’s future. They apply, too, to other serially abusive states. But Russia is key, given its privileged post-1945 position. If the UN is to retain its authority as guardian of the international rules-based order, if it is to be able to act decisively when those rules are broken, and indeed, if it is to survive at all as anything more than a talking shop and stage for gesture politics, it desperately needs reform.
This is not a new idea. Numerous proposals have been floated and sunk over the years, mostly involving the enlargement of the UNSC’s permanent membership to include states such as Japan, Brazil, India, South Africa and Germany. Some suggest abolishing the UNSC veto. All such ideas have predictably foundered on national rivalries and the jealous preservation of existing rights, with Britain and France prominent among the guilty parties.
This situation plainly cannot continue while Ukraine burns. A sensible, doable first step would be to change the rules, via an exceptional one-off vote, to allow majority voting in the security council on specifically Ukraine-related issues. Russia’s inevitable veto could be overridden, and the rule change ratified, by the anti-Russia two-thirds majority that already exists in the general assembly. If Putin didn’t like it, he could lump it. And if he didn’t comply with subsequent resolutions – for example, on withdrawing Russian forces – all UN members would be expected to support UN-agreed punitive measures, as in the case of North Korea.
Majority voting in the UNSC could be introduced more generally over time. But, in any event, Guterres should now ask all member states to support the convening of a new foundational conference akin to that in San Francisco in 1945, to relaunch the UN, institutionally and organisationally, in ways that reflect the global power balances and priorities of the 21st century.
This is a critical moment. Ukraine needs urgent help. The UN desperately needs a fresh start. And so, too, does the disintegrating international order. If the UN fails over Putin and Ukraine as the League of Nations did over Mussolini and Ethiopia, then the global consequences, as in the 1930s, may be catastrophic for all.
- Simon Tisdall is a foreign affairs commentator. He has been a foreign leader writer, foreign editor and US editor for the Guardian