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Why can’t the UN do more for Ukraine?

Why can’t the UN do more for Ukraine?

The United Nations is stuck. Russia wields the power of its veto to block any Security Council resolutions condemning its invasion of Ukraine. How did it come to this?


 “I now give the floor to his excellency Mr Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine. You have the floor, sir.”

UN Security Council President, 5 April

When Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the United Nations Security Council he talked about the effect Russia’s invasion is having on his country. 

And about the mounting evidence that Russian forces have committed horrific war crimes. 

Volodymyr Zelensky speaking

UN Security Council, 5 April

He described the horrors he had seen in Bucha, the city outside Kyiv, that was recently liberated by Ukrainian troops.

He said that bodies of dead civilians were left on the streets by Russian soldiers. Women were raped and killed in front of their children and whole families were slaughtered. 

Volodymyr Zelensky also criticised the UN for failing to put a stop to Russia’s aggression – and for failing to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin and his commanders accountable for the atrocities in Ukraine.  

He asked the assembled members of the Council: “Where is the security that the Security Council was supposed to guarantee?

***

Vlodymyr Zelenzky has a point: the United Nations and its Security Council were founded to maintain peace.

The UN was formed in 1945, out of the ashes of the Second World War. 

At a conference in San Francisco world leaders came together, vowing to stop such a conflict from happening ever again. 

The US president at the time, Harry Truman, said powerful nations now had a duty:

“We have here resolved that power and strength shall be used not to wage war but to keep the world at peace and free from the fear of war.”

Harry Truman, Truman Library Institute

The founding charter of the United Nations says the purpose of the UN is “to maintain international peace and security”. 

It exists so the world can take effective collective action against anything that threatens that.

And under that charter, the body responsible for maintaining that international peace and security is the Security Council, which can make resolutions – legally binding decisions – that the UN has to follow.

The Security Council has five permanent members – the five allies that emerged victorious from the Second World War – the United States, the United Kingdom, China, France and Russia. 

Each of those countries has the power to veto any of the resolutions that the Security Council considers.

That provision was included to encourage them to join back in 1945. But now, the veto power leaves the Security Council hamstrung…

“Dear colleague, we deeply regret the decision of the Russian Federation to veto the resolution. The council lost a previous opportunity to show to the world its unity, its power…”

UN Security Council

A day after Russia’s invasion began it used its veto to stop the Security Council from passing a resolution calling for an end to the war in Ukraine. 

China, a key Russian ally, abstained.

Making it impossible for the Security Council to officially condemn Russia’s invasion. 

A lot has been said by members about the war, but they haven’t been able to do anything…all because Russia, as a member of the P5, gets a veto.

President Zelensky was indignant about that in his speech. He called for the UN to remove Russia from the Security Council, to enact significant reform to the global security system…or dissolve itself altogether and start again. 

But international law experts say that it’s not possible to get rid of Russia. 

The UN can only decide to kick a member out of the Security Council if the Security Council hands down a resolution saying so…and Russia isn’t going to let that pass. 

***

There are some things the UN can do to put pressure on Russia though.

The much bigger general assembly – made up of 193 countries each with a single vote – has twice condemned the invasion and called for Russia to withdraw its forces.

And even if Russia can’t be removed from the Security Council, there are other UN bodies where they might soon be unwelcome.

The United States ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas Greenfield, has said the US will try to remove Russia from the Human Rights Council.

“Every day we see more and more how little Russia respects human rights and that is why I announced yesterday that the US along with many other UN member states will seek Russia’s suspension from the UN human rights council. Given growing mountain of evidence, Russia should not have a position in a body whose purpose is to respect human rights.”

Linda Thomas Greenfield, US ambassador to the UN

But even some of the UN’s top officials have warned that Russia’s war in Ukraine could have grave consequences for international institutions. 

Here’s Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN undersecretary general for political affairs:

“The war in Ukraine has damaged Europe’s security architecture. Its economic repercussions are being felt far from the battlefield. The longer the war continues, the greater the risk that it will further weaken the global institutions dedicated to preserving peace and security.”

Rosemary DiCarlo, UN Security Council, 5 April

The UN is stuck, unable to deal with a permanent member appointed in 1945, that is now waging a war of aggression over 75 years later.

Today’s story was written and produced by Ella Hill