April 13, 2022
Kim Weichel, co-chair of the River Road Unitarian Congregation’s Contemporary Issues Forum and a UN activist, interviewed Ambassador Donald T. Bliss (ret.), former president of the United Nations Association for the National Capital Area, on the United Nations role in the Ukraine crisis. Kim pointed out that the first line of the Preamble to the UN Charter states its primary purpose is “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, and that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine violates the first principle of the United Nations Charter to prevent threats to the peace and acts of aggression by one sovereign state against another.

Question: In the 24/7 coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we are hearing a lot about the UN. Why? What can you tell us about the UN’s role in the Ukraine conflict?

Thank you, Kim for setting the stage and for your quotations from the UN Charter.

In his Warsaw speech, President Biden raised the stakes, suggesting that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine represents an existential challenge to the rules–based international order and the institutions designed to maintain peace and security among the world’s great powers. In his address to the Security Council, President Zelensky was even more blunt: “Are you ready to close the UN? Do you think the time of international law is gone?” The Russian invasion of a sovereign state is a clear violation of the first principle of the UN Charter, as you have just stated in your introduction, and yet the United Nations seems unable to adopt sanctions or combat the aggression, as it did in Korea or the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

The Ukraine crisis has shown both the value and limitations of the United Nations. What has the UN done well? Where has it fallen short? Does Russia’s veto power in the UN‘s Security Council prevent effective global action, or are there other tools that could be used more effectively?

Understanding the role of the United Nations in the Ukraine crisis requires some appreciation of the multi-faceted missions of this complex, sprawling, fragmented and underfunded bureaucracy. So bear with me. The UN’s initiatives in Ukraine fall into five general categories: the Security Council, the General Assembly, the International Court of Justice, the Secretary General, and dozens of specialized and affiliated agencies and programs. Let me address briefly each in turn:

The 15-member Security Council is the only UN body with the authority to issue binding resolutions on member states. It has the power to establish peacekeeping operations, enact international sanctions, and authorize military action, especially to respond to acts of aggression by one state against another. The five permanent members, which include the US, Russia and China, have the power to veto substantive—but not procedural resolutions. Thus, multiple resolutions condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, dating back to 2014, have been vigorously debated, but vetoed by Russia. When the Security Council is deadlocked due to a veto, nine members may call an emergency session of the General Assembly to consider the matter, which the Security Council did on February 27th. While the Russian veto has prevented action binding on all member states, the debates have been an important forum for combating Russian disinformation, publicizing Russian atrocities, and shaping world opinion.

Second: The General Assembly consists of 193 UN members and is non-binding, advisory only. On March 2nd, in a courageous display of solidarity, 141 States voted to condemn Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, with only four states voting no and the rest abstaining or absent. The majority of states in every region of the world supported the resolution, although Africa was the least unified. On March 24, with 140 votes in favor, the General Assembly passed a resolution demanding civilian protection and humanitarian access in Ukraine and criticizing Russia for creating a “dire” humanitarian situation.

A third body established by the UN Charter is the International Court of Justice in The Hague, affectionately known as the World Court. In response to a Ukrainian petition, the World Court voted 13 to 2 (Russia and China dissenting) in favor of ordering Russia to suspend military operations in Ukraine and to prevent armed units that are directed or supported by Russia from taking further action. Although a signatory, Russia has ignored the World Court’s proceeding and preliminary order. Enforcement is vested in the Security Council and subject to the Russian veto.

Fourth: In the UN Charter, the role of the Secretary General is almost an afterthought. Prior Secretaries General with varying priorities have used their “good offices” to greatly expand the scope and potential of the position. Secretary General Gutierrez has criticized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “violation of international law,” and has made the protection of civilians the UN’s number one priority. On March 1, he initiated a Flash Appeal to raise US$1.7 billion to deliver humanitarian support to the people in Ukraine and the refugees in neighboring countries, addressing the worst refugee crises since World War II. On March 28, he called for a humanitarian ceasefire to allow UN agencies humanitarian access and appointed Martin Griffins, Coordinator of humanitarian work world-wide, who has traveled to Moscow and Kiev to negotiate a ceasefire. On April 3, the Secretary General called for an independent investigation and accountability for the civilians executed in Bucha, Ukraine.

Some critics have argued that the SG has not used the full force of his office to resolve the crisis, citing precedents of some of his predecessors.

Finally, the myriad programs and specialized and affiliated agencies of the UN and their civil society partners have provided critical humanitarian and technical support to Ukraine and the 11.4 million refugees and displaced persons fleeing the conflict.
In sum, the United Nations is only as strong as its member states enable it to be, but it has played an important role in humanitarian relief, in mobilizing world opinion, and, importantly, in the dissemination of facts in a controversy mired in propaganda and false narratives. For many nations, the UN is a source of credible information. upon which policy decisions can be made. However, the UN has the potential to do more.

QUESTION: Can you elaborate further on the work of the UN specialized and affiliated agencies and special programs in Ukraine and in the massive refugee flow from Ukraine into neighboring states?

Here we get into the alphabet soup. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), UNICEF, the World Food Programme (WFP), the International Organization of Migration (IOM), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), over 1,000 UN employees and eight humanitarian hubs inside Ukraine are working around the clock to help Ukrainian civilians and refugees in neighboring countries. To date, UN agencies and partners have reached some 2.1 million civilians, mostly in eastern Ukraine, with food, shelter, water, and hygiene supplies. The World Food Programme has reached 1.3 million people and plans to reach 2.5 million this month.

The World Health Organization says there have been 91 attacks on Ukraine’s health providers, and has reached more than half a million people in the most vulnerable areas with emergency health, trauma and surgery kits.

The UN refugee agency has a long-standing presence in the region, including in Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia and Romania, and is coordinating the refugee response with other UN agencies. In Poland, UN staff are registering refugees and providing them with accommodation and assistance. 

UNICEF is setting up ‘Blue Dot’ safe spaces at border points and other key locations in receiving countries, providing mothers and children psychosocial support, legal counselling, recreational kits and hygiene products.

The World Food Programme (WFP) feeds 125 million people a day globally. Ukraine and Russia are major grain exporters. The war and sanctions, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), will push 47 million more people into food insecurity, bringing the global total to 325 million worldwide.

Regretfully the issue of nuclear weapons has been brought into the conflict by Putin’s putting his nuclear forces on high alert, the attack of Russian troops on Ukraine’s nuclear facilities, their degradation of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, and speculation about Russian’s 10-1 advantage in tactical nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is monitoring Ukraine’s four nuclear power plants on site as well as Chernobyl. Any use of nuclear weapons should invoke a strong UN response based on the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the P5 agreement of non-signatories to that Treaty, which include Russia and the US, that “a nuclear war must never be fought.” The crisis has highlighted the importance of nuclear disarmament, a longstanding UN priority. In the Budapest Agreement, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons for the security guarantees of Russia and the West. If western nations cave to the threat of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, countries like North Korea and Iran will be emboldened.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has established a Commission of Inquiry to gather information on human rights violations and war crimes, chaired by Norway with Bosnia and Colombia as members. Zelenski and US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas Greenfield called for suspending Russia from the Council, and on April 7, by a vote of 93-24, the General Assembly suspended Russia’s membership for “gross and systematic violations and abuses of human rights."

UNESCO has condemned the invasion including the targeting of museums, theatres and other cultural sites and called for adherence to the 1954 Hague Convention to prevent damage to cultural heritages. Given the death of 17 journalists, it also has raised the obligations under the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2222 (2015) on the protection of journalists in situations of conflict. Finally, UNESCO has addressed the attacks on children, teachers, and schools. UNESCO could also address Russia’s concerns about respecting the use of the Russian language in Ukraine.

The 36-member governing Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) condemned the Russian invasion, urged the Russian Federation to cease threatening the safety and security of civil aviation, and invoked its safe skies initiative rerouting aircraft from over conflict areas, and citing the downing of Malaysian flight 17 in eastern Ukraine on July 2014.
Affiliated international organizations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have issued strong statements in support of Ukraine. The World Bank has authorized $925 million in assistance to support essential services, and the IMF is providing $1.4 billion in emergency financing.

The UN strongest operational response has been providing humanitarian assistance, especially to the refugees who have fled to neighboring countries, and importantly, providing neutral factual information to the public, countering the many false narratives.

Question: In light of the Russian veto, what role can the Security Council play in resolving the conflict?

The war in Ukraine illustrates the naïve assumption underlying the UN Charter that the great powers, including the US and the Soviet Union, would cooperate in preserving world peace. It’s time to consider some other tools and bold new strategies.
Starting with the least controversial: The Security Council should have continuous, publicized briefings on the humanitarian crisis, the targeting of civilians, the indiscriminate use of weaponry, and the evidence of “war crimes” committed by the invading forces. Despite the Russian vetoes and Chinese abstentions, the Security Council debates are invaluable in getting out the truth and mobilizing world opinion. Kenyan UN Ambassador Kimani’s statement has gone viral, calling Russia’s invasion a death threat to the UN Charter, all too familiar to nations born out of colonialism.

The Security Council should provide strong support for, and frequent briefings by, civil society organizations on the ground delivering humanitarian aid and gathering evidence on war crimes.

The Security Council should continue to encourage diplomatic negotiations and the establishment of a ceasefire and no fly zone, at least over humanitarian corridors, offering to provide UN peacekeepers or observers to report on violations (perhaps modeled after the UN Verification Mission in Colombia). What about a combination of say Indian, Indonesian and Turkish UN peacekeepers, who would maintain a ceasefire while negotiations proceed?

The Security Council should continue to address other hotspot issues, including Afghanistan, Iran, Ethiopia, Libya, Mali, Syria, Sudan and Somalia. The UN’s recent success in negotiating a truce/ceasefire in Yemen is a hard won accomplishment.
More controversial actions should also be considered: The Security Council should invoke the 2005 UN doctrine of Responsibility to Protect. R2P requires the UN to take collective actions to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. But what if Russia vetoes the Security Council action?

The US should swallow its pride and adopt the French proposal that permanent members of the Security Council should abstain from voting on resolutions involving mass atrocities or where they are a party involved. This would not require a charter amendment. A longer term strategy has been proposed by Brookings to amend Article 27 to allow a two thirds majority of member countries and two thirds of the world’s population to override a veto.

Alternatively, where a veto prevents action, the Security Council could invoke the 1950 “Uniting for Peace Resolution,” which it used in 1957 to establish the first Emergency Force in the Middle East, It could refer the Ukraine matter to the General Assembly to establish a team to negotiate and enforce a ceasefire, perhaps modeled on the P-5 plus which negotiated the Iran nuclear deal. The General Assembly also might create an investigative team, led by several nations, to coordinate the accumulation of evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

The Security Council could better utilize Arts 52 and 53 of the Charter by delegating more authority to regional organizations, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), based in Vienna, which was a party to the Minsk agreements and had a special monitoring mission in Ukraine.

Ukraine has proposed expelling Russia from the Security Council on the grounds that its succession to the Soviet Union’s seat was not valid. The General Assembly may expel a member but only on the recommendation of the Security Council.

Over the longer term, the Ukrainian crisis demonstrates the importance of modernizing the Security Council to reflect today’s demographics. While Europe has two permanent members, Africa and Latin America have none.

In the early days of the UN, the US proposed establishing a UN military force. The Charter establishes a Military Staff Committee, now mostly dormant, which could be a forum for consultation on issues like the Russian-perceived NATO threat.
In President Zelenski’s address to the US Congress, he proposed the establishment of a union of responsible countries to provide the strength and resources to “keep peace and security” and provide humanitarian support—a not so veiled criticism that neither the UN nor NATO is up to the job. In his negotiating proposal, Zelenski has stated that if Ukraine agrees to neutrality, it must have outside powers guarantee its peace and security. How could the Security Council support this and what form might it take?

U.S. policy has been an obstacle to some of the changes that conceivably could make a difference in a future crisis. Reform could start with a more flexible US policy.

Question: What about the role of the Secretary General?

Although the Secretary General has condemned the Russian invasion, he has been criticized for not acting more aggressively to negotiate a peaceful resolution or at least a ceasefire. A predecessor, U Thant, who played a key role in resolving the Cuban missile crisis, has been cited as a precedent. The UN has a strong cadre of mediators, but the Undersecretary General for political affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo, is an American, and Russia already views Gutierrez as too pro-Western to mediate. The Secretary General, whose background is humanitarian assistance and is considered to be somewhat cautious, probably should step up his game, working behind the scenes to secure a truce and ceasefire and mobilizing support for the UN’s condemnation of the Russian invasion among the 17 African nations which abstained from the General Assembly’s resolutions. He could invoke the UN’s record in eradicating colonialism.

The Secretary General is uniquely positioned to engage China, which is seeking more power in the UN, but is trying to have it both ways, supporting Russia’s narrative while pretending to be neutral. China is Ukraine’s largest trading partner, more than double that of any other nation, and the territorial integrity of Ukraine is being assaulted, which defiles not only the UN Charter but also a first principle of Chinese diplomacy.

Question: What about accountability through the international legal system?

As I have already indicated, at the request of Ukraine, the World Court has issued a preliminary order rejecting the Russian claim of genocide and directing Russia to cease military operations in Ukraine. Enforcement of the order by the Security Council is precluded by the Russian veto. Other legal avenues remain open.

The International Criminal Court, technically not part of the UN, has jurisdiction over genocide, wars of aggression, war crimes and crimes against humanity. At the request of 39 states, the ICC has appointed its prosecutor, Karen Kahn, to fast track an investigation of possible war crimes by individuals involved in the Russian invasion. Targeting of civilians, hospitals, children and shelters are consider war crimes. Although Russia, Ukraine and the US are not among the 120 signatories of the ICC, Ukraine has consented to the ICC’s jurisdiction since 2015, and therefore indictment of individuals who have committed war crimes is possible. Other parties, including Ukraine’s Prosecutor General and the EU Court of Human Rights have also initiated investigations under domestic statutes. They are accumulating evidence that should be shared to develop a case against specific individuals.

A better approach would be for the UN to establish a hybrid special court as it did in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, which would be devoted full time to making the case against Russian perpetrators of war crimes.

Russia’s invasion and tactics are a violation of the UN Charter, the Geneva Convention, the Treaty against Genocide, and, depending on future developments, other treaties such as the Chemical and Biological Weapon Conventions, and possibly treaties banning land mines, cluster bombs, and the use of prohibited nuclear weapons.

Question: How would you rate the UN’s response overall to the invasion?

Keeping in mind that the United Nations is only as effective as its member states enable it to be, I would say the UN’s strong points have been its humanitarian relief efforts, the onsite work of the atomic energy agency, and the courageous actions by the General Assembly and the World Court. The UN has been an important source of reliable information, and, despite the veto, the Security Council has shined a light on Russia’s violation of international law and its atrocities, helping to mobilize world opinion and state action.

Keep in mind-- the UN is addressing enormous global challenges that compete for its time and very limited financial resources. There is resentment in some places that Ukraine has such a high profile while the situations in Syria, Sudan, the Congo, Somalia, Myanmar, among others, fester.

We applaud the unity of NATO, the EU, the US, and other democratic nations in supporting Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression. However, these alignments can be perceived as confrontational—certainly Putin and Xi find them provocative.
Only at the UN does every state have a seat at the table, even if the distribution of power is out of alignment and ripe for reform, and even though none of its members, including the US, fully embraces all of its positions.

The principles underlying the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the many international treaties defining international law, and the Sustainable Development Goals, represent the highest aspirations of the global community. If Russia succeeds in recolonializing Ukraine, these aspirational principles will be greatly diminished. Despite its limitations, the United Nations is essential, and US leadership and financial support for its many missions are critical in working toward a more effective and efficient United Nations.

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