UN faces existential threat from Ukraine conflict

The Charter itself has paralysed the UN by conferring veto powers for permanent members at the Security Council, which alone can act, a report by Arul Louis

Paralysed by its own Charter and structure, the world organisation that is charged with preventing wars confronts an existential challenge from Russias ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

When Russia, a UN Security Council Permanent Member, sent its troops into a smaller neighbour defying the UN Charter and all norms of international relations on February 24, 2022, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had said: “This is the saddest moment in my tenure as Secretary-General of the UN.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (R) meets with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in Kiev on April 28, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Office/Handout via Xinhua/IANS)

Beyond sadness from the betrayal and the pain inflicted on nations around the world, especially the poorest, the war drives into the very foundation of the UN built nearly 78 years ago.

Guterres warned this month, “I fear the world is not sleepwalking into a wider war, I fear it is doing so with its eyes wide open”.

And the invasion has raised questions about the UN’s resolve “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”, as the first sentence of its Charter declares.

Yet the Charter itself has paralysed the UN by conferring veto powers for permanent members at the Security Council, which alone can act.

Russia’s vetoes have mired the Council in the morass of inaction renewing calls for its reform.

Describing the situation, General Assembly President Csaba Korosi said: “The Security Council — the main guarantor of international peace and security – has remained blocked, unable to fully carry out its mandate.”

“Growing numbers are now demanding its reform,” he said noting that at the Assembly’s High-Level Week in September, “one-third of world leaders underscored the urgent need to reform the Council — more than double the number in 2021”.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Petersburg in 2019. (File Photo: UN)

While the reform process — in which India has a special interest as an aspirant for a permanent seat –that has itself been stymied for nearly two decades has come to the fore, it is not likely to happen any time soon.

But the General Assembly, which does not have the enforcement powers of the Council, has used the imbroglio to set a precedent forcing permanent members when they wield their veto to face it and explain their action.

Russia appeared before the Assembly to answer for its vetoes while facing a barrage of criticism.

The Assembly also revived a seldom-used action under the 1950 Uniting for Peace Resolution of calling for an emergency special session when the Council fails in its primary duty of maintaining peace and security.

It passed a resolution in March demanding that Russia “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders”.

It received 141 votes — getting more than two-thirds of the votes 193 required for it — while India was among the 35 countries that abstained.

This, as well as the subsequent three passed last year ultimately were but an exercise in moral authority with no means to enforce it.

A proposal made by Mexico and France in 2015 calling on permanent members to refrain from using their vetoes on issues involving them also has been getting a re-airing– but to no avail.

Russia’s Permanent Representative Vasily Nebenza vetoes the resolution at the UN Security Council.

India, which was a member of the Council last year was caught in the middle of the polarisation at the UN, both at the Council and the Assembly, because of its dependence on Russian arms and the support it had received at crucial times in the Security Council from its predecessor the Soviet Union.

India abstained at least 11 times on substantive resolutions relating to Ukraine in both chambers of the UN, including resolutions at the Council sponsored by Moscow.

India faced tremendous pressure from the West to join in voting on resolutions against Russia and openly take a definitive stand condemning Moscow.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar told the Security Council in September 2022: “As the Ukraine conflict continues to rage, we are often asked whose side we are on. And our answer, each time, is straight and honest. India is on the side of peace and will remain firmly there.”

And while keeping the semblance of neutrality while voting, India came closest to taking a stand in support of Ukraine — and by inference against Russia — when he said, “we are on the side that respects the UN Charter and its founding principles”.

Now out of the Council, New Delhi’s profile has been lowered and it also does not have to publicly display its tight-rope walk as often, although it may yet have to do it again this week when the Assembly is likely to have a resolution around the invasion’s anniversary.

The pain of the invasion is felt far beyond the borders of Ukraine.

(Photo: Instagram/zelenskiy)

Guterres said: “The Russian invasion of Ukraine is inflicting untold suffering on the Ukrainian people, with profound global implications.”

The fallout of the war has set back the UN’s omnibus development goals.

More immediately, several countries came to the brink of famine and the spectre of hunger still stalks the world because of shortages of agricultural input, while many countries, including many developed nations, face severe energy and financial problems.

The war shut off exports of food grains from Ukraine and limited exports from Russia, the two countries that have become the world’s food baskets.

Besides depriving many countries of food grains, the shortages raised global prices.

The one victory for the UN has been the Black Sea agreement forged with Russia, Ukraine and Turkey in July to allow safe passage for ships carrying foodgrains from Ukrainian ports.

Guterres’s spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said that in about 1,500 trips by ships so far, “more than 21.3 million tonnes of grain and food products have been moved so far during the initiative, helping to bring down global food prices and stabilising markets”.

Csaba Korosi, president of the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). (Xinhua/Wang Ying/IANS)

A UN outfit, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has also made an impact during the war, working to protect nuclear facilities in Ukraine that were occupied by Russia’s forces while shelling around them.

It said that it has managed to station teams of safety and security experts at Ukraine’s nuclear power plants and at Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 disaster “to help reduce the risk of a severe nuclear accident during the ongoing conflict in the country”.

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