War in Ukraine and the UN: the Realities of International Opinion and Chances of Reform

Is the United Nations (UN) powerless?

By Gakushi Fujiwara


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Is the United Nations (UN) powerless? Can it do nothing while the UN Charter is being trampled? What is it doing? What can it do in the future?

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, there is rising criticism towards the UN. It is easy to dismiss it as dysfunctional. But we must take a moment and think—who is the UN?

“We are the UN,” is what the Austrian Ambassador to the UN Alexander Marschik said in an interview. There are 193 member nations in the UN. And every person in every member country forms the UN. That is what the Austrian ambassador meant.

Instead of making the big entity, the UN, responsible for everything, we must assess based on facts, and also upon self-reflection. First, let us see how the UN has reacted to the war in Ukraine.

The “Four Arrows” That Break the Veto Barrier

The purpose of the UN is stated in Chapter 1, Article 1 of the UN Charter: “To maintain international peace and security.” And the Security Council takes on the “primary responsibility” for this.

The Security Council first held an emergency meeting on January 31, when Russia was said to have amassed over 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border. Many more meetings followed. It was in the middle of a meeting on February 24 (February 23 evening EST), when Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a “special military operation” and invaded Ukraine.

According to diplomats, some Security Council members shared the notion that “something was going to happen” that day, but they had no information on the time or exactly what would occur.

In an e-mail interview, then Irish Ambassador to the UN Byrne Nason stated, “It was a sombre evening, one I will never forget. It felt like all the work to prevent the aggression came to naught. But in the moment what I felt most strongly was worry and fear for the people of Ukraine, and what they must be going through. What I said on that night, and I have said innumerable times since, is that I stand with the people of Ukraine.”

Between January 31 and September 6, the Security Council held as many as 30 official meetings focusing on Ukraine. Subsequently, official meetings have been held several times a month. Such frequent meetings over one country’s situation are extraordinary. Nevertheless, it has failed to issue any legally binding resolutions, because Russia, the invading party, has the veto power as a permanent member. In fact, Russia has cast the sole opposing vote on the resolution condemning the country (China, India, and the UAE abstained).

Russia also used the veto power in late September, when the Security Council voted on the resolution condemning Russia for the “annexation” of the four regions in eastern and southern Ukraine (China, India, Gabon, and Brazil abstained).

However, the Security Council was not utterly without means. From February through April, and in October, the General Assembly convened four emergency special sessions, based on the “Uniting for Peace” resolution. It was the first time in 40 years to be convened by the Security Council’s request, since Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights was discussed in 1982.

Using this framework, the General Assembly shot four arrows towards Russia.

The first is the adaptation of the resolution, “deploring in the strongest terms,” Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, to which 141 nations voted in favor, and only five opposed. After the voting, Ukrainian UN Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya told the reporters, “The UN is still alive. I believe in the United Nations; now people in Ukraine have more reasons to believe in the United Nations.”

The second is the resolution holding Russia responsible for creating a “dire” humanitarian situation in Ukraine. Drafted by France and Mexico, a nonpermanent member, this was originally planned for voting at the Security Council. But since it was highly likely to face Russia’s veto, the agenda was taken to the General Assembly. Russia submitted its own draft of the humanitarian resolution at the Security Council, but only got support from China and the remaining 13 members abstained.

The resolution drafted by France and Mexico deplored the humanitarian consequences of Russian forces’ aggression and demanded immediate, complete, and unconditional withdrawal from Ukraine. At the General Assembly, 140 member states voted in favor, while the same five countries as last time cast opposing votes. Just looking at the figures, over 70% of UN members supported the resolution—an overwhelming majority.

However, we cannot fully praise this situation, as the international community’s unity to condemn Russia. Rather, the voting of the second resolution revealed a divide within the global society. It was South Africa that exposed this. The country tabled its own draft resolution and refused the request from Western nations to remove it. South Africa’s version did not refer to Russia and was similar to Russia’s draft resolution rejected by the Security Council. Ukraine’s Kyslytsya was outraged, calling it “a twin brother of the defunct Russian draft.”

Xolisa Mabhongo, South Africa’s Deputy Ambassador to the UN, explained the intent in an interview. He said that they thought something that would remove political issues and would gain consensus at the Assembly was needed. He also stated that many countries were displeased with the draft resolution by the Western nations.

South Africa’s seemingly pro-Russian stance is probably because the African National Congress (ANC), the current ruling party, had long been receiving support from the former Soviet Union in its anti-apartheid struggle. The two countries are also BRICS members (emerging economies, with Brazil, India, and China).

For South Africa’s draft resolution, the General Assembly voted on “whether to hold a voting.” The result was 50 in favor, 67 against, and 36 abstained. So, it was not even eligible for voting, but Mabhongo said the attempt was a success. This vividly expresses that the Western nation’s stance against Russia is not necessarily the international public opinion.

The third arrow was suspending Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. This progressed rapidly with the initiative of the U.S., following alleged atrocities by the Russian troops in Bucha near the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. According to diplomats, the voting at the General Assembly was decided within days, which baffled some member states. For the resolution, 93 voted in favor, 24 were against, and 58 abstained. In March, the Human Rights Council decided to establish a commission of inquiry, so before and after the voting, many suggested they should wait until the results came out.

When we look at the third resolution votes to evict Russia by regional groups, the rift within the international community that was exposed at the second resolution becomes even more vivid. All 29 countries in “Western Europe and others,” and 19 out of 23 (58%) “Eastern Europe” countries voted in favor. Out of 54 “Asian Pacific” countries, 16 (30%) voted in favor, while only 10 out of 54 (19%) countries in “Africa” showed support.

The above three arrows were launched by the Western nations, aiming to isolate Russia. Sure enough, all the resolutions were adopted, and Europe and the U.S. may see that Russia is isolated. Yet, as one diplomat said, “We must not be complacent of isolating it.” Of course, pressure from the international community is essential, and to stop that would only benefit Russia. Meanwhile, it had been necessary to recognize there are many countries that could not cut ties with Russia and proceed with some careful consideration.

In September, Russia unilaterally “annexed” the four regions in eastern and southern Ukraine. At this, the Security Council convened emergency special sessions for the first time in six months. Ukraine cooperated with the Western nations and submitted a draft resolution, declaring the annexation as “illegal” and “void.”

Amid cries of the so-called Ukraine fatigue, all eyes were on how many supporting votes this draft resolution could gain. The result was 143 in favor, five against, and 35 abstained. The supporting votes exceeding the 141 gained at the March resolution denouncing Russia can be said to be a “huge victory” for Ukraine and the Western nations. Professor Toshiya Hoshino at Osaka University Graduate School, who specializes in UN diplomacy, assessed, “It has become clear that there is still strong discontent, repulsion, and resistance against Russia.”

Secretary-General’s Leadership and the Future of Reform

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Concerning the war in Ukraine, besides the moves by the Security Council and the General Assembly, UN Secretary-General António Guterres is also under the spotlight.

On January 21, as tensions were rising in Ukraine, Guterres said of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, “I am convinced it will not happen. And I strongly hope to be right.” His view did not change for a while. Just six days before the invasion, at the Security Council meeting in Munich, he said he still believed military conflict in Europe “will not happen.”

Before the crisis, the U.S. and the U.K. had declassified their intelligence information and sent warnings to the world. According to the Spokesperson for UN Secretary General, Guterres, through his “analysis and hope,” believed that an invasion would not happen, but we must say he was overoptimistic. Even though the invasion may not have been prevented, could he not have taken measures, such as visiting the Kremlin for direct talks with Putin before the invasion? Doubts remain.

However, once the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, he had made clear his stance that it was a “violation of the UN Charter.” It was unusual for the UN Secretary-General to publicly criticize a permanent member, and diplomats and experts in New York voiced concerns that the dialogue with Russia would be lost. But in late April, the UN Chief visited Moscow for a meeting with Putin and agreed “in principle” on evacuation of civilians from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol in south-east Ukraine, with the involvement of the UN and the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC). Immediately after the meeting, there were skeptical views on its realization. But several hundred civilians left stranded in Azovstal and other places were rescued. As Guterres himself said, we could call this a “limited success.”

Guterres also intermediated along with Turkey for the Ukraine grain export that resumed in August. According to UN sources, around March, immediately after the Russian invasion, he worked on behind-the-scenes research and coordination under tight information control.

“I am working with only one objective. Not to shine in the media. I’m being very boring to the media on purpose. Because the only way to ensure the rescue of the people is to be boring to the media.”

So commented Guterres at the April press conference in Kyiv. Although stumbling before the war, Guterres, who heralds “quiet diplomacy,” may need to be assessed in the long-term.

Currently, the UN, with the initiative of its Chief Guterres, seems to be placing emphasis on humanitarian support. The Security Council finally managed to issue a presidential statement, which is a consensus view, on May 6, day 72 of invasion. It also stated, “The Security Council expresses strong support for the efforts of the Secretary-General in the search for a peaceful solution.” There is no mention of words like “Russia,” “invasion,” or “war,” yet given that it needs Russia’s consent, this is the most we could hope for at this point.

The war in Ukraine once again brought to light the need for Security Council reform. When President Zelensky attended the Security Council meeting online, he expressed his frustration, saying, “Where is the security that the Security Council needs to guarantee? It is not there, though there is a Security Council.” Guterres also frankly admitted: “The Security Council failed to do everything in its power to prevent and end this war.”

The problem is the extremely high hurdle for a drastic reform of the Security Council. For example, to increase the number of member states or change the veto power, the UN Charter needs to be amended. The Charter can be amended after two-thirds of the member states, including all the permanent members, complete the process within each country. No matter how many countries discuss the necessity of reform, if one permanent member says no, all the efforts end in vain—that is how it is designed. Thus, a Security Council reform is unrealistic. Even with the war in Ukraine, we cannot expect any effective outcome.

However, the UN is not just about the Security Council. If there is some move on site, the General Assembly will probably be put to use. Ceasefire may be a long way away, but Guterres still has a channel for dialogue with Putin. Just within Ukraine, there are over 1,400 UN staff also working to save as many civilian lives as possible.

Here, I would like to go back to my opening questions. Is the UN powerless? Can it do nothing while the UN Charter is being trampled? Let me introduce the words the second UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöl said in 1954:

“It has been said that the United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell. That sums up as well as anything I have heard both the essential role of the United Nations and the attitude of mind that we should bring to its support.”

This is a translation of the Japanese article originally published in Vol. 73 (May/June 2022) of Gaiko (Diplomacy) magazine, and revised at the end of October 2022.

Gakushi Fujiwara was born in 1986. After graduating from the Department of Political Science, Faculty of Law, Keio University, he studied propaganda at Keio University’s graduate school. He joined the Asahi Shimbun in 2010 and served as the reporter covering the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office, and a New York correspondent (April 2019-September 2022) covering the UN and American society. He also wrote a series on the conspiracy theory group QAnon. Currently, he is a national correspondent based in Tokyo.


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