The United Nations has been widely criticized for failing to stop the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Critics point out that Russia has vetoed every action in the Security Council to stymie or end the Russian attack. Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky even told the Council earlier this month that given its many standoffs, it might as well “dissolve yourself altogether.”
However, those dismayed by the Council’s inaction suffer from a fundamental misconception of how the UN operates. While the organization is seen as primarily a peace body, it was essentially born out of raw power politics. The not-so-secret truth of the UN is that it only came into being through a realpolitik compromise between the two major victors of World War II — the United States and the Soviet Union.
President Franklin Roosevelt, who, during the war, pushed passionately for the creation of the body, proposed the institution on the idealistic grounds that only a universal security body could maintain the peace in the future. But to assure its passage by the US Senate, he had to guarantee that the US had a veto. Similarly, Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader, made it clear that he was not willing to join the assembly unless his country got a similar power.
The two men shared a common purpose on how to structure the body, based on a doctrine that protected their national interests and secured their permanent authority. As long as these conditions were met, both nations were willing to accept the UN as it is composed today. They got their way for the simple reason that without their participation, the UN would have been doomed to failure. However, under this formula, the Security Council from now on could act only with the prior consent of the US and Russia (and that of the three other permanent members, Britain, China and France).
Despite its drawbacks, the UN is still capable of influencing the world — especially on something as ghastly and repellent as Russia’s assault on Ukraine. The UN embodies considerable moral authority. Indeed, the General Assembly quickly condemned Russia’s brutal offensive on March 2 by an overwhelming margin of 141 to 5, with 35 abstentions. The Assembly also suspended Russia from the Human Rights Council, leading Moscow to resign from it. Forty-six countries that are party to the Unesco World Heritage Convention said they would boycott a session, scheduled to be held in Russia under its presidency, if it goes ahead. And there are at least seven UN agencies handling refugees, food assistance, health and other related issues in the Ukraine conflict zone.
Meantime, the incessant television coverage of the UN Security Council meetings has shone a damning light on the character of the UN envoy from Russia himself, Vassily Alekseevich Nebenzia, revealing the ambassador to be a man full of lies, bluster and cruelty, as he repeatedly denies that Russia is attacking Ukraine, despite the assault’s high visibility on daily broadcasts. In fact, Nebenzia is often losing his temper, lashing out at some reporters who ask him tough questions, saying they are “provoking” him. His top deputy, Dmitry Polyanskiy, is also perpetuating blatant lies on camera through the Security Council.
Since the war began, the Council has given a hearing to the Ukrainian ambassador to the UN, Sergiy Kyslytsya, and the dozen or so other representatives in the body who have collectively brought evidence of Russia’s war crimes to the public before a vast global audience.
The one spot where the UN’s response to the Ukrainian crisis has been faltering is the role of the UN’s secretary-general. The UN’s leader, António Guterres, has appeared like a bystander to the war. He initially failed to take any action when Russian troops originally encircled Ukraine — for example, by flying to Moscow to meet with Putin to find out if he could help allay his concerns. Secretaries-general like Dag Hammarskjold, U Thant, Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon, given their past records, would have acted more proactively to prevent an outbreak of war and would have used all measures to do so.
Most recently, a group of former UN system colleagues wrote a letter to Guterres to voice their concern about the “existential challenge” the UN is facing at this juncture, but the group also said that the secretary-general and his team must show a “clear strategy” to “re-establish peace” in Ukraine, starting with a cease-fire.
To his credit, Guterres displayed real courage after the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, by openly criticizing Russia’s action as deplorable and inexcusable. Normally a secretary-general will not publicly break with one of the five veto nations. If he offends a permanent member, he will almost certainly jeopardize his relations with that government and possibly earn its opposition to his re-election — though, in Guterres’s case, it will not matter, as he is unlikely to seek a third term. But the Guterres situation does pose the question as to whether the UN can play a role as a true mediator if it is considered biased against one of the warring parties.
Some critics say, in any case, that Russia’s behavior is so odious and unforgivable that it should be immediately kicked out of the organization. They cite a major technicality — that Russia’s admission to the UN came after the demise of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics, in 1991, but without any formal decision by the General Assembly. Hence it is not really a bona fide member. However, Larry Johnson, the principal legal officer in the UN Office of Legal Affairs in that era, has pointed out that there was no objection at the time to Russia’s admission by the Assembly, by any member state or by any of the other veto nations. With no pushback, Russia’s seating became lawful. Now, 30 years later, it is too late to raise new objections. Meanwhile, Russia can use its veto power to thwart any fresh attempts to oust it.
Curiously enough, Stalin’s other non-negotiable demand when he parlayed with Roosevelt over the formation of the UN was that two other countries under Soviet domination should also be admitted to the General Assembly. Those two nations now remarkably sit at the center of today’s warfare — Ukraine and Belarus. Stalin probably had his own cynical reasons for wanting this done, namely to obtain two extra votes to help back Russia, as Stalin desperately feared being outvoted by Western nations. The irony now is that a Putin victory in Ukraine would end Ukraine’s membership in the UN, leaving the country in the odd position that it would have gained entry into the UN for dubious reasons and would depart it for equally questionable reasons.
The issue of a possible war crimes tribunal for Putin continues to be cited. UN members can request that a criminal complaint be brought against the Russian leader and be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague — but that requires an official sign-off from the Security Council, which will be blocked by a Russian veto. This leaves one possible recourse: the creation of a specialized tribunal like the Nuremberg trial. That determination will have to be left to the 141 nations who censured Moscow at the UN on March 2 for its attack on Ukraine.
Russia, no matter what, must be in turmoil over the actions of the UN. The UN’s current secretary-general, almost three-quarters of its membership and its most notable human-rights agency have all denounced its actions. Russia has descended from being a founder of the organization to its most-reviled member. A monstrous black mark now shrouds its legacy.
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Stephen Schlesinger is the author of three books, including “Act of Creation: The Founding of The United Nations,” which won the 2004 Harry S. Truman Book Award. He is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York City and the former director of the World Policy Institute at the New School (1997-2006) and former publisher of the quarterly magazine, The World Policy Journal. In the 1970s, he edited and published The New Democrat Magazine; was a speechwriter for the Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern; and later was the weekly columnist for The Boston Globe’s “The L’t’ry Life.” He wrote, with Stephen Kinzer, “Bitter Fruit,” a book about the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala.
Thereafter, he spent four years as a staff writer at Time Magazine. For 12 years, he served as New York State Governor Mario Cuomo’s speechwriter and foreign policy adviser. In the mid 1990s, Schlesinger worked at the United Nations at Habitat, the agency dealing with cities.
Schlesinger received his B.A. from Harvard University, a certificate of study from Cambridge University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He lives in New York City.
While Russia is currently the “bad boy” in this PassBlue article, it would be helpful to add the U.S. to the list of “bad boys.” The U.S. international rap sheet for world crimes is far worse than that of the Russians, even taking into account Ukraine. The UN Security Council needs to be retired as the P-5 are the leading weapons dealers of the world. The movement by world federalists for a “new UN” with a new world charter/constitution is in the works — THE SAN FRANCISCO PROMISE by Democratic World Federalists demands Charter Review to open the door for the EARTH CONSTITUTION to be used as a guide and model for a “new UN” which needs to transform itself to a democratic world federation. Only this strategy can realistically end illegal wars carried out by Russia, the U.S/NATO, etc.
I agree that UN credibility means the SG Guterres must – no matter how long the odds of success – insert his office into this conflict, insisting that a negotiated settlement, no matter how painful for all sides, must be found. Likewise, it’s time for a serious, mounting drumbeat in favour of Security Council reform. Dumping the current P5 veto entirely is not doable but it can be mitigated. For example: by revising permanent membership to include the most populous country in each region (so a real majority of the world’s peoples), say to P7 (yes, including replacing UK/France with the EU), and requiring that any veto be backed 4 out of the 7. The best arrangement? Maybe not. Pie in the sky? At the moment, yes: in addition to a 2/3rds GA vote and ratification, any change requires Security Council OK which the current P5 will fiercely oppose. That’s why the drumbeat must start: defining a reasonable goal that much improves global fairness, it would be a clear, communicable advocacy stick to build support for this long overdue – indeed, existential – reform. Reform must start somewhere: annual GA votes in favor would be that. The recent GA resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine didn’t stopped the war but it did signal a genuinely global censure … as well as the Security Council’s continuing paralysis when it matters. Does anyone think that vote shouldn’t have been taken?
There is a significant consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that has been widely overlooked – and which the United Nations should gratefully recognize.
After years of catastrophic United States military adventurism, more recently in Iraq, Libya and Somalia – not to mention Afghanistan and the proxy war and humanitarian disaster in Yemen that they have never called into question, Western media pundits are finally drawing attention to the United Nations Charter.
Until the violence in Ukraine the same Western commentators had ignored international law although professing respect for a vague ‘rules-based international order’. If they are now referring specifically to the Charter, it’s fair to say that it’s due entirely to the action of Mr Putin and the Russian state.
For Russia to have awakened the Western media to the principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter is no mean feat, and surely merits formal acknowledgement.
The point is logical, but surely the permanent stain is on all the permanent members who wield the veto and violate the non-aggression principles of the UN Charter. Their track record is dismal. United States in Iraq 2003 is very well known. China in Vietnam (1979). UK and France in Egypt (Suez) 1956. Until the veto power is replaced with majority voting, this permanent stain will continue to metastasize.