Remarkably, it was business as usual at Monday’s much-anticipated United Nations Security Council debate on “effective multilateralism” through the defense of the UN Charter, chaired by Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister.
The meeting occurred as Russia, a permanent member, leads the rotating presidency for April. Ukraine, which typically speaks at Council meetings pertinent to the war, avoided the session.
Indeed, against the backdrop of Moscow’s brutal assault on Ukraine, Lavrov, reading from rambling, prepared remarks that hit many of the Kremlin’s well-worn talking points in the last year — including Nato’s eastward expansion and the “shameful” and “criminal misadventures of Washington” in Yugoslavia, Libya and Iraq — delivered Russia’s vision for a new multipolar world. He called on member states to “revive the culture of dialogue, respect the purposes and principles of the UN Charter” and “the sovereign equality of all states,” adding, “This is what we all signed onto when we ratified the Charter of the United Nations.”
Seated to Lavrov’s right at the Council’s horseshoe table, UN Secretary-General António Guterres criticized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, calling it a “violation of the United Nations Charter,” in addition to “causing massive suffering and devastation to the country [Ukraine] and its people.” He also read a long laundry list of the world’s woes that could be alleviated through diplomacy and multilateralism. He applauded the success of the Black Sea Grain initiative, presenting it as a “compelling example” of the “significance of multilateral cooperation,” and urged its “continued implementation.”
The grain deal, an agreement brokered by the UN, Türkiye, Ukraine and Russia in July 2022 to allow for the safe passage of Ukrainian grains to be exported from three of its Black Sea ports onto global markets, expires on May 18. Russia is threatening to cut it off, along with a side deal between the UN and Moscow meant to get Russian fertilizer further exported. While speaking at a joint press conference with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez in Havana on April 20, Lavrov criticized the grain deal for prioritizing “commercial interests” over the humanitarian needs of countries of the global South by sending most of the grain and other agricultural products not to the poorest countries but to “Western countries or countries of other continents which are rather well to do.” (Guterres met Lavrov later on April 24 during which Guterres handed the foreign minister a letter to give to President Vladimir Putin, proposing extending and expanding the Black Sea initiative and addressing some of the problems with the separate fertilizer deal.)
In Monday’s Council session, Guterres also addressed the recent violence and deteriorating humanitarian situation in Sudan, where a war between two military generals exploded about a week ago. “The violence must stop,” he said. “It risks a catastrophic conflagration within Sudan that could engulf the region and beyond.”
In her remarks, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the United States permanent representative to the UN, accused Russia of “weaponizing” the Black Sea deal to prevent it from “reaching its full potential,” and for “violating universal human rights and fundamental freedoms” for unlawfully detaining American citizens like former US Marine Paul Whelan, who in June 2020 was charged and convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years hard labor in a Russian camp.
Elizabeth Whelan, Paul’s sister, attended Monday’s meeting and stood in the Council’s balcony as Thomas-Greenfield directed her remarks to Russia, the “hypocritical convener” that uses American detainees as “bargaining chips” and “human pawns.”
“I want to direct your attention to the gallery where today we’re joined by Paul’s sister Elizabeth,” Thomas-Greenfield said, wearing a small pin on her lapel, combining the flags of the US and Ukraine. “I want Minister Lavrov to look into her eyes and see her suffering. I want you to see what it’s like to miss your brother for four years [and] to know he is locked up in a Russian penal colony simply because you want to use him for your own means. I’m calling on you right now to release Paul Whelan . . . to let Paul come home.”
Lavrov reportedly waved his hand to Whelan during Thomas-Greenfield’s remarks but avoided making eye contact by looking at a pile of papers at his seat in the Council.
The US envoy also called for the immediate release of Evan Gershkovich, the 31-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter detained on March 29 by Russia and accused of espionage by its Federal Security Service while on a reporting trip in Yekaterinburg, a city located east of Moscow.
When a Wall Street Journal reporter (who said he was a friend of Gershkovich’s) asked Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, outside the Council chamber whether she had a response to Thomas-Greenfield’s call to release the journalist, she became visibly annoyed.
“Why are they [the US] so much focused on such situations? There are also other citizens of the world which are actually facing the same problems,” Zakharova said. “Unfortunately, the United States pays no attention to their destinies.”
Unlike Britain’s envoy to the UN, Barbara Woodward, who in the Council accused Russia of “trampling on the Charter” by invading Ukraine, or Switzerland’s ambassador to the UN, Pascale Baeriswyl, who “emphatically” condemned Russia’s military aggression and called on Russia to “without delay” withdraw all its troops from Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates, Gabon and Ghana, who in a quiet show of solidarity with Russia sent high-level foreign ministers to the debate to speak. They avoided overtly criticizing Russia.
However, while Brazil’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, João Genésio de Almeida Filho, didn’t directly condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as Brazil has not done so in the last year, he reiterated his country’s condemnation of “the threat or use of force as a means of resolving disputes.” Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, recently traveled to China, where he suggested he and a core group of countries that included China could negotiate peace in Ukraine. Brazil’s former foreign minister, Celso Amorim, is reportedly traveling to Kyiv, although no date has been set yet.
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