Ukraine war exposes weaknesses of international system
The United Nations (UN) Security Council could do nothing to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – because Russia, as a permanent member, simply used its veto power. Although the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council passed resolutions calling for an immediate end to Russia’s aggression and establishing a commission to investigate rights violations, the vote fell far short of the unanimity required to communicate that Russia cannot get away with flouting international law. The patchy response should provoke fresh reflection on how the international system works and who it serves. Civil society’s critiques of global governance and proposals for UN reform must be given urgent consideration.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has presented the international system with its greatest test in years – and the global architecture meant to guarantee rights and keep people secure has been found wanting.
The United Nations (UN) was founded in the wake of the devastation of the Second World War with simple but powerful motivations, as articulated in the UN’s foundational Charter: to protect people from the scourge of war, uphold the rights and dignity of all and bring about a world in which everyone lives in peace and security, on the basis of multilateral cooperation and an international set of laws.
Those ideas continue to represent an unfulfilled aspiration. Humanity’s collective history since the UN came into being has been one of decolonisation, social emancipation and significant rights advances, but it’s also been one of conflicts, rights violations and failures to get to grips with growing challenges such as climate change.
Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine is, sadly, only the latest conflict in which civilians have been targeted. It isn’t even today’s only conflict: people’s lives are currently being blighted by conflicts in Ethiopia, Myanmar, Palestine, Syria, Yemen and the Sahel, among others. But Russia’s invasion has particularly shone a spotlight on some of the UN’s deepest faultlines.
The UN Security Council: hamstrung by veto
The most evident failing comes at the UN Security Council (UNSC), the body charged with ensuring international peace and security. The permanent member status and veto power of five states – China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA – has long undermined its very purpose. When one of those five chooses to undermine peace and security, as Russia is flagrantly doing now, veto power gives it a free pass.
Russia has vetoed resolutions on the conflict, even when completely isolated. It was the only state on the 15-member council to vote against the resolution brought on 25 February, shortly after it launched its invasion. The draft resolution made clear that Russia’s aggression was a violation of the UN Charter, which prohibits states using force against the ‘territorial integrity or political independence’ of another state. It would have obliged Russia to withdraw immediately. But the UNSC’s fundamental design flaw meant that Russia’s single vote against was enough for the resolution to fall.
The architecture of the international governance system is not working properly because it has a fundamental design defect.
Russia voted on a matter in which there was a direct conflict of interest between its duty as a UNSC member to uphold the UN Charter and its status as instigator of a conflict. Sadly there is nothing new in this. Veto power has hamstrung the UNSC time and again, leaving it sitting on the sidelines of major conflicts, with action vetoed by states that have a stake in those conflicts. It functions now more as a political theatre, a space for posturing and stunts.
Examples of this have abounded during the current conflict. In March, Russia proposed a palpably insincere resolution on humanitarian aid that omitted any mention of its role as the aggressor. The resolution was voted out, but Russia was able to make bad-faith claims that other states were preventing humanitarian action when it is its forces that are blocking aid and stopping civilians fleeing conflict zones.
Russia has repeatedly shown its contempt for the UN. It openly lied to the international community about its build-up of forces on Ukraine’s borders ahead of the invasion, which it claimed was a military exercise, and lied again about its motivations for launching the war. It launched its invasion even as a UNSC special session was in progress. In an outrageous attempt at deflection, Russia’s response to growing evidence of atrocities committed by its forces in Bucha and other towns near Kyiv was to call for a UNSC session to discuss ‘criminal provocations of Ukrainian servicemen and radicals’.
It used another UNSC session to spread disinformation that Ukraine is developing biological and chemical weapons with US assistance, including the bizarre claim that they would use bats and birds to spread them. There was an obvious and theatrical untruth to the allegations that made clear Russia’s contempt for the Council and its proceedings.
Worryingly, its disinformation about biological and chemical weapons could help prepare the ground for Russia’s use of such weapons. A space intended to prevent conflict is being instrumentalised to do the very opposite.
UN General Assembly: overwhelming vote with troubling abstentions
It was a further sign of the complete dysfunction of the UNSC that the UN General Assembly (UNGA) – the full gathering of representatives of all 193 UN member states – held a rare emergency special session on the conflict. This was only the 11th such session ever. For emergency sessions to take place, the UNSC needs to pass a resolution, but crucially, since these are procedural resolutions they can’t be vetoed. The holding of the UNGA special session despite Russia’s opposition was a demonstration of the difference made when decisions can’t be vetoed.
State after state lined up to condemn Russia’s aggression and on 2 March UNGA passed a resolution condemning it in the strongest terms and calling for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of forces. It passed a second resolution on the conflict on 24 March, demanding the fighting stop and urging humanitarian corridors.
Both resolutions were overwhelmingly passed. In both cases only a handful of states voted against, and these unsurprisingly comprised Russia, client states Belarus and Syria and the world’s worst human rights violators, Eritrea and North Korea.
But the waters were muddied ahead of the 24 March resolution, with an alternative resolution on humanitarian action put forward by South Africa that made no mention of Russia as the instigator of the conflict. While very few states voted with Russia, South Africa is among a significant minority of states that by repeatedly abstaining have failed to condemn its aggression.
States may claim they are maintaining neutrality, but to be neutral in this conflict is to be on the side of an assault on human lives and rights – and one where it is increasingly clear that war crimes and crimes against humanity are being committed – and an attack on international laws. This is an unprovoked war that clearly qualifies as a war of aggression, since it lacks any justification of self-defence, and it can be guaranteed that a UNSC without vetoes would have judged it to be so.
A key pillar of Russia’s attempt to justify its invasion has been unpicked by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the court established by the UN Charter to settle disputes between states and give advisory opinions on international law. Vladimir Putin’s ludicrous claims that the invasion was needed to prevent genocide of Russians living in east Ukraine received short shrift when the ICJ held its hearing in March, following a lawsuit filed by Ukraine. On 16 March the ICJ issued a provisional order that Russia should halt its invasion, saying it had seen no evidence to support Russia’s claim.
This is a binding ruling under international law, but Russia, which had showed its contempt for the proceedings by not turning up, claimed the ICJ lacked jurisdiction.
Clearly, any state that says it follows the international rules must condemn Russia’s actions. But many are failing to do so. China, India and the United Arab Emirates abstained in the 25 February UNSC resolution, and again in the resolution to hold the UNGA session. When that session was held, 35 states abstained, among them a slew of African and Asian states.
Many of these decisions were presumably made on the basis of economic and military connections with Russia. Putin sees Central Asian states as falling within his sphere of influence and has cultivated partnerships in Africa in recent years. There may also be an element of throwback to cold war-era ties of solidarity, when the Soviet Union supported decolonisation struggles, including the anti-apartheid movement, and a determination to signal disapproval towards western states, although it’s hardly a coherent position to do so by supporting a war that seeks to re-establish an empire.
These are, in essence, decisions made about national interests and positions, taken by presidents and prime ministers. They are not decisions made with any obvious reference to the UN Charter or other foundational texts like the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. And they are mostly made by presidents and prime ministers who are insulated from democratic pressure, due to civic space restrictions that make it hard for people to hold their decisions to account.
Of the 40 states that voted with Russia or abstained in the first UNGA vote, 38 are classed by the CIVICUS Monitor as having serious civic space restrictions. States failing to condemn Russia’s assault on the international rulebook have appreciably worse civic space than those backing the resolutions. Repression at home translates into the enabling of fellow repressive states in the international arena.
UN Human Rights Council: a safe haven for rights abusers?
The same problem can be seen at the UN’s peak human rights body, the Human Rights Council (UNHRC). On 4 March, at a session held following civil society pressure, the UNHRC voted overwhelmingly to establish an international commission of inquiry to investigate accusations of war crimes and other human rights violations and identify those responsible. The three-person team to do this, initially for a year, was appointed on 30 March. It must be properly resourced and enabled to do its work.
Russia and Eritrea were, predictably, the only two members of the 47-member council to vote against the resolution establishing the commission. But 13 others abstained, and their identities were not surprising; overwhelmingly states that abstained had also done so at the UNGA session.
As in the UNSC, Russia is using its UNHRC presence to attempt to justify its invasion. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov tried to do just that in a pre-recorded speech shown at the Council on 1 March. But this attempt rather backfired as over 140 people walked out of the session rather than listen to Lavrov’s lies.
The obvious question is how Russia gets to sit on this peak human rights body while violating human rights and breaking international law. Around 50 civil society organisations that engage with the UN system have asked that very question, calling for Russia to be suspended: the UNHRC has a procedure where a member can be suspended it if commits ‘gross and systematic violations of human rights’, and Russia’s actions in Ukraine certainly fit the bill.
With new evidence of war crimes committed by Russian forces in Bucha, civil society has renewed its calls for Russia’s suspension and a further special UNHRC session, and finally it seems those demands are being heard. In the light of the latest revelations, the UNGA is expected to meet again shortly to vote on Russia’s suspension from the UNHRC. The decision would require a two-thirds majority of votes; states that fail to support the move should face condemnation for ignoring the now overwhelming evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Russia isn’t alone in sitting on the UNHRC despite a track record of rights violations. UNHRC members are supposed to ‘uphold the highest standards in the protection and promotion of human rights’, but 34 of 47 members are classed by the CIVICUS Monitor as having serious civic space restrictions. The Council is dominated by human rights offenders. Increasingly it seems states are seeking a seat on the UNHRC not to play their part in setting international standards and scrutinising performance but to mute human rights criticism.
Non-competitive elections help enable this: each of the regional groups into which states are organised have an allocation of seats, and it is common for prior negotiations to ensure that only as many states stand in elections as seats are available. Civil society calls for competitive elections as a minimum condition to enable greater scrutiny of the human rights records of states standing for the Council.
International Criminal Court: potential to hold Russia to account?
The evidence keeps piling up. It seems clear that Russia is deploying cluster munitions in civilian areas, using starvation tactics against populations of besieged cities and, as news of atrocities from Bucha and other towns makes clear, torturing and executing civilians. Speaking at the UNHRC, the UN’s human rights head, Michelle Bachelet, said that the killing of civilians and destruction of hospitals and other facilities may amount to war crimes.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) offers one current source of hope that those responsible for these crimes could be held to account.
The ICC came into being in 2002 as a result of the Rome Statute. Operating as an international court of last resort, it represented the culmination of years of civil society campaigning to challenge impunity for gross human rights violations. But one of the key problems is the absence of some major states from its membership. The Rome Statute has been ratified by 123 states, but these do not include Russia, as well as China, India, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the USA. Russia and the USA both initially signed the Statute but did not go on to ratify it, and subsequently withdrew their signatures. Two states – Burundi and the Philippines – were members of the ICC but later withdrew.
The issue with the ICC, from the point of view of states who haven’t joined, is that it might prove successful in holding them to account. The Court has tried and found guilty several political and military leaders on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Even when cases don’t go to trial – the processes of international justice are slow and difficult – the opening of an investigation can focus attention on the poor human rights records of those being investigated. Little wonder that Russia wants nothing to do with the ICC.
Ukraine isn’t an ICC member either, but it has granted jurisdiction. This avoids the need to get UNSC approval for an investigation, which obviously would have been vetoed. The ICC’s prosecutor launched an investigation on 28 February. On 2 March a group of 38 states formally referred reports of gross violations to the ICC. This meant the prosecutor could get to work quickly, and an advance team of investigators was soon despatched to Ukraine.
It’s a highly distant hope that one day a humbled Putin might face trial in The Hague. But ultimately the expectation must be that high-level people face charges, and even if they evade justice, this will make them infamous and dog them for the rest of their lives. Even if an ICC trial never happens, the evidence collected could help states bring their own prosecutions under the principle of universal jurisdiction. Germany, for example, has successfully prosecuted non-nationals on this basis, and has written the Rome Statute into domestic law. States could even work together to establish a new tribunal process to hold Russian leaders to account. Those suspected of involvement in gross human rights violations would then be at risk of prosecution whenever they leave Russia.
As a first step, the ICC team must cooperate with Ukrainian civil society, which is collecting evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The collection and preservation of this evidence will be vital if the perpetrators and commissioners of crimes are to be held to account.
States that are actively opposing Russia’s war, notably the USA, should also demonstrate they are on the side of rights by now joining the ICC.
The view from Ukraine
The UN is a complex and often opaque multilateral organisation. Its chambers in Geneva and New York are distant from the places where conflicts are raging. At a time of war, discussion of UN reform can seem an esoteric affair. But the need for an effective and responsive international system is being articulated at the sharp end of conflict. Ukrainian civil society is calling for the international community to hold Putin to account and play an active role in providing humanitarian assistance and preventing and monitoring human rights violations.
Right now Ukrainian civil society is seeing that international organisations are absent from the ground. It’s fair to say that many feel abandoned by the UN and do not feel it is on their side in a pivotal struggle for rights and freedom.
Voices from the frontline
All of us in contemporary Ukrainian civil society grew up believing in democratic values and we heard time and again that these were the most important principles for the western world. Now we are fighting for these values, we ask the international community to amplify our voices. If it doesn’t, it will be clear that western countries choose their business interests over democratic values. We don’t want to be let down.
Ukraine also needs the humanitarian assistance of international organisations. We understand how hard it is for organisations such as the World Health Organization and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to organise proper fieldwork. But there is one thing even harder: explaining to people from war-affected regions why these organisations disappear when they need them the most.
Since 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea and invaded Ukraine for the first time this century, Ukrainians have seen thousands of international organisations’ representatives spending their time here, mostly in expensive hotels and restaurants. We were told they were here to try and save Ukrainian lives. But now that Ukrainian lives are in fact under immediate threat, international organisations are not here anymore. For us, they are now invisible and silent.
Given that most international organisations, including the UN, have evacuated their international staff from Ukraine due to serious threats to their lives, we urge them to send in international missions qualified to work in military conditions.
These missions’ duty should be to monitor the actions of both parties. The UN should establish an international tribunal to establish the facts of the Russian Federation’s military aggression, while the ICC should consider and promptly rule on war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine. The International Committee of the Red Cross should be in charge of organising the exchange and removal of the dead from both sides.
We stress the urgent need for international presence and international monitoring of violations during the evacuation of the civilian population from destroyed cities, villages and settlements. We therefore urge international civil society to support the advancement of our demands to the governments of democratic countries and the leadership of international organisations.
We don’t want the international community to get comfortable with what is happening in Ukraine. They must stand in solidarity with us and help us fight this. Our number one priority is to be able to defend ourselves, but we are fighting not only for ourselves but also for the values of a free world.
Now the bulk of refugees have been got to safety, it is time to reach for a more ambitious goal. We need strategic measures that will stop war crimes and force the invasion to stop. It is only a matter of time before human rights defenders, journalists, religious leaders and civil society activists and organisations start to be deliberately targeted. We need to find ways to protect people.
Unfortunately, our advocacy asks have not been met. International organisations and our allies are focusing on providing humanitarian assistance to refugees outside Ukraine. This is very important because there are more than three million Ukrainian refugees now. But it is also the easiest thing to do in this horrible situation, when tens of millions remain in Ukraine, where war is still happening. The people who have stayed also need protection and humanitarian assistance, and they need it even more urgently.
I think the architecture of the international governance system is not working properly because it has a fundamental design defect. Russia is a permanent member of the UNSC. The mandate for this body is to maintain international peace and security, but we have seen the total opposite of that take place in Ukraine. And there is also a lack of understanding of their responsibilities by those who are in positions where they could help. When the war started, international organisations evacuated their staff from Kyiv and other places under attack. International organisations are clearly not up to their historic responsibilities.
These are edited extracts of our interviews with Ukrainian civil society. Read the full interviews here.
Lessons for UN reform
Looking forward, the war in Ukraine must prompt urgent reflection on what the international system, and the UN in particular, can do better to protect rights and ensure peace and security. Civil society has some answers.
Civil society has long been working with supportive states to develop proposals for UNSC reform, including to limit veto power, develop norms on veto moderation and encourage states to abdicate their veto power voluntarily, as France and the UK appear to have agreed to.
The latest failure of the UNSC to act on conflict, and the role of one of its permanent members as instigator of conflict, must surely lead to far-reaching discussion of how the UNSC can start fulfilling the role it was designed for. Issues including the end of permanent membership status and veto power must be on the table, and civil society must be involved in the conversation.
Civil society’s calls for competitive UNHRC elections in which the human rights records of states standing for membership are scrutinised must also be heard.
Beyond ideas about how specific parts of the UN could be made to function better, there are a raft of far-reaching civil society proposals for UN reform. In essence, these all entail states making more space at the table for the voices that aren’t currently represented in UN circles.
The issues the UN deals with are too important to be left to states alone. The inadequacy of the existing arrangements is now impossible to ignore. The many states that have condemned Putin’s actions only to be forced to look on as he ignores the rules and attempts to manipulate UN processes must embrace civil society’s reform agenda as part of the solution.
Last year the UN Secretary-General published Our Common Agenda, the outcome of a consultation exercise on how the organisation can respond to current and future challenges. But this lacked the ambition civil society is calling for.
Among the reforms civil society is urging is the appointment of a cross-UN civil society envoy or people’s champion to stand up for civil society in the UN system; a UN world citizens’ initiative, based on the European Union’s model in which a petition that gathers widespread public support can be put to the UNSC or UNGA; and a UN parliamentary assembly to bring a greater variety of voices into UN processes and offer a source of accountability over states.
None of these is a magic bullet, but together they could help civil society assert greater democratic scrutiny over the decisions states make and ensure that important issues are not ignored. They will help stop the UN drifting into irrelevance. What should be clear, now more than ever, is that for the UN to continue operating as it always has can no longer be an option. If Russia’s actions in Ukraine don’t provoke a willingness to consider radical change, what will?
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
UN agencies should urgently respond to requests from Ukrainian civil society for support, including humanitarian aid and assistance in defending rights and documenting violations, and ensure full civil society participation in UN actions to document violations, peace processes and reconstruction efforts.
Global south civil society in states that are abstaining on resolutions on the conflict should mobilise to put pressure on their governments and communicate their active solidarity with Ukrainian civil society.
The UN should commit to renewed dialogue with civil society over proposals to increase civil society participation in the UN.
Cover photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images