Is the UN a victim of the war in Ukraine?
Miguel Angel Velasco cmf
UNITAR. MA. Development Studies & Diplomacy
It has been more than three weeks since Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine for reasons that escape rationality and certainly escaped all prominent international analysts. Nobody expected that the continuous threats and bad manners of Vladimir Putin and Serguei Lavrov, his foreign minister, would end in an invasion. Perhaps Vladimir Putin thought that things would happen as they did with Crimea, but they have not. The international reaction has been hugely adverse, even in the case of many of his potential allies. Vladimir did not think that the Ukrainian people would respond with the forcefulness that they are doing; it seems that he did not take into account the capacity of remembering that the people have, in this case, the Ukrainian grandfathers and grandmothers who remember and relate everything that, in not very distant times, was caused to them by a president of the USSR named Lenin.
In turbulent times
We can make the mistake of thinking that what is happening in Ukraine, in Eastern Europe, is a local conflict confined to relations between Russia and Ukraine; we would also be wrong if we were to include NATO and the European Union. The step taken by Vladimir Putin has called many other things into question. In the case of Europe, it has put an end to many dreams: the German dream of including Russia in the close circle of a European Union thinking of the Eurasian continent; the dream of having Russia as a strategic ally, a supplier of raw materials; the European dream of power based on commercial “European soft-power”, which was intended to control any attempt at war.
If COVID-19 had weakened and called into question the international trade system based on multi-country production chains, the invasion of Ukraine would have called it even more into question. It seems likely that the safest option is production confined to a specific area. I am referring in particular to production chains that require the purchase of energy and essential raw materials.
But there is more: what has happened to the nuclear non-proliferation treaties? Up to this point, there was an almost universal decision to minimize nuclear weapons production, thus confining the problems to two countries: North Korea and Iran. The problem is that, finally, we have to say that King Jong-un, President of North Korea, was right in his determination to have nuclear weapons. Russia, economic power with a GDP similar to that of Italy, has been able to put the whole world in check simply because of its nuclear capability; it is proof that it seems only the deterrent power of atomic weapons allows for coercive force on the international scene. Who will convince North Korea or Iran not to continue with their nuclear programs? The most incredible thing is that Ukraine was, at the time of the demise of the USSR, the third country in the world with the most nuclear weapons; the United States, Russia, and Ukraine reached an agreement, according to which Ukraine transferred all nuclear weapons to Russian soil in exchange for ensuring the inviolability of its borders. Would Russia have dared to invade Ukraine if it had been a country with the atomic weapons it had at the time?
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been a catastrophe in every way because of the dead, wounded, and people without homes and food it has caused. More than three million refugees spread across the countries of Europe; nineteen-year-old Russian soldiers were sent back to their families in zinc coffins as in the time of the Chechen war. It is a humanitarian catastrophe unprecedented since World War II. The invasion of Ukraine ended an era of relative international optimism that began in 1990, with the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. Then, in 1990, a new era began with the shock of the attack on the Twin Towers and ended definitively in 2022 with the war provoked by Vladimir Putin. Will we have to speak, from now on, of a China-Russia bloc and another Western bloc around the United States-European Union? Everything is now uncertain; let us hope that the United States, the European Union, and China are up to the task; we know that Putin’s Russia cannot be counted on.
The role of the UN
In the face of all this, what has the UN done? Its fundamental purpose is to prevent a war like World Wars I and II, and we have almost been on the verge of starting World War III. The UN Security Council has been unable to do anything since one of its permanent members is Russia; Russia’s veto has prevented any kind of condemnatory statement. It is nothing new for the Security Council to be blocked when dealing with particularly sensitive issues for one of the five permanent members (“5P”). This deadlock situation has been going on almost since the founding of the UN in 1945. What the UN General Assembly has done is to adopt a statement condemning the invasion of Ukraine; the Human Rights Council has shown the same condemnation in Geneva; the Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has repeatedly spoken out against it; the International Court of Justice has ordered Russia to halt the invasion; the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has initiated proceedings to investigate possible war crimes in Ukraine. The international solitude of Putin’s Russia is almost total.
For some, the fact that the UN has not done more is a further demonstration that it is a dead organization. I will try to answer this objection. The purpose of the United Nations (the UN system) is not to be the big world power that centralizes and decides everything; much less is its purpose to have an army of intervention. The United Nations Charter legitimizes a military intervention if the Security Council approves it. Of course, this could not have happened with Russia in the Council. Still, a Security Council resolution would have legitimized the intervention of a third country or bloc of countries. Is it not even more legitimizing that the General Assembly has overwhelmingly condemned Russia’s intervention? The General Assembly vote on the statement of condemnation were: 141 in favor of censure, 5 against (Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, Russia, and Syria), and 35 abstentions. An armed intervention would have been more than internationally legitimized by the Assembly resolution, but what would have been the result? Perhaps we would now be in World War III.
The legitimizing or delegitimizing power of the United Nations is still enormous. Certainly, there are many things to change in the functioning of the UN, but there is no organization that, today, can replace it. The UN is not only the Security Council or the General Assembly; it is, above all, the web of many international organizations that make up the United Nations System; it is the Economic and Social Council; the Secretary-General and the thousands of NGOs and Faith-Based Organizations that are part of the so-called “Third UN”. The UN has been discredited for its multilateralist zeal; I have never understood this criticism. The UN does not seek to be a government or a world parliament. The UN aims to be an organization where constructive dialogue, among the diverse, is possible and where to build, together, a better world that can avoid war. Thousands of workers and soldiers from different countries (blue helmets) are working to maintain, build or rebuild peace around the world under the blue flag of the UN.
Looking ahead to the future
It is not clear how the international order will be shaped in the coming decades, but the solution to humanity’s problems will not come through arms or the imposition of some countries over others. We cannot be naïve and think, as Europe may have thought until recently, that the deterrent power of the army was not necessary. Unfortunately, the reality is stubborn, and funds will be allocated to weapons when they should be devoted to Sustainable Development, health, and Global Warming. But we cannot be satisfied with this situation. Organizations such as the UN renewed and strengthened, is today more necessary than ever. We cannot divest ourselves of the few meeting places and humanity’s legal and moral legitimacy.
Faith-based organizations and religions must strengthen our presence in international forums. Our principles are not weapons of war; they are based on dialogue, respect for the human being, and mutual rapprochement; that is, on multilateralism well understood. It is the path to a solution for our world, even if everything looks foggy now. We must help build this new international world, or can we only speak of the political commitment of Christians when we speak of local or national politics? In the construction of the European Union, we have the examples of Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi, Konrad Adenauer, and Jean Monnet.
Miguel Angel Velasco cmf
UNITAR. MA. Development Studies & Diplomacy