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What criticism about the UN and Ukraine misses

Members of teh United Nations from the United Kingdom, United States and Albania sit side by side.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File
UN Security Council members, left to right: Britain’s UN Ambassador Barbara Woodward, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and Albania’s UN Ambassador Ferit Hoxha, applaud in the United Nations Security Council, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. Two days into Russia’s attack on Ukraine, a majority of U.N. Security Council members voted to demand that Moscow withdraw. But one thing stood in their way: a veto by Russia itself. Proposals to change the council’s structure or rein in the use of vetoes have sputtered for years. But this time, a new approach appears to be gaining some traction.

Similar to past major global conflicts, the Ukraine crisis has sparked criticism of the United Nations. To some, if the U.N.’s central mandate is to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” then the war in Ukraine means the U.N. has failed. While understandable, this criticism obscures the real successes of the U.N.’s peace and security work over time, the U.N.’s humanitarian efforts in and around Ukraine and the significance of the world condemning Russia’s actions within the U.N. General Assembly. 

Much of the recent criticism centers around the structure of the U.N. Security Council, which grants each of the council’s five “permanent members”  veto power. This provision, put forward by the U.S. and the Soviet Union after World War II, means it’s exceedingly difficult  to prevent powerful states from using force when they see fit. For example, the Security Council could not stop the U.S. decision to invade Iraq in 2003, widely viewed as violating the U.N. Charter. Nor could the Security Council take meaningful action against Syria because of the Russian veto, a situation being repeated now, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky understandably denounced in his April 5 council speech.   

There has been recent progress in the General Assembly. One, Liechtenstein just led a resolution that raises the cost of exercising a veto, by requiring a permanent five-member to justify their vote. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield called it a “significant step toward the accountability, transparency and responsibility” of countries with veto power. 

Two, earlier in April, and for the first time, U.N. Member States kicked out a permanent member of the Security Council — Russia — from a U.N. body, the Human Rights Council. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Thomas-Greenfield led that charge, which had also been encouraged by a bipartisan group of senators. While Russia “blatantly” threatened countries who might vote for their removal, 93 countries supported the resolution. 

Three, in March, 141 countries voted for the full withdrawal of Russian forces, most citing Russia’s violation of the U.N. Charter, which provided an “irrefutable legal standard of aggression around which to rally international support.” President Zelensky hailed the outcome saying, “The world is with us.”   

Similarly, on March 4, the Human Rights Council passed a Ukraine-sponsored resolution to establish a Commission of Inquiry (COI) to investigate human rights violations and war crimes. The vote was 32 to 2. Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador warned Russia, “The evidence is going to be collected; you are going to be identified, and you are going to be held to account.”   

More broadly, the gut-wrenching images from Ukraine raise understandable doubts about the U.N.’s ability to stop the conflict. Yet the organization has been quite effective at preventing wars throughout its history. One landmark study — which analyzed more than 65 years of General Assembly voting records — showed how the U.N. has fostered trust between countries and facilitated fast, transparent communication that repeatedly resulted in settling disputes peacefully. Furthermore, the U.N. — via its peacekeeping operations — has been “astonishingly successful” at stopping conflicts, with decades of research showing peacekeeping “works better than anything else experts know.”    

Consider too, the U.N.’s presence in Ukraine, where more than 1,200 staff are on the ground, helping those in need. The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has been providing core relief items such as emergency shelters. UNICEF has delivered more than 1,000 tons of supplies, while the World Health Organization, UNFPA and partners are providing emergency health, midwifery and surgery kits for hundreds of thousands of people. The World Food Program is scaling up to reach 6 million people, with part of that aid possible because of U.S. support. Plus, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights is deploying dozens of U.N. monitors to gather information on war crimes, while the International Atomic Energy Agency just had inspectors install new monitoring equipment at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Looking ahead, if a resolution can be reached, the U.N. and other international institutions will almost certainly play a key role in containing the conflict and determining a settlement.   

The U.N. isn’t the only entity operating in Ukraine, of course. The work of thousands of courageous humanitarians, and local officials, in and around Ukraine reminds us that there is goodness in the world — a counter to the hell on earth we see in the images from Bucha, Kramatorsk, and Mariupol. Much more needs to be done to end the unconscionable suffering in Ukraine but the United Nations is part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Jordie Hannum is the executive director of the Better World Campaign, an organization that works to strengthen the relationship between the United States and the United Nations.

Tags Linda Thomas-Greenfield Russo-Ukrainian War United Nations United Nations Human Rights Council Volodymyr Zelensky

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