UNITED NATIONS, Feb 20 (IPS) – Crippled by its own charter and structure, the world organization tasked with preventing war faces an existential challenge from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
When the permanent member of the Security Council, Russia, sent its troops to a smaller neighbor that defied the UN Charter and all norms of international relations a year ago next Friday, Antonio Guterres, “This is the saddest moment of my time as the UN Secretary General”.
Beyond the sorrow of the betrayal and the pain inflicted on nations around the world, especially the poorest, the war is driving at the very foundation of the United Nations that was built nearly 78 years ago.
Guterres warned this month, “I fear the world is not sleepwalking into a major war, I fear it is doing so with eyes wide open”.
And the invasion has raised questions about the UN’s resolve “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” as the first sentence of its charter declares.
Yet the charter itself has crippled the UN by giving permanent members veto powers in the Security Council, who alone can act. Russia’s veto has stuck the council in a morass of inaction and renewed calls for reform.
General Assembly President Csaba Korosi described the situation, saying: “The Security Council – the main guarantor of international peace and security – has remained blocked, unable to fully carry out its mandate”.
“Growing numbers are now calling for its reform,” he said, noting that at the assembly’s high-level week in September, “a third of world leaders underlined the urgent need to reform the council — more than twice as many as in 2021.”
Although the reform process — in which India has a vested interest as an aspirant for a permanent seat — which has itself been stymied for nearly two decades has come to the fore, it is not likely to happen any time soon.
But the General Assembly, which does not have the executive powers of the Council, has used the imbroglio to set a precedent that compels permanent members, when they use their veto, to confront it and explain their actions.
Russia appeared before the assembly to answer for its vetoes while facing a barrage of criticism.
The Assembly also revived a rarely used measure under the 1950 Uniting for Peace resolution to call an emergency special session when the Council fails in its primary duty to maintain peace and security.
It adopted a resolution in March demanding that Russia “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders”.
It received 141 votes – getting more than two-thirds of the 193 votes required for it – while India was among the 35 countries that abstained. This, like the subsequent three passed last year, was ultimately just an exercise in moral authority with no means to enforce it.
A proposal put forward by Mexico and France in 2015 calling on permanent members to refrain from using their vetoes on matters involving them has also been given another airing – but to no avail.
India, which was a member of the council last year, found itself in the middle of polarization at the UN, both in the council and the assembly, because of its dependence on Russian weapons and the support it had received at crucial times in security. advice from its predecessor the Soviet Union.
India abstained at least 11 times on substantive resolutions relating to Ukraine in both chambers of the UN, including resolutions at the Council sponsored by Moscow.
India faced enormous pressure from the West to join the vote on resolutions against Russia and openly take a definitive stand condemning Moscow.
Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar told the Security Council in September: “As the conflict in Ukraine continues to rage, we are often asked whose side we are on. And our answer, every time, is straight and honest. India is on the side of peace and will remain there”.
And while maintaining the appearance of neutrality during the vote, India came closest to taking a stand in support of Ukraine – and by implication Russia – when he said: “We are on the side that respects the UN Charter and its founding principles”.
Now outside the council, New Delhi’s profile has been lowered and it also doesn’t have to publicly display its tight-rope walk as often, although it may still have to do so again this week when the assembly is likely to have a resolution around the anniversary of the invasion.
The pain of the invasion is felt far beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Guterres said: “The Russian invasion of Ukraine is inflicting untold suffering on the Ukrainian people, with profound global consequences”.
The aftermath of the war has set back the UN’s omnibus development goals.
More immediately, several countries were on the brink of famine and the specter of hunger still haunts the world due to lack of agricultural input, while many countries, including many developed countries, are facing serious energy and economic problems.
The war cut off food grain exports from Ukraine and limited exports from Russia, the two countries that have become the world’s food baskets.
In addition to depriving many countries of food grain, the shortage raised global prices.
The only victory for the UN has been the Black Sea agreement reached with Russia, Ukraine and Turkey in July to allow safe passage for ships carrying food grains from Ukrainian ports.
Guterres’ spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that in about 1,500 voyages by ship so far, “more than 21.3 million tonnes of grain and food products have been moved so far under the initiative, helping to bring down global food prices and stabilize markets”.
A UN outfit, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has also stepped up during the war, working to protect nuclear facilities in Ukraine that were occupied by Russian forces while shelling them around.
It said it has managed to station teams of safety and security experts at Ukraine’s nuclear power plants and at Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 disaster “to help reduce the risk of a serious nuclear accident during the ongoing conflict in the country”.
Arul Louis is a New York-based non-resident senior fellow with the New Delhi-based think tank Society for Policy Studies.
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