Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine has revived demands that the world repair longstanding weaknesses in the United Nations’ ability to counter wars of aggression. This week’s Russia-Ukraine diplomacy by the U.N. secretary-general, and a surprising vote at the U.N. General Assembly, seem likely to energize those debates and attempts at repair. This week’s events reflect how the rare moral clarity of this bloodshed is forcing people and governments to consider how to strengthen our flawed international system of laws and institutions to prevent such wars of aggression, which the Nuremberg tribunal in 1946 judged “the supreme international crime.”

A Ukrainian family rescues belongings from their home, shattered by one of several Russian missiles that struck Kyiv as U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited the city and held talks with the government. (David Guttenfelder/The New York Times)
A Ukrainian family rescues belongings from their home, shattered by one of several Russian missiles that struck Kyiv as U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited the city and held talks with the government. (David Guttenfelder/The New York Times)

In the shadow of the prima facie evidence of widespread, and continuing, Russian war crimes, it remains unclear whether U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s much-debated visit to Moscow this week will move Russia to even the most basic observance of international laws. Guterres said Tuesday that President Vladimir Putin agreed “in principle” to let the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross open a humanitarian corridor for Ukrainian civilians to escape trauma and death in the Russian-shattered-and-besieged city of Mariupol. So far, Russian forces repeatedly have attacked evacuation routes being used by civilians.

As Guterres met Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv this week, U.N. and Russian officials still were negotiating terms for this new attempt to save civilians’ lives. Ukraine had voiced doubts about Guterres’ ability to moderate Russian behavior and Zelenskyy underscored that concern last night. He said Russia’s missile strikes on Kyiv, during Guterres’ visit, were an effort “to humiliate the U.N. and everything that [it] … represents.”

A Target for Reform: the U.N. Security Council

More broadly, Russia’s glaringly visible brutality against Ukrainians has energized decades-old demands by devotees of international justice and peace that the world’s governments repair long-acknowledged weaknesses in the world’s institutions for preventing and sanctioning wars of aggression. Central to that system is the U.N. Security Council. Its rules, written after World War II, afford five victors in that war — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — the power to veto any proposed U.N. action. These are the five permanent members of the Security Council, in which the 10 other seats have no veto power and are rotated among other U.N. member countries. Since 1946, U.N. library records show, the “permanent five” have used their veto power 262 times — in many cases to obstruct international challenges to their own actions, including military force. Human rights defenders note that the use or threat of a veto repeatedly has obstructed U.N. action to halt mass atrocities, as in Rwanda, Sudan’s Darfur region, Burma’s Rakhine State, Yemen and elsewhere.

It was Russia’s veto of a Security Council resolution in February that prevented the United Nations from taking concrete steps against it, such as globally binding economic sanctions. Ukraine and its allies managed a moral victory by gathering a rare consensus of 141 nations to condemn Russia’s attack, with only four countries joining Russia in opposing the declaration.

Zelenskyy voiced Ukraine’s frustration this month in a speech to the Security Council from his offices after reviewing the evidence of Russian atrocities — including civilians executed by gunshot — in the streets of the Kyiv suburb of Bucha. “How is this different from what the ISIS terrorists were doing?” Zelenskyy demanded. “Except that it is done by a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.” He pleaded: “The U.N. system must be reformed immediately so that the right of veto is not a right to kill.” The only logical alternative, he said, would be to concede the council’s irrelevance and “dissolve yourself altogether.”

Zelenskyy’s speech echoed the frustrations and demands of long-stagnant efforts to reform the Security Council. In one of many debates on the issue, last November, the representative of Guyana noted that the United Nations has pursued formal consideration of such reforms for 29 years.

A Small Advance, and Demands for More

The horrors of the current war are clearly what permitted a slight, and surprising, act of reform on Tuesday by the 193-member General Assembly, which mustered a sudden consensus to approve the most modest of reforms. Under a new rule, the General Assembly now will be able to summon any of the permanent five Security Council members to explain itself to a meeting of the assembly whenever it vetoes a resolution. Even this attempt to enforce greater scrutiny of vetoes is weakened by the fact that the assembly cannot force the vetoing nation to abide by the summons.

This small reform effort was launched two years ago by the tiny European state of Liechtenstein, but in recent days surprised analysts and officials with a sudden rush of support. The proposal accumulated 83 co-sponsoring states, including the United States, France and Britain.

In the nine weeks of this war, a clutch of scholars, diplomats and officials from Japan and other countries have underscored that Russia’s demonstrated ease in launching new warfare — attacking Ukraine on Thursday and vetoing a U.N. condemnation on Friday — is fueling demands for more concrete reforms. “The Russia-Ukraine war is forcing the world to acknowledge critical failings in how our international institutions operate,” a San Francisco-based international relations professor, Anthony Pahnke, wrote this month.

Those reform proposals include these:

  • An expansion of the Security Council to make it more representative. When the World War II victors created the United Nations in 1945, many of the world’s current nations did not exist. Nearly all of Africa and much of the Middle East and Asia lived under Western colonial rule, and the global south remains under-represented in the Security Council. Only 50 nations signed the United Nations Charter in 1945, while 193 are members of the organization today. Over years, repeated proposals have suggested expanding the Security Council to include states such as Brazil, Germany, India, Japan or South Africa. Guterres has endorsed the idea, noting last week that “it's important to enlarge the Security Council and to have a more equitable representation — particularly [for] the countries [in] Africa.” Zelenskyy this month urged an expansion “so that there is a fair representation of all regions of the world.”
  • A voluntary suspension of Security Council vetoes in cases of “mass atrocities.” France and Mexico launched an initiative in 2015 that seeks to persuade the permanent five Security Council members to commit not to cast vetoes that would block the council “from taking action with the aim of preventing or bringing an end to situations involving the commission of mass atrocities.” As of last November, France said, its proposal had formal support from 104 of the 193 U.N. member countries.
  • Creating a way to override Security Council vetoes. The Turkish former economy minister and U.N. official, Kemal Dervis, and Colombia’s former finance minister, Jose Antonio Ocampo, have proposed amending the U.N. Charter so that a “large double majority – representing, for example, at least two-thirds of member countries and two-thirds of the world’s population” could override a veto. They urged the U.S. government to use the current crisis as an opportunity to push such a change “to create a more equitable and inclusive multilateral system.” A variation of the idea would allow a veto with the combined approval of two-thirds of the General Assembly and four of the five existing permanent members of the Security Council.

Dervis and Ocampo underscored last month that rising risks to global stability are making reforms more urgent. “The fact that an increasingly illegitimate and ineffective Security Council lies at the heart of today’s multilateral system is all the more unfortunate given the growing range of threats to peace and security. These include not only conventional acts of aggression of the sort the world is witnessing in Ukraine – and which could yet escalate to nuclear exchanges – but also other security threats posed by new technologies,” they wrote.

No easy path to United Nations reform exists, as the decades of stalled reform efforts attest. The United Nations Charter has been amended only five times since 1946, and that step requires approval from two thirds of all U.N. member states, including all five permanent Security Council members. Still, crises such as the Russia-Ukraine war provide moments of opportunity to consolidate a global consensus that eventually may be applied to persuade Russia or other hesitant powers. The world’s democracies must sustain their immediate support to help Ukraine win its war in defense of its own existence, and of a world ruled by law instead of brute force. At the same time, they should commit themselves to specific reforms that in the longer term can repair the obvious weak spots in the international laws and institutions to prevent future such wars of aggression.

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