Politics, World

1 year into Ukraine war, how has UN used its tools?

While UN's political arms have been largely trapped in empty arguments about war, UN has played important role in humanitarian diplomacy with Türkiye’s support in shaping grain deal, says UN expert

Betul Yuruk  | 23.02.2023 - Update : 24.02.2023
1 year into Ukraine war, how has UN used its tools?


As the war in Ukraine approaches its first anniversary with no end in sight, the veto power in the UN's most powerful body – the Security Council – has become a tool for political deadlock once again since one of its permanent members, Russia, is the aggressor itself this time, while the UN secretary-general has played an important role in humanitarian diplomacy around the war with the support of Türkiye.

There were dozens of meetings and discussions at the UN Security Council over the war in Ukraine ending in disagreements.

Since the war began last Feb. 24, "the Security Council has basically just been political theater," Richard Gowan, the UN director at the International Crisis Group, told Anadolu.

"It has offered Ukraine a space where the Ukrainians have been able to challenge the Russians face to face. And I think the US and its allies have always just seen the council as a place to maximize public criticism of Russia."

The first initiative demanding that Moscow immediately stop its attack on Ukraine and withdraw all its troops failed on Feb. 26, 2022 when Russia vetoed a resolution drafted by Albania and the US. Russia's close ally China and two of the elected members of the Security Council, India, and the United Arab Emirates, abstained.

Russia also blocked a resolution on Sept. 30, 2022 that would have condemned its "illegal" referendums in four Ukrainian regions, with China, India, Brazil, and Gabon abstaining.

"Russia as responded by using the Council to spread allegations about US biolabs in Ukraine. This hasn't been, sort of, real diplomacy. It's been basically public performances for social media and global media," he said.

"We had seen the same thing happening over Ukraine in 2014 and tragically happening over Syria and other cases in recent years," he added.

Russia submitted two resolutions on the humanitarian situation and on "military biological activities" in Ukraine, but both failed to be adopted as there was not enough support.

Russia isolated in UN General Assembly

Weary of the gridlock over Ukraine in the Security Council, member states turned to the 193-member General Assembly to put pressure on Russia and adopted a resolution overwhelmingly condemning the Russian aggression with 141 nations voting in favor on March 2, 2022.

"I think the General Assembly is actually a slightly more important story, because the big question before the 24th of February was would non-Western countries stand by Ukraine?" Gowan said.

"The General Assembly is important, less because of the substance of its resolutions but more because of the votes in the General Assembly as part of their tests of international public opinion about the world."

Russia found itself further isolated in the international community when the General Assembly adopted another resolution only a little over three weeks after the first vote, on March 24, demanding humanitarian access and civilian protection, with 140 nations voting in favor this time.

The UN body also adopted three other resolutions removing Russia from the Geneva-based Human Rights Council on April 7, 2022, condemning Russia's "illegal annexation" of four Ukrainian regions on Oct. 12 and calling for the establishment of "an international mechanism for reparation for damage, loss or injury" in Ukraine on Nov. 14.

Gowan said the General Assembly has been an important mechanism for delegitimizing Russia's narrative about the war, adding that "some really big non-Western members of the General Assembly like China and India have avoided taking sides."

"The Ukrainians and allies have used the General Assembly smartly to shape international narratives about who is wrong in this conflict," he added.

Ukraine has repeatedly called for the expulsion of Russia from the United Nations, accusing it of being a "terrorist state." A member state can be expelled from the UN by the General Assembly at the recommendation of the Security Council, but this has never happened in the history of the organization.

Humanitarian diplomacy

When UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made a direct plea to Russian President Vladimir Putin saying that "in the name of humanity, bring your troops back to Russia," his call fell on deaf ears. But he has played an important role in humanitarian diplomacy around the war in shaping the grain deal with the support of Türkiye, according to Gowan.

"While the political arms of the UN have been largely trapped in empty arguments about the war, Guterres has made some real concrete contributions to limiting the damage of the conflict," he said.

Türkiye, the UN, Russia and Ukraine signed a landmark deal on July 22, 2022 to reopen three Ukrainian ports – Odesa, Chornomorsk, and Yuzhny – for grain that had been stuck for months due to the war in order to prevent a global food crisis.

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