Not long ago, any ordinary crisis worked its way through the United Nations with some predictability: A meeting of the Security Council was announced. Official briefings took place and predictable speeches were made. A resolution may or may not have been passed, or a presidential statement issued. Not a lot of global media reported on these events.
Then, Ukraine was invaded by a revanchist neighbor, Russia, with its military might and power. The geopolitical fallout was quick and clear. Within four days of the launch on February 24 of Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation,” the Security Council, stymied by Russian opposition, moved the case to the General Assembly, only the 11th time this has been done since the founding of the UN, according to the organization’s records. it was an extraordinary move.
The General Assembly has no vetoes or enforcement power, but resolutions that followed there in February and March gave small countries a chance to demonstrate in their votes how vulnerable they apparently perceived themselves to be to interference by larger neighbors. In the 193-member Assembly, 141 of the governments backed a strongly worded condemnation of what became known as “Putin’s war.” Was this a vote against Russia or against great-power hegemony? A parsing of the votes cast in the General Assembly provides evidence.
Russia could find only four supporters to vote against the condemnation in addition to its own “No” vote: Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, and Syria. Not backing Russia, China chose to abstain, while India broke with dozens of democracies and also refused to condemn the Russian invasion. Noteworthy was that the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi failed to bring along its smaller South Asian regional neighbors, familiar with New Delhi’s bullying.
Bhutan, Nepal, and the Maldives voted to condemn Russia. The current president of the General Assembly, Abdulla Shahid, is a former Maldivian foreign minister. Similarly, in Southeast Asia, where India was trying to build influence, a majority of governments also voted “Yes” on condemnation. In the Caribbean and Pacific regions, a majority of small states also backed the condemnation of Russia.
Putin continues to hold high ratings among Russians, with tight media control. But it was soon apparent that he had lost the international media war, hands down. Unfettered reporters, foreign and Ukrainian, swarm Ukraine with high-tech equipment, assisted by Ukrainians savvy about drones, mobile phones, and interactive Internet connections. Countless in local towns and cities and among refugees crossing borders with Ukrainian nations dramatic accounts of their own experiences as well as what they have heard from others.
On April 5, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, an experienced actor but no less a courageous hero to many around the world, brought the crisis home to the UN in an impassioned address from Kyiv to a packed Security Council chamber. He dwelt on the now-documented atrocities against Ukrainian civilians by Russian troops.
“We are dealing with a state that is turning the veto of the United Nations Security Council into the right to die,” Zelensky he said. He didn’t stop there. He moved on to blame the UN of institutional weakness in the face of a monumental crisis, adding, “If it continues, countries rely not on international law or global institutions to ensure security but rather on the power of their own arms.”
Zelensky had segued into the broader need for UN reform, but not in the timeworn way it has been discussed for decades. In his terms, this wasn’t about adding or rearranging chairs but rather an existential challenge to the organization. After overcoming a UN technical glitch, he screened a horrific video from Bucha, near Kyiv, a site of Russian atrocities. TV watchers around the world are seeing some of the same footage.
They are also hearing a lot about a revival of active American involvement in the European Union and NATO, which Donald Trump wanted to constrain.
If the UN is to be accused fairly of not being effectively or even adequately responsive, there is truth to the accusation. The latest two secretaries general, Ban Ki-moon (2007–17) and António Guterres (2017–present) have taken the UN out of the limelight, reversing open-door policies instituted by the late Secretary General Kofi Annan (1997–2007) and imposing largely unwritten rules of secrecy and message control. Public relations companies have gained a foothold where insider communicators once dealt more cooperatively with the media and civil society.
Civil society and nongovernmental groups of all kinds, from think tanks to human rights organizations, and humanitarian and legal assistance groups often produce more innovative ideas than UN offices and agencies. They are often funded, however, by philanthropists with their own agendas, a story Defex, the source of important development trends, observes.
Yet society has a role to play now in monitoring the humanitarian impact of civil tightening sanctions and the proposals demanding war crimes trials, to ensure that they adhere to international law. The United States signed the 1998 Rome Statute, the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, but has not ratified it. The court is a freestanding creation of governments, not an integral part of the UN. Though the US did not ratify the statute, it has (and uses) observer status. Making sure the US aligns itself with the Rome Statute is an urgent project for civil society now.
On Thursday, April 7, the General Assembly used its designated power to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council over atrocities committed against Ukrainian civilians, a move sought by the United States. The vote was 93-24, with 58 abstentions. The Assembly remains at the center of UN action.