UN remains relevant despite Ukraine difficulties

UN remains relevant despite Ukraine difficulties

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, left, attends a news conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on A
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, left, attends a news conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on A
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Western countries and corporations’ unexpectedly strong rebuke of Russia following its invasion of Ukraine has surprised many, but now, two months into the conflict, the UN is facing growing criticism of its multilateral efforts to secure peace.

To date, more than 30 countries representing more than 50 percent of the global economy have levied sanctions against Moscow. Moreover, some 500 corporations have ended or reduced their business ties with Russia by withdrawing, suspending, scaling back or buying time by postponing planned investment, development or marketing while continuing substantive business.

Meanwhile, the UN has taken a wide range of actions since Russia’s invasion began in February. The General Assembly has voted to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. The world body has also provided assistance to some 2.5 million people in Ukraine, including 218 tons of emergency and medical supplies. Moreover, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited Moscow on Tuesday to meet President Vladimir Putin.

However, UN agencies are struggling to reach civilians under siege in the east of Ukraine, where humanitarian assistance is sporadic. According to the UN itself, more than 12 million people in Ukraine need humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council, in which Russia is one of five permanent members with veto power, has failed to pass any resolutions condemning the war.

This has fueled criticism, including from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has called for Russia to be expelled from the Security Council. He has also said “we have to develop a new tool” that is capable of better maintaining peace in the future.

Created in 1945 with the ambition of guaranteeing peace and preventing another world war, the UN confers high influence on the five permanent, veto-wielding members of the Security Council — the US, Russia, China, UK and France. For instance, Moscow has, since 2011, exercised its veto 16 times in votes regarding its ally Syria. And this veto power also guarantees that Moscow can never be removed from the council, since the UN Charter only allows the General Assembly to exclude a member on the recommendation of the Security Council.

This structural issue underlines why it is so hard for the UN to get on the front foot in Ukraine, but there are also wider issues, including the many non-Western states that have refused to condemn Russia. Take the example of key emerging markets such as Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro has said that his country “will not take sides,” while Indian leaders have reaffirmed a policy of nonalignment and South Africa has followed a similar path.

The last few years have underlined that the organization continues to have significant resilience and legitimacy

Andrew Hammond

For many countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, such nonalignment has significant appeal. A large number of countries heavily depend on trade, aid, investment and weaponry from both Western powers and China, if not also from Russia.

Yet, while nonalignment may suit many states, it makes the job of ensuring international security harder. Reluctance to take sides in such a clear case of aggression can weaken international norms and undermine global security.

At this stage, many members of the approximately 120-strong so-called Non-Aligned Movement have condemned the Russian attack. But only one, Singapore, has imposed sanctions. This makes it easier for Russia to sustain its military campaign.

This is a massive headache for the UN. But while the international body is much criticized, sometimes fairly, the last few years have underlined that it continues to have significant resilience and legitimacy more than three-quarters of a century after its creation.

Indeed, one of the few potential silver linings of the coronavirus pandemic is that it has shown yet again how global challenges are best tackled through coordinated international action, often led by the UN. And despite the decay of the post-1945 world order, the remaining dense web of postwar international institutions, with the UN at its heart, continues to have major relevance.

Going forward, a fundamental driver of whether the UN will thrive, not just survive, well into the 21st century may rest less with Russia and more with the direction of the relationship between China and the US — the two most powerful members of the UNSC. They seem all set for a growing bilateral rivalry and what some view as a new cold war, which could see international cooperation erode and military tensions increase.

However, the China-US relationship may yet contain unexpected potential for a fruitful partnership at the UN and beyond. Such cooperation is more likely if stronger partnerships can be embedded on issues like climate change, as was the case during the Obama presidency, which may then potentially enable more effective ways of resolving hard power disputes, from trade to the military tensions in the South China Sea.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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