If ever there was a conflict in desperate need of intervention by the United Nations, Ukraine today is it. Unfortunately, the U.N. has been paralyzed, unable or unwilling to act.
In an impassioned speech to the U.N. Security Council on April 5, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy described recent atrocities committed by Russian troops near Kyiv: “They shot and killed women outside their houses. They killed entire families, adults and children, and they tried to burn the bodies … They cut off limbs, slashed throats, raped women in front of their children …”
President Zelenskyy went on to sharply criticize the U.N.’s ineffectiveness in halting Russia’s invasion, noting that: “It is obvious that the key institutions in the world cannot work effectively,” then asking: “Are you ready to close the U.N.?”
Unfortunately, since Zelenskyy’s extraordinary speech last month, the U.N. has remained paralyzed and Russian atrocities continue. This must end.
The first and foremost purpose of the U.N., as stated in Chapter I, Article 1 of the United Nations Charter is this: “To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace.”
But just as it ignored this responsibility in Syria years ago, the U.N. has tragically failed this responsibility in Ukraine today.
The Russian invasion has already claimed thousands of innocent civilian lives and driven more than 5 million Ukrainians from their homes, leading to a horrific humanitarian disaster across the region. The Russian military has committed vicious war crimes by intentionally targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure, committing torture and executions, and killing thousands of unarmed innocent civilians, including women and children. These cowardly, depraved acts are clearly war crimes, rising to the level of genocide.
For too long, Vladimir Putin’s belligerent imperialism has been treated by the U.N. with impunity, including in Syria, Georgia, Chechnya, Crimea and now Ukraine. Unless and until the U.N. honors its foundational responsibility of ensuring peace, in action and not just in word, Putin’s aggression will almost certainly continue. Other tyrants are certainly watching the U.N.’s paralysis in Ukraine.
The conventional wisdom of U.N. members has been that, absent a Security Council resolution to intervene in conflict, the U.N. lacks legal basis to do so. As it turns out, that is not so.
True, under current Security Council rules, any one of the five permanent members (U.S., Russia, China, U.K., France) has unilateral veto power over any resolution of the Security Council. Clearly, Russia and possibly its ally China would veto any Security Council resolution for substantive U.N. intervention in Ukraine. This procedural problem, in which one of the permanent five Security Council members could effectively block collective peacekeeping action by the entire United Nations, has long been recognized as a serious threat to global security.
Fortunately, years ago, the U.N. had anticipated just this situation, and provided a procedural remedy in such dire cases.
The 1950 U.N. General Assembly Resolution 377A – “Uniting for Peace” – gives the full General Assembly authority to overrule the Security Council if the Council fails its “primary responsibility” of maintaining peace. And on Ukraine, the Security Council has clearly failed.
The “Uniting for Peace” Resolution states: “… if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to Members for collective measures, including in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression the use of armed force when necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security.”
In instances where the Security Council fails to act, Resolution 377A provides the authority and obligation for member states via the U.N. General Assembly to intervene in and resolve international conflict.
The resolution provides for convening an Emergency Special Session of the General Assembly within 24 hours of a request by a majority of members, and the General Assembly acting collectively to intervene in conflict.
This is precisely what must happen now for Ukraine.
And beyond Resolution 377A, there is further global consensus for the international community’s “Responsibility to Protect” civilians suffering humanitarian disaster (https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/about-responsibility-to-protect.shtml). This principle, adopted by U.N. Member States in 2005, commits nations to the following: “… we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner … should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”
Given this clear procedural basis for U.N. intervention in conflict, U.S. Secretary of State Blinkin and U.N. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield must immediately secure consent from a majority of U.N. Member States to convene an Emergency Special Session of the U.N. General Assembly, and propose that the General Assembly agree to an immediate and robust U.N. military intervention to end the conflict.
This should include a substantial, well-armed, non-NATO, U.N. peacekeeping force on the ground in Ukraine. While NATO will not intervene militarily for fear of escalating the conflict, a non-NATO, U.N. peacekeeping force can and must. U.N. peacekeeping forces have been used for over 70 years to end conflicts around the world, including in Cambodia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mozambique, Namibia, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, Timor-Leste, Liberia, Haiti, Tajikistan and Kosovo. The U.N. currently has 90,000 peacekeeping troops deployed in 12 operations globally, but nowhere is the need, or difficulty, greater than Ukraine. And a U.N. peacekeeping force in Ukraine would entirely eliminate Putin’s fabricated pretext for the war, that it is supposedly “necessary for the protection of ethnic Russian residents” as, if that were necessary, then U.N. peacekeepers would be the proper, and only, force for such a mission.
And in the longer term, the U.N. must restructure the Security Council rules so that one nation, like Russia or China, cannot unilaterally veto collective global action that seeks to counter imperialism or militaristic aggression.
Finally, given current Russian atrocities in Ukraine, it would be entirely appropriate for the U.N. General Assembly to suspend the membership of Russia in the U.N. altogether, until such time that Russia ends its imperialistic ambitions in Ukraine and elsewhere, pays full reparations to Ukraine, relinquishes all illegally “annexed” and occupied areas, submits those responsible for war crimes to be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, and unequivocally agrees to never commit such aggression again.
For too long, the world community has turned a blind eye toward the sacrosanct role of the U.N. in ensuring world peace — its foundational responsibility.
Enough is enough. It is time for the U.N. General Assembly to do its job, convene in emergency special session, and commit to active military intervention with a peacekeeping force in Ukraine to bring an immediate and durable peace to this war-torn country.
Rick Steiner is an environmental advisor based in Anchorage, he was a professor with the University of Alaska, consulted for the U.N. and governments, worked extensively in Russia and former Soviet states, and has worked in active conflict zones.