Can the United Nations survive the war in Ukraine?

May 1, 2022 by Ben Cohen
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A recent letter delivered to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres by 200 former senior U.N. officials included a bleak warning regarding the consequences should diplomacy fail to end Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on Nov. 24, 2016. Credit: Kremlin, Presidential Press and Information Office via Wikimedia Commons

Such an outcome would mean that “the U.N. becoming increasingly irrelevant and, eventually, succumbing to the fate of its predecessor, the League of Nations, with the human losses and material destruction that went with it,” the letter declared.

On the surface at least, the United Nations has been more resilient than the ill-fated League. To begin with, all the major world powers are members of the United Nations and its Security Council, whereas the League, created after World War I, was distinguished by the absence of U.S. participation (much to the chagrin of then-President Woodrow Wilson), as well as the exclusion of Germany and the Soviet Union from its ranks in its early years. By the time the world stood on the cusp of global conflict following the Nazi seizure of the Sudetenland in 1938, the League had become an irrelevance.

Yet what the authors of the letter to Guterres didn’t mention is that one of the last acts of the League of Nations was to expel the Soviet Union, which was finally admitted in 1934, in 1939, following its invasion of Finland in December of that year. Not surprisingly, historians have understood this particular episode as the desperate measure of a shrinking organization to claw back credibility that had evaporated much earlier. Nevertheless, the historical fact remains; the Soviet Union is still the only state to have been expelled outright from a global organization dedicated to maintaining international peace and security.

Although South Africa’s U.N. membership was suspended in 1974 after the General Assembly declared apartheid to be a crime, no U.N. member state has ever been expelled for aggression and systemic human rights violations that are frequently on a par with, or worse than, the Soviet invasion of Finland. Indeed, perhaps the greatest indictment of the United Nations is that the most isolated of its member states has been Israel. Since the mid-1970s especially, Israel has become the focus of a cluster of political committees and agencies within the U.N. structure that function as platforms for the most immovable, unreasonable Palestinian demands, including the so-called “right of return”—a call for the descendants of the original 700,000 Arab refugees from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence to “return” en masse to a country they have never even seen.

This fixation upon alleged Israeli wrongdoings is the flip side of the world body’s tolerance for, and indulgence of, dictatorial and authoritarian regimes. And yet, every so often, a crisis comes along that reminds us of why the United Nations was created in 1945, along with the hopes it embodied. Ukraine is one such example.

Guterres visited Moscow and Kyiv within the last week on his first mission to the region since the Russian invasion in late February. Until that point, he had taken a relatively cautious position, as U.N. chiefs tend to do when faced with grave international conflicts. His decision to fly to Moscow first, where he, too, sat at the opposite end of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s enormously elongated white table, sparked the ire of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who stated that Kyiv, the capital of the victim nation, should have been Guterres’s first port of call.

Yet Guterres spoke reassuringly during his visit, pointing to the key issues facing the United Nations in this war—from the violation of its charter to the creation of humanitarian corridors that would allow residents of besieged cities and towns to flee to relative safety. On a visit to Bucha, where Russian forces carried out grotesque human-rights violations during a month-long occupation there, Guterres said that he “imagined my family in one of those houses that is now destroyed and black. I see my granddaughters running away in panic.” Then he added simply: “The war is evil.”

If such a response doesn’t seem like a big deal but the natural reaction of a responsible leader to reports of atrocities, it’s worth recalling the statement of a previous U.N. Secretary-General in a similar situation. Arriving in Sarajevo, the besieged capital of Bosnia, in December 1992, Boutros Boutros-Ghali brusquely told its hungry and freezing residents that he could think of 10 places around the world where conditions were worse. That insult was never forgotten.

As well as empathizing with the Ukrainians’ plight, Guterres also spoke plainly when in Moscow. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a violation of its territorial integrity and against the Charter of the United Nations,” he said, a rare example of a U.N. statement with no ambiguities at all. Standing alongside a frowning Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, Guterres offered another pithily worded summary of the problem: “We have not Ukrainian troops in the territory of the Russian Federation, but we have Russian troops in the territory of [Ukraine].”

As Guterres acknowledged in an interview with CNN, the United Nations is not in a position to bring peace to Ukraine; only Russia can do that, by withdrawing its troops. Encouragingly, neither did Guterres advocate endless rounds of meetings as hostilities become more entrenched on the ground, suggesting that the United Nations would only be able to play a peacebuilding role after the war had definitively ended. He said he had told Putin “the same things I say in New York … which means that the Russian invasion is against the charter of the United Nations, is a violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine and that this war must end as quickly as possible.”

Yet it is hard to see where Guterres’s honest appraisal of Russia’s invasion and its impact on Ukraine and the world more broadly will lead. Russia isn’t any old aggressor, but a member of the U.N. Security Council armed with nuclear weapons that its leaders have invoked on more than one occasion in the last two months. The split within the world body between those states with liberal democratic orders (Israel being one of them) and states for whom the value of sovereignty lies in the principle of non-interference (thus enabling them to persecute their own populations without sanction) is the organization’s most enduring. If the response of democratic nations to the Russian invasion is to promote a rules-based world order—the success of which requires all governments to treat both their subject populations and their external borders with solemn respect—then it begs the question of how useful the United Nations can be as long as Moscow exercises a power of veto.

The United Nations won’t follow the example of the League of Nations by expelling Russia. But democratic member states can—and should—take all necessary measures to isolate Russia within its ranks and to expose it as the pariah state it is. Beyond that, the debate about how to establish a rules-based world order that actually works—a debate that also took place in 1919, 1945 and 1989—is still hanging.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.


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