On the 22nd of July, the Initiative on the Safe Transportation of Grain and Foodstuffs from Ukrainian Ports was signed in Istanbul in the presence of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Since the beginning of the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine, the United Nations has reacted through its institutional bodies, seeking to add to European efforts to mitigate the effects of the war. Above all, the United Nations represents the highest institutional embodiment of the principles of international order. Its reaction so far is illustrative of global efforts to protect sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as to deliver an appropriate humanitarian response to a regional crisis with global security and economic consequences. Whether the UN can adapt its response to its own structural limitations is thus a challenge which is not only related to the war in Ukraine, but rather to the future of international relations more broadly.
The structural limitations of the United Nations Security Council
With Russia presiding over the UNSC at the beginning of the war, the initial meeting of the UNSC on the 21st of February 2022 became one additional fora where the viciousness of positions between Ukraine and Russia was reiterated. Exchanges between the two countries’ representatives involving the situation on the ground pushed the UN to adapt its response to the context with which it was faced: the aggression of Russia and its ability to block any possible resolution condemning this act of aggression. On the 25th of February, with Russia vetoing a UNSC resolution proposed by the United States and Albania to condemn the war in Ukraine, the UN Security Council has sought to address its own institutional limitations in situations where the national interests of one of its Permanent Members – in this case Russia – have clashed with the broader principles of maintaining peace and security that this body is responsible to protect. Thus, on the 27th of February, a vote was held in the UNSC that called on the General Assembly to hold an emergency meeting to address the crisis in Ukraine. Such actions have been very rare in the history of the United Nations, with the UN General Assembly only meeting for the 11th time in its history in an emergency session to address the situation in Ukraine.
The response of the United Nations General Assembly
In this rare procedural action taken by the United Nations, the Eleventh Emergency Special session of the UNGA, the General Assembly expressed ‘grave concern at reports of attacks on civilian facilities such as residences, schools and hospitals, and of civilian casualties, including women, older persons, persons with disabilities, and children’ and most importantly drew attention to the fact that ‘the military operations of the Russian Federation inside the sovereign territory of Ukraine are on a scale that the international community has not seen in Europe in decades and that urgent action is needed.’ Following this meeting, a vote was held in the General Assembly on the 2nd of March, on the resolution calling on Russia to ‘immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.’ Among the member states of the UNGA, 141 countries voted in favour with 5 votes against from Russia itself, Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea and Syria and 35 abstentions, with long-standing ally China refusing to take a clear stance against the invasion.
With the escalation on the ground throughout March, the pressure on the UN to provide a political and humanitarian response to the war in Ukraine continued building up. On the 23rd of March, in the 8th Plenary Session of the 11th Emergency Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, two competing resolutions addressing the humanitarian situation in Ukraine have been proposed. The UNGA failed to adopt a resolution proposed by South Africa and supported by Russia – Humanitarian situation emanating out of the conflict in Ukraine (A/ES-11/L.3) –and instead adopted the resolution Humanitarian consequences of the aggression against Ukraine (A/ES-11/L.2), ‘recognizing that the military offensive of the Russian Federation inside the sovereign territory of Ukraine and its humanitarian consequences are on a scale that the international community has not seen in Europe in decades,’,and called on the Russian Federation to stop its military offensive, as well as on the UN member states to support the humanitarian efforts of the United Nations and the coordination role of the United Nations Secretary General.
The humanitarian efforts of the United Nations Secretary General
With the signing of the Black Sea Grain Initiative between the UN, Turkey, and Ukraine, as well as between the UN, Turkey and Russia, regarding the shipment through the Black Sea of grain and fertilizers from the two countries, the humanitarian efforts conducted by the Secretary General and his team from the beginning of April became public. Indeed it should be noted that the Secretary General’s response to the war in Ukraine has been consistent since the beginning of this crisis. Condemning the Russian Military operation on the sovereign territory of Ukraine, the UNSG Antonio Guterres stressed that such unilateral actions are in direct opposition to the UN Charter, as the ‘use of force by one country against another is the repudiation of the principles that every country has committed to uphold’. The Secretary General has, since the beginning of the war, called for de-escalation, pointing out the immense toll of human suffering and loss of life in Ukraine, and stressing the need to accelerate negotiations towards peace. In April, the UNSG visited both Russia and Ukraine. Though the visit was surrounded by criticism regarding the decision to first visit Moscow, as well as being overshadowed by Russia’s attack on Kiev during the Secretary General’s talks with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, it managed to achieve the evacuation of civilians from the Azovstal Steel Plant in Mariupol.
During this engagement, the UNSG also visited Turkey, now a signatory and guarantor to the Black Sea Grain Initiative negotiated with Ukraine and Russia. The deal that has been signed with Ukraine – the only one out of the two that is currently public – ensures the safe passing of ships carrying grain from the Ukrainian ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk and Yuzhnyi through the Black Sea to Istanbul, where inspectors from the UN, Turkey, Ukraine and Russia ensure, under the conditions of the newly-founded Joint Coordination Centre (JCC), that these ships are only carrying the specified products, allowing them to continue sailing towards other destinations. Despite the Russian attack on the port of Odesa a day after the signing ceremony, this deal has so far been kept, allowing the first ships carrying Ukrainian grain to sail through the Black Sea.
It is now clear that any small successes that the United Nations might achieve in mediating in this war depend not only on the efforts of the Secretary General – that has to mediate both the divisions in the UN Security Council, and the competition in the UN General Assembly – but also on the support of regional powers such as Turkey and neighbouring countries that are instrumental in the implementation of these diplomatic efforts, as well as in aiding with the humanitarian efforts. Indeed, on the ground in Romania, the Republic of Moldova and Poland, the increased presence of the United Nations through its plethora of humanitarian organizations such as the UNHCR and UNICEF has been particularly important in coordinating the response to the refugee crisis that the Ukraine war has generated. After six months of conflict, when such efforts to end the war in Ukraine are, at best, ad-hoc negotiations and disparate initiatives by various members of the UN to play the role of leading mediator, when a ceasefire remains elusive and when new issues such as the safety of the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia surface, the continued engagement of the UN Secretary General in bringing the parties together – be it only to resolve specific dossiers as suggested by the SG’s recent visit to Ukraine – can make a great difference in alleviating the suffering of civilians caught up in this war, but most importantly can provide a response to the broader economic and security implications that this conflict has created globally.