At the heart of the Security Council’s inaction is its structure, established at the end of World War II, which gave veto rights on its actions to five powers — the United States, the Soviet Union (and its successor, Russia), China, Britain and France.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the threat of a Russian veto has thwarted the adoption of any legally binding council resolution or statement mentioning its aggression. By contrast, the 193-nation General Assembly — which doesn’t have vetoes — has adopted two resolutions that are not legally binding but reflect world opinion. They demand an immediate cease-fire in Ukraine, withdrawal of all Russian forces and protection for civilians.
While the Security Council has been hamstrung in making demands, it has played an important role along with the General Assembly and the Geneva-based Human Rights Council in being the only global forums where Russia, Ukraine, the United States and European nations sit in the same rooms and spar over the war.
That happened at the United Nations on Tuesday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, addressing the council for the first time via video, drew applause from many supporters on the 15-member council.
Zelenskyy was sharply critical of the failure of the Security Council to take any action to end Russia’s aggression.
He said the council can do two things: “Either remove Russia as an aggressor and a source of war so it cannot block decisions about its own aggression, its own war, and then do everything that we can do to establish peace. Or the other option is, please show how we can reform or change, dissolve yourself and work for peace.”
“Ukraine needs peace, Europe needs peace, and the world needs peace,” Zelenskyy said.
He said Ukraine is ready to host a global conference in a peaceful Kyiv “to determine how we are going to reform the world security system” because the goals set in 1945 that created the United Nations “have not been achieved, and it is impossible to achieve them without reforms.”
He said Ukraine is ready to host a main office for a “newly updated security system” that can specialize in preventive measures to maintain peace.
The 40-year effort to reform the 15-member Security Council to reflect the world today rather than the global power structure after World War II has been plagued by national and regional rivalries that show no sign of abating. Deep divisions forced the General Assembly to shelve three rival resolutions to expand the council in 2005, and since then, there have been many discussions but no serious attempts.
Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Barbara Woodward, who is this month’s council president, was asked after the meeting about Zelenskyy’s call to remove Russia from the council or reform it — and, if not, dissolve the United Nations.
“We do need to make sure that now, and in the future, the Security Council and the U.N. as a whole is able to respond to these sorts of challenges,” Woodward said.
Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said he wanted to use the council meeting to address Zelenskyy directly. He again denied that Russian troops committed any atrocities against civilians and blamed the bodies found on Ukrainian radicals and neo-Nazis who “act with unrivaled cruelty when dealing with civilians.”
Nebenzia claimed Western countries supporting Ukraine “don’t care in the slightest” about the country, which he said they see as “just a pawn in their geopolitical ploy against Russia, which they will easily sacrifice.”
He said Russia didn’t come for Ukrainian land, but to bring lasting peace to the eastern Donbas region of the country.
“To do so, it is necessary to root out the cruelty … and remove the Nazi malignant tumor that is devouring Ukraine and would have eventually begun to devour Russia,” Nebenzia said. “We will achieve this goal, hopefully sooner rather than later.”
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield reiterated that in light of Russia’s human rights violations, the United States — in concert with Ukraine and many other U.N. members — is seeking to suspend Russia from the U.N.’s premier rights body, the Geneva-based Human Rights Council. She has called for a vote this week.
Thomas-Greenfield accused Russia of using the Geneva council “as a platform for propaganda to suggest Russia has a legitimate concern for human rights.”
She said she shares the Ukrainian president’s view “that this moment requires responsible world powers and global leaders to show some backbone and stand up to Russia’s dangerous and unprovoked threat against Ukraine and the world.”
“Russia’s participation on the Human Rights Council hurts the council’s credibility,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “It undermines the entire U.N., and it is just plain wrong.”
Nebenzia responded: “I hope that our colleagues from the United Nations will not allow themselves to be manipulated and play up to Washington.”