The United Nations is voting to condemn Russian aggression. Does it matter?
An interview with Richard Gowan on the UN's role in Ukraine: Its high-profile failures, its quiet successes, and why this week's vote really does bear watching.
The United Nations’ General Assembly — the closest thing there is to a parliament of all mankind — is voting this week whether to condemn Russia’s claims over Ukrainian land.
Most countries are expected vote in favor; the only question is the size of the majority. Diplomats for the United States and its allies are lobbying for as lopsided a decision as possible.
But does it really matter? Aren’t they just empty words? Hasn’t the UN been completely useless?
After all, the UN’s Security Council couldn’t manage even words. As a permanent member, Russia simply vetoed the resolution that condemned its annexations.
It’s tempting to dismiss the entire thing out of hand. But that seemed too easy: I wanted to understand better. So I talked to Richard Gowan, the UN Director of Crisis Group, a highly-regarded think tank that focuses on preventing conflict.
Richard has been observing the UN for two decades as a specialist on peacekeeping and security. He has also worked as research director at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, taught at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, and written a weekly column for World Politics Review.
Here’s what he had to say.
I'll start with my impression: that the UN has basically been absent. I remember a tweet someone sent on February 28, pointing out that the UN was basically talking to itself even as Putin was launching his invasion. I don't know if that's fair, but that's where I’d start: The perception is out there that the UN is not doing anything.
Look, before I offer a partial defense of the UN, I should say that if I were a citizen of Ukraine, I would feel profoundly betrayed. I can completely understand that. That's a sense of betrayal which is probably shared by lots of people in desperate circumstances: In Tigray in northern Ethiopia, or the Burmese civilians who went out onto the streets after last year's coup, called for UN intervention, and got no response. So at a really basic level, I appreciate that I'm trying to defend something that, for many people, is indefensible. And I approach that with humility.
But that said, I think that in a lot of the general commentary around the UN, there is a misunderstanding about what this organization can achieve. There’s an assumption that all you need is a Security Council resolution telling Russia to stop, and somehow the war would end. That’s simply not the way the organization functions.
What we saw [when the war started] in February, and again last week, is that Russia has the structural power to block any serious Security Council action against it. And that is tragic, but it's sort of built into the UN charter. So then the question for me is, what good can the UN do, given that fundamental constraint at the heart of the system?
Before we get into what it can do, can we talk about that constraint a little more?Because — shouldn’t we be disappointed? Wasn’t the UN founded after World War II to prevent nuclear apocalypse? It seemed to have a grand vision: ‘Let's find a way to live on this planet.’ Now we seem to be closer to a nuclear apocalypse than ever. Shouldn’t we be disappointed?
The UN Charter rests on an alliance between the then-Soviet Union, the U.S., and the UK. The idea was that you would have these powers that fought Nazi Germany working as policemen of a new world order.
But by 1946, the first year that the Security Council was active, you already started to see tensions emerging between Moscow and the West. Diplomats were saying that the relationship was crumbling even before the Cold War really got going. So this disappointment is almost as old as the organization itself.
In 1956, the Security Council was unable to stop Russia going into Hungary. In 1968, Russia vetoed a resolution criticizing the invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 2014, too, Moscow was able to block a resolution criticizing its seizure of Crimea. So there's a long history of incidents very much like this one.
It's also worth saying that it was the Soviet Union that really pushed for the veto. The Soviet Union had been expelled from the League of Nations, the precursor to the UN, for its invasion of Finland. If you look at the way the UN Charter was negotiated, the Soviets were very keen to ensure that they had a veto power, because they didn't want to face the sort of rebuke they faced in Geneva over the Finnish war.
The other thing is that, while we can go through a litany of Soviet actions that the UN failed to respond to, there's also the story of Vietnam and Iraq. The Russians are by no means the only permanent member of the Council to use their structural power to ward off any penalties at the UN. The U.S. has done that too, and so have some of the other permanent members. So it is a structural flaw.
And we're now hearing a lot of discussion about Security Council reform. But I’m skeptical, frankly, that we’re going to find some alternative vision about how the Security Council should work, or how it should be made up, that will gain consensus. I fear that we’re going to have a couple of years of reform talk, but probably with a limited output. And we should be totally realistic that every time you have a big set of debates about UN reform, and the results are paltry, that does the organization credibility damage.
Just to draw a line under the historical part of the conversation: Basically, if anyone hoped for the UN to supersede national rivalries, that was naive? The UN is a club of the winners of World War II, and it has remained that. And we should just get used to the idea?
I think we shouldn't accept it. I think we should continue to criticize, and call for changes, and call for a better system. But we should be aware that the chances of fundamental change are low. And we should also look at the UN system beyond the Security Council, and I think we will see that, actually, it has achieved a bit more than it normally gets credit for.
I do want to get to that part. But just to come back to the reforms for a second. You mentioned that real, substantive reform of the Security Council is unlikely. But could something be done like, a lot of Ukrainians are saying, to kick Russia off?
This again is the way the privileges of the P5 [permanent five members] are baked in. There are clauses in the UN Charter that allow for the expulsion of a member or the suspension of a member. The problem is that, in both cases, the Security Council has to recommend to the General Assembly that there should be an expulsion or a suspension. And of course, Russia can use its veto to ensure that recommendation is not made. Russia is both the criminal and the judge.
The other argument that has come up a lot is that Russia doesn't actually have a right to its seat in the Security Council. Because the UN Charter refers to the USSR, and continues to refer to the USSR, as one of the Permanent Five. There have been arguments that Russia did not actually validly inherit the Soviet seat.
This is something which a number of experts on UN law and procedure have looked at in some detail. And I'm afraid to say that it's not an argument that really stands up. The other former Soviet states really did acknowledge that Russia was the continuing state.
Yes. There was a meeting in Almaty in '91, at which Ukraine did acknowledge that. And Ukraine has sat in the Security Council, even a few years ago, and accepted Russia as a valid member. So I'm afraid that, although that looks like a brilliant gambit to get rid of the Russians, it just doesn't stand up to close scrutiny.
Outside the Security Council, one of the most visible things happening is this General Assembly vote to condemn the annexation. The U.S. and other Western countries are trying to lobby for that vote. But I think Ukrainians could be justified in asking, what's the point? It's still just symbolic. It has no effect on the ground at all.
Well, let's start with one point that I think actually does speak in the UN's favor. If you go back to March, after the Security Council was blocked, the General Assembly did pass a resolution [condemning Russia’s invasion] by a huge margin. 141 of 193 UN members voted to condemn Russia. And only five, including the Russians themselves, voted against it.
In terms of making the simple moral case against Russia's aggression, that was an important moment. The fact that you had majorities of every region at the UN — Latin America, Asia, Africa — voting against Moscow.
Would you say that a vote like that does something more than just reflecting each country’s views? The vote is, itself, an exogenous force on what's happening in the world?
I think forcing the vote does make a difference. It gets a lot of countries that would hide from the issue to at least take a stand.
I think that [this week’s] vote is, in some ways, more important than that one back in March. The reason I say that is two-fold. One is that you will hopefully see a significant majority of UN members reaffirm the full territorial integrity of Ukraine and reject Russia's sham annexations. That has a practical impact: It's not one that many people think about, but it means that it's still Ukraine that gets to decide whether humanitarian operations can take place in those regions.
More importantly, it shows that this annexation is not just part of some local conflict involving Russia and, indirectly, NATO. It says that, actually, what Russia is doing is a fundamental breach of the Charter, and that this annexation should not be allowed to stand. And it also punctures, hopefully, Putin’s narrative, which we heard so loud and clear on September 30, that he is leading some sort of anti-Western, anti-colonial crusade.
Putin has been using that narrative a lot. He does seem to genuinely believe that a lot of the non-Western world is behind him. What the UN provides is a very straightforward platform to puncture that narrative. To show that African countries, Asian countries, do not see Russia as their great defender against colonialism. In terms of the narrative of the war, the narrative that Putin is trying to construct, this is important.
I would also hope that, looking out of the corner of their eyes, the Russians will see that if there is a big majority against them, that also means that if they were to go as far as nuclear use, they would probably inspire an even greater international backlash. Sending this message of international support for Ukraine probably does feed into Moscow's broader political calculations.
But then, tell that to the Palestinians. Because the Palestinians can get many, many General Assembly resolutions, every year, by huge margins, favoring their rights in their ongoing contest with Israel. And that has not done the Palestinians a whole lot of good on the ground. So we do have to be realistic about the limits of that sort of signaling.
You've argued the UN has done things that aren't highly visible or people aren't aware of, that have been helpful. What are they?
First of all, the UN has over a thousand aid workers in Ukraine. And, as of this summer, the UN calculated that it had got some kind of assistance, I think primarily financial assistance, to nine million Ukrainians.
That has been overshadowed, I think justifiably, because everyone has been admiring what Ukrainian civil society has done, in terms of helping its own. But the UN is there on the ground, trying to provide humanitarian aid, trying to get aid convoys into the most intense conflict areas.
If you want to go up a level, one of the very few real diplomatic successes we've seen so far in this war was the Black Sea grain deal. The agreement to allow Ukraine to start exporting agricultural supplies and grain out of Odessa and the other Black Sea ports. That deal has been important for Ukraine, and it's also been good for a lot of countries in Africa and the Middle East that were struggling with food price rises linked to the war.
That deal was mediated by the UN with Turkey. And we understand that António Guterres, the UN Secretary General, has played a central part in that process, tabling the idea with Putin when he visited in April and then working in extreme detail on what was a very difficult deal to work out.
It wouldn't have happened without them?
Turkey obviously played a pretty central role in the mediation process, and I don't think the UN could have done it without the Turks. Equally, I don't think the Turks could have done it without the UN. We know that Russia did, at one point, suggest to Ankara that maybe they should just sort out a deal together. Get these tedious UN bureaucrats out of the room. But the UN provided quite a lot of technical expertise that was important to the deal.
So Guterres comes out of that as one of the very few people who's been able to get even a small concession out of Putin. It has contributed, in a small way, to easing the global food security crisis. That's a good example of the sort of deal the UN can get to mitigate the effects of this war, even if it can't solve the war.
Prior to that, the UN was involved in the agreement to get the civilians trapped in the Azovstal steel works out of Azovstal, which was an important humanitarian act. So the UN has been there in a humanitarian role. We also of course see the IAEA now in Zaporizhzhia, trying to stop the nuclear plant melting down. That's the impartial technical expertise that a UN agency can provide. And the Ukrainians themselves: They've had a lot of criticisms of the UN, but at the highest level, on the level of Zelensky, I think they do appreciate Guterres being there.
Actually the Ukrainians have said to Guterres, we like the fact that you are our desk officer. We like having the Secretary General working directly on our file. They've asked him not to appoint a UN envoy to handle these issues. They like having him working on their problems.
At the start of the war, he was thrown quite badly off balance. He was one of those who thought Russia was bluffing. He's been quite open about this: He really didn't believe that Russia was going to invade. There was a real sense of panic in UN headquarters in March and April that, not only did we see the world order melting down, but the UN Secretary General didn't have a role in trying to halt that meltdown.
He found a toehold with the Azovstal evacuation, and then he found a real role for himself on the grain deal. He's thrown himself into it. He's someone who can become quite obsessive on the details of what he's working on. I once heard him talking about the question of naval demining off Odessa at a level of detail that a lot of other officials wouldn't be able to get into.
I can't leave an interview about the UN without asking about everyone's favorite topic, the UN Human Rights Council. It just voted against discussing the persecution of the Uighurs in China. And you look at who's on the Human Rights Council — China's on there, Venezuela's on there, Cuba's on there. This is a perennial criticism that, to me, seems nearly impossible to refute. How can you have a Human Rights Council with these countries on it? How can you explain that to a normal person?
I'll come back to the Human Rights Council in a second, because that vote is a shocker. But I do think that, overall, we should try to keep the UN as a place where we do talk to countries that we don't necessarily agree with or like. And one other positive story in New York this year is that, actually, through gritted teeth, the U.S., the UK, the French have managed to keep Security Council business going with the Russians, dealing with problems beyond Ukraine.
The Security Council has continued to authorize UN aid workers to stay in Afghanistan, talking to the Taliban. It authorized African peacekeepers to stay in Somalia fighting Al Shabaab. That has only been possible because there is a tacit agreement to try and keep UN work going on other files, despite everything being horribly toxic over Ukraine.
The Human Rights Council? Look, the Human Rights Council has done some good things this year. For all its membership issues, the Council moved quite quickly a resolution to set up a fact finding operation in Ukraine. There are obviously many different actors doing war crimes investigations in Ukraine now, but there is a Human Rights Council mandated fact finding mission, and because it has, as I understand it, decent working relations with the Ukrainian authorities, it will probably help catalog what the Russians have done in the country. So the Human Rights Council is not a complete write-off.
Here’s what I think you're seeing with this vote on the Uighurs. Right now, there's a massive struggle in the UN over Ukraine with the Russians. But underneath that, there's a more fundamental struggle for power, which is the struggle between the US and China. China is, in many ways, trying to gain more influence at the UN. And it is getting to the point where it can use its influence to frustrate any efforts to hold it to account over the Uighurs. I think whatever happens with Ukraine, I think this struggle with the Chinese and the US is going to go on and on, and you're going to see more votes like this. They do raise more credibility problems.
Yeah, I mean, you also have Iran now on the Women's Rights Commission, even as they're murdering women protesters who take their hijabs off. That creates a gap of credibility so wide, it's hard to imagine how to bridge it...
There are some bits of the UN system that I think are entirely useless, but I'm not going to list them to you because I don't want to lose any friends. But with any bit of the UN system, if you're sitting where I do, and you're trying to have some purpose in life, you have to look for the limited good you can extract from some pretty imperfect bodies.
So, frankly, if the Human Rights Council can still be instrumentalized to do good work on Ukraine, Syria, and some other files, then you take those wins. I can completely see why some people would say, at a certain point, that the odiousness of the system makes even those small wins marginal. Fair enough.
Let's end this saying that multilateralism is like marriage. You make a lot of vows. And you have to work hard to make it work. And you make the best of it, and it is worthwhile in the end. But I come back to exactly where we started, which is — if I were sitting in Mariupol now, or if I were sitting in Kashgar [in China’s Xinjiang region], I would look at the system and feel profoundly failed. And even for those of us who stand up for the system, we should be very, very conscious of that fact.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.