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Veto in the hands of the aggressor undermines the UN – and that has to change

On October 24, 2023, the United Nations turned 78 years old. The main reason for the creation of the UN was rooted in the post-war world, which wanted guarantees of peace and security. And that has become one of the most essential principles of the organization.

However, it has been despised for years by Russia. A seat among the permanent representatives of the UN Security Council was taken by a country that has unleashed numerous wars and armed conflicts in the last 30 years alone, the bloodiest of which is currently unfolding against Ukraine. Russia rejects important UN resolutions with its veto, uses the organization as a platform for spreading propaganda, and illegally takes its place among peace-loving member states, violating the UN Charter and undermining global security.

The Security Council meets on the situation in Ukraine. February 27, 2022.
Photo: UN Photo / Loey Felipe

The war against Ukraine makes the issue of reforming the UN more and more urgent, and therefore, Ukraine offers a way to change that will help restore the UN’s effectiveness in the fight for its core value – peace for every nation.

The seat that does not fit

Following the devastating World War II, the world was in need of peace and a new order. In 1945, representatives of 50 countries gathered at the United Nations Conference on International Organization, and over the two months, they drafted and signed the UN Charter. A new international organization, the United Nations, was created with the goal of preventing another great war.

The first article of the UN Charter states: “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”.

However, this basic principle is constantly violated by one of the members of the international organization and its main security body, Russia.

Russia’s presence in the UN is not only morally controversial but also illegitimate, states the Foreign Ministry of Ukraine. According to the UN website, Russia became a member of the UN based on a letter from the first president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, dated December 24, 1991. He claimed that the decision to replace the USSR with the Russian Federation in the UN was supported by the 11 member countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

However, at the time of the letter, the USSR still existed, and the Russian Federation did not. The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic was renamed the Russian Federation by the parliament on December 25, but the Russian constitutional court declared the parliamentary decision unconstitutional. Only after the necessary constitutional amendments were made did the Russian Federation officially emerge in May 1992.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine notes that the UN Charter does not mention the Russian Federation. Moreover, it is not mentioned in Article 23, which lists the permanent members of the UN Security Council (it says the USSR, which ceased to exist in 1991).

Ukrainian diplomats believe that Russia imposed its membership in the UN by a unilateral decision and that UN member states were deprived of the right to express their position on this membership by voting in the General Assembly, as provided for in the charter.

By illegally occupying the seat of a permanent member of the UN, Russia is making significant efforts to render the organization helpless. One of the main mechanisms of the aggressor’s influence on the international platform is the veto, which Russia actively uses in its favor.

Great power without great responsibility

The veto power in the UN Security Council allows the state to reject a draft of any substantive UN Security Council resolution, regardless of the draft’s level of support. This right is held only by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: China, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and the USSR, whose seat was illegally taken by Russia. 

Since 1991, the Russian Federation has used the veto 33 times in the UN Security Council, almost twice as many times as any other permanent member. Most cases were after 2014: in the past ten years, 86% of all rejected resolutions – 24 out of 28 – were blocked by Russia alone or by Russia and China.

Vivid examples of this abuse of the veto were:

  1. August 9, 2008. The UN Security Council failed to adopt a resolution on South Ossetia. Russia invaded Georgia and refused to support the demand for a truce using the veto.
  2. March 15, 2014. The UN Security Council failed to adopt a resolution on Crimea, which Russia has occupied. The Russian Federation used its veto.
  3. April 10, 2018. The UN Security Council failed to consider a resolution to investigate a possible chemical attack in Syria. Russia, a supporter of the Syrian government under the leadership of Bashar al-Assad, used its veto.
  4. February 25, 2022. Russia vetoes a Security Council resolution condemning its actions in Ukraine and calling on Moscow to immediately cease using force and withdraw its troops from Ukrainian territory.

In addition, Russia blocked resolutions on the establishment of a tribunal to investigate the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17; recognition of the massacres in Srebrenica as genocide and a prerequisite for national reconciliation in Bosnia and Herzegovina; extension of the mandate of the UN observer mission in Georgia at a critical time for the country; and 16 resolutions on Syria.

An unfortunate platform for Russian propaganda

While Russian forces continue to shell peaceful cities in Ukraine, Russia still has a seat in the UN General Assembly and the Security Council. Even more so, the country was still allowed to take over the presidency of the UN’s top security body in April 2023. And Russian representatives do not shy to use this stage to spread their propaganda.

Vassily Nebenzia, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations,
addresses the Security Council meeting. November 3, 2022.
Photo: UN Photo / Evan Schneider

One of the most absurd examples of this was the speech of Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights, on April 5. She is accused of illegally deporting children from Ukraine to the Russian Federation since February 24, 2022 – and even has an arrest warrant issued against her by the International Criminal Court in The Hague in March 2023. Russians have taken almost 20 thousand Ukrainian children from the territories they occupy.

During her speech, Lvova-Belova called the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia a “humanitarian action to protect orphans and children abandoned in the war zone.” At the same time, the Russian Permanent Representative to the UN Security Council, Vasily Nebenzya, cynically stated that the Russian occupiers wanted to “protect children from danger.”

The ambassadors of the United States, the United Kingdom, Albania, and Malta demonstratively left the meeting room during Lvova-Belova’s speech on April 5, and more than 50 countries condemned this “performance.”

Another example of Russian propaganda on the UN platform was the speech of pro-Kremlin economist Mikhail Khazin, who, during his online address, denied any significant consequences of the removal of Ukrainian grain from the international market, claiming that sanctions that prevent Russian wheat exports are a more significant threat.

And not to forget the statements of Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Vassily Nebenziа. One of the most recent examples was the shelling of the Hroza, village in the Kharkiv region, where more than 50 civilians were killed due to the Russian attack. Nebenzia addressed the UN, saying that at the time of the shelling, a burial of an alleged “high-ranking nationalist” was taking place in Hroza, where there were also many “Nazis.”

At the time of the Russian attack on Hroza, a memorial service was held indeed – due to the reburial of a fallen Ukrainian soldier. The ceremony was organized by his family, his son and wife. They were both at the site – and both killed by Russia.

Cemetery in Hroza, the Kharkiv region.
Photo: @alexxbabenko / AP Photos

Reforms for efficiency and peace

During his speech at the UN Security Council on September 20, 2023, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy outlined three directions for reforming the organization that may lead out of the stalemate that no longer should be ignored.

First, the UN General Assembly should be given the right to override vetoes. Provided that two-thirds of the votes reflect the will of nations from Asia, Africa, Europe, both Americas, and the Pacific – a global qualified majority – the veto should be effectively overridden, and such a General Assembly resolution should be binding on all member states.

The second step is to expand the representation of nations in the Security Council. The African Union, Latin America, and the Pacific states should be represented there permanently. Asia deserves a more extensive permanent representation. 

Third step: there is a need for a system of aggression prevention through early response to actions against states’ territorial integrity and sovereignty. This includes powerful sanctions against the aggressor. 

“Anyone who wants to start a war should see before their fatal mistake what exactly they will lose when they start a war,” stated Zelenskyy. The issue of preventive sanctions should be submitted to the UN Security Council automatically whenever any member of the General Assembly declares a threat of aggression.

The address by the President of Ukraine at the UN Security Council meeting. September 20, 2023.
Photo: The Office of the President of Ukraine

Each of these steps is focused on strengthening the UN as an international organization entrusted with the responsibility to maintain peace and security for the entire world community. 

The world around us is changing rapidly, requiring an equally rapid response. The UN Charter cannot work to its fullest potential as long as an aggressor country occupies a permanent seat on the Security Council, illegitimately and in violation of all the principles of the organization – and the majority of member states are not able to effectively deal with it.