This article is written by Mariia Klius, a human rights defender, activist, and lawyer. Born and raised in Ukraine. She got an LLB and LLM in Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. She is currently a student at the International Human Rights Law program, at Lund University and an SI scholarship awardee. She works in the Parliament of Ukraine, where she drafts and advocates for bills on women’s and queer rights.
The 24th of October 1945 seemed like a usual chilly autumn day in Washington, DC. But it was a special day. Around 3 p.m., the first secretary of the Soviet Embassy Fedor Orekhov entered the Hill Building of the US State Department. He came ‘bearing gifts’, namely three instruments of ratification of the UN Charter: from the Byelorussian S.S.R., Ukrainian S.S.R., and U.S.S.R. These were the last necessary to reach the goal of 29 ratifications (including from the countries of Permanent Five), so on that day the UN Charter came into force and the United Nations officially appeared. Tired of bloodshed and devastated by the Second World War, humankind got a new reason to hope.
However, not everyone shared these high hopes for the new organization. When James Byrnes, USA Secretary of State, was signing a protocol to attest to the ratifications, he made a small remark. He said that peace depends upon the will of the peoples for it rather than upon documents. If I was there at that time, I would definitely think “Well, don’t we all finally want peace?”
And the history would prove me wrong. Because 78 years later the world is drowning again in the agony of wars. A quick look at the region, where the mentioned Soviet republics once existed, makes me remember the words of Byrnes. Because no document and no organization prevented Russia from invading Ukraine and occupying its territory in 2014 or from launching a full-scale war in 2022.
So, did the UN fail? Or is this just a mere reflection that we as humanity are failing? Or maybe the UN did everything it could in the legal realm and the rest is just something that falls out of the scope of law? And are there any functions that the UN performs effectively during the Russian war in Ukraine?
For me, as a Ukrainian these questions are “my Roman Empire”, so once again I go back and try to answer them.
For sure, to understand if the organization is effective, we should go back to its aims. It is not difficult with the UN, as its Purposes are clearly stated in the Charter. So, the UN was created to:
- maintain international peace and security and develop friendly relations among nations;
- achieve international cooperation in matters of economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian character, promote human rights and freedoms without discrimination;
- be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations while achieving these goals.
Together with the Preamble, these provisions help us to distinguish a couple of different roles the UN was supposed to play. A guardian of international peace and security. An engineer of socioeconomic advancement. A promoter of human rights. A platform for resolving disputes. Such a set of ambitious goals requires meticulous attention to each of them. However, the current practice of the UN shows that not all these Purposes are actually prioritized.
In the practice of the UN, we can see a shift from peacekeeping to the socioeconomic advancement sphere. This priority change is a significant one. If we look through archives and speeches made during the San Francisco Conference, when the Charter was agreed upon, peace was a centrefold element in each of them.
But nowadays it feels that because of previous failures in attempts to secure peace, the UN almost abandoned the idea and decided that sustainable development is more worthy of its attention.
It becomes obvious even when you are looking up “Goals of UN”. Because the first thing you’re going to see is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And among these 17 goals, peace is not even a separate one. It’s just mentioned in the SDG №16 together with justice and strong institutions. In the Millennium Development Goals, that preceded SDGs, peace wasn’t even mentioned.
One could say, well complete peace is unachievable, so it cannot be a real goal. Well, so is ‘no poverty’ or ‘gender equality’, but they are stated as separate SDGs.
With such a focus of attention on sustainable development, it often means that the UN tries to deal with consequences and ignores the reasons for the situation. As in regions torn by armed conflicts economic growth is not achievable precisely because of war. So, material assistance or providing food doesn’t seem effective from the point of view of those who have lost their means of livelihood and self-sufficiency due to armed conflict. Because it addresses consequences rather than reasons.
And don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to suggest that SDGs are unimportant, and we don’t need ‘affordable and clean energy’ or ‘decent work and economic growth’. Or I’m not trying to say: “Let’s stop material assistance to those who suffered from a war”. However, my point here is rather: what about the main purpose for which the UN was created in the first place?
And this question brings me back to my home country.
Ukrainian test of the UN as peacekeeper
For me, as a Ukrainian, critical analysis of the UN became particularly relevant in 2014. At that time, I had just finished high school and had chosen the path of a human rights defender as a career. I was full of youthful maximalism and still had high hopes for the international community. So, when Russia occupied Crimea, started a war in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and received no response from the UN, other than “deep concern” and “strong condemnation”, I was simply shocked.
Such an anemic response back then raised questions in me: “What if Russia decides to move further? How much of Ukraine should it occupy to bring on a real response? Didn’t we learn from WWII that appeasing doesn’t work with imperialistic aggressors?”.
Some of my questions were answered 8 years later. And I cannot say I was satisfied with these answers. But nowadays, this ineffectiveness doesn’t come as a surprise anymore, it just utterly tires me. And what makes it even more triggering is that the world is already moving on to talks about ‘rebuilding’ and ‘restoring’ Ukraine even though its destructing and ruining are still very much ongoing.
So, in international rhetoric about Ukraine, I often see the same shift as overall with UN goals. Attempt to prioritize economic issues and sustainable development over establishing peace and security that are causing these economic issues in the first place. And such prioritizing gives many opportunities for the aggressor.
An example of this is the Black Sea Grain Initiative which was the UN’s plan to “support the stabilization of spiralling food prices worldwide and stave off famine, affecting millions”. It was presented as an ambitious goal and great diplomatic success that should have led to mitigating human suffering. But in reality, it just ended with Russia getting leverage for blackmail, an opportunity to gain concessions by ‘weaponizing food’, and one more occasion for their propaganda to blame Ukraine, this time – for the global food crisis.
Again, I’m not implying here that we should ignore Ukraine’s importance as a grain supplier and the impact of Russia’s aggression on severe food crises in several regions of the world. However, it is a question of the UN’s priorities, distinguishing reasons from consequences, and overall approaches. Because the UN showed much more enthusiasm about being a ‘neutral mediator’ in this agreement than in helping Ukraine find and establish alternative routes.
Ukrainian test of the UN as a human rights promoter
In terms of its other Purposes, such as promoting human rights, the UN was not completely successful in Ukraine as well. Many expected that with not being able to stop it, the UN would at least act effectively in terms of Russia’s compliance with international humanitarian and human rights law during this war. However, that also wasn’t the case.
For instance, it is well-known now that Russia forcibly deports children from Ukraine, keeps them away from parents or legal guardians, gives them Russian passports, teaches them the Russian language, and feeds them propaganda to erase their Ukrainian identity. That’s why the ICC issued arrest warrants for Vladimir Putin and the Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova. (And let’s give credit when it’s due, these arrest warrants are what a proper reaction on an international plane should look like).
But despite all of this, after ICC issues warrants, the special representative of the UN Secretary General for children and armed conflict Virginia Gamba just goes to Moscow and meets with Lvova-Belova. Even though the guidance prohibits contact by UN officials with those who are subject to ICC arrest warrants. The only exception in guidance is when it’s ‘strictly required for carrying out essential UN-mandated activities.’ And even then, they are supposed to try interacting with other people rather than with those, who have arrest warrants.
With such a high standard, many expected that Gamba would be meeting with Lvova-Belova to visit places of detention of Ukrainian children, to facilitate documentation and their identification. So, to do something that would absolutely require her physical presence there and would really help in this situation. But no, she “engaged with the Government to discuss the impact of the conflict on children”.
In response to the critics, the UN emphasized that Gamba made the same visit to Ukraine before going to Russia. So, same as with the Black Sea Grain Initiative, the UN tries to play the role of a ‘completely neutral mediator’ in this war. But its neutrality is often just enabling the aggressor.
Achievements of the UN
Of course, the UN also had many achievements over the years. And some of them are helpful for Ukraine in this situation.
The most notable, of course, are the victories in formulating law. For example, the UN General Assembly was a place where states agreed on a framework for human rights law. It started with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and two International Covenants on Economic, Social, Cultural Rights and Civil and Political Rights. A series of other treaties and instruments helped to raise awareness and intensify work on the rights of women, children, indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, and so on.
The UN Charter itself is a significant achievement in terms of outlawing the war (at least in theory). It helps at least to clearly distinguish right and wrong in this situation, and properly communicate it. I cannot imagine living through all these horrors in times when the international community was not just tolerable but rather sympathetic to wars of conquest.
To Ukraine the UN is particularly important in its role as an international multilateral forum, where countries can raise issues, discuss them, and express their official positions. It can be used to track the loss or gain of influence on states by Russia, help to assess the impact of Russian propaganda on a particular state, and understand in which regions Ukraine is losing the information war.
The UN General Assembly is where Ukraine and its allies can draw attention to the most crucial problems. As nowadays it seems to be the ‘veto’ power of Permanent Five in the Security Council, there already have been attempts to change its procedure. After Russia started the full-scale war against Ukraine, the UNGA decided that it would come together whenever a veto is cast in the Security Council.
Such attempts to change the order of things and reform the UN should continue and intensify.
Former U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld once said, “The United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell.” For Ukrainians, it didn’t even do that, and we continue to live in hell. So, my somewhat sceptical approach shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Of course, the work of the UN also has some good results. But it seems that often it is limited to the regions that are not mired in the horrors of endless military conflicts and can afford to actually focus on their economic well-being.
Like many others that do not fit into the category of ‘developed Western countries’, Ukraine, which once was a founder of the UN, nowadays is left behind.
I won’t be addressing the question of whether the UN is obsolete and unnecessary or indispensable. First, it wouldn’t be possible to answer it in the format of a blog. And second, it wouldn’t have real practical application. I would rather end by urging everyone not to normalize and not to accept such a deeply flawed state of affairs with the UN just as ‘well, it is what it is’. As this is what many tend to do right now.
ICJ Statute recognizes the teachings of publicists as one of the sources of international law for a reason. This situation can be improved only if we are not afraid to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions and try to search for the answers to them. Because all the previous achievements of international law were made by those who were endlessly fighting against the flaws of this system, all in their own positions. And not that long ago even provisions outlawing the war for many seemed like ‘too far-reaching’ or ‘too revolutionary’.
So, this UN day is a reason to reassess our strengths and weaknesses and get ready for a new chapter of this fight to make the UN effective and accountability in international law a reality.