Zelensky’s compelling question: what is the UN for?

This bizarre mini-circus at the start of a searing session of the Security Council on Tuesday served only to prove Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s next point: what good is the UN if it cannot act on crimes against humanity and punish the perpetrators?

The Ukrainian crisis is far from the first time that the impotence of the United Nations – anchored in its institutions by the right of veto of its five permanent members of the Security Council and its need to often seek consensus on the most most controversial – failed to act to prevent atrocities.

But the assault in Ukraine really reveals the limits of this post-World War II institution. Russia, as a permanent member of the Security Council, can effectively veto investigations into its own alleged crimes.

Zelensky proposed a conference to discuss reform of the United Nations and the Security Council – an oft-discussed idea that never goes anywhere. He argued that a Security Council was meaningless if it could not promote the security of UN member states. He also called for a Nuremberg-style trial to bring Russian war criminals to justice.

“Please show how we can reform or change and work for peace,” Zelensky told members of the Security Council in his latest hard-hitting video address.

“If there is no alternative or option, then the next option would be to dissolve yourself completely. And I know you can agree that if there is nothing you can do but conversation.”

Some US lawmakers have called for Russia’s expulsion from the Security Council. Yet even if the UN General Assembly were to vote by a two-thirds majority, Moscow could use its veto to block its own withdrawal. And even if it didn’t, China would probably support Moscow.

Critics of the United States and the West often complain of manipulating the Security Council for their own ends. In 2003, for example, the Bush administration tried, but failed, to secure a second Council resolution authorizing military action in Iraq, fueling opponents’ claims that the ensuing war was illegal.

In the past, the Security Council has created international tribunals and war crimes investigations in places like Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. But there’s no way Moscow will vote to face trial, which means that if Russian President Vladimir Putin and his generals face justice, it won’t go through the UN.

The applause that rang out in the Security Council chamber for Zelensky’s speech must have rung rather hollow from Kyiv.


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