Tensions in Europe have reached a level many say has not been seen since World War II. Can the United Nations overcome significant flaws in its design, or do countries need to look for alternatives to achieve peace?
On February 22, Russian President Vladimir Putin began his campaign against Ukraine by recognizing separatist claims in the Donbas. Less than 48 hours later, Putin sent invading forces into the rest of Ukraine. Troops have moved forth from the east through the so-called separatist sects, the Luhansk and Donetsk Republic. Russian artillery and missile support based in Belarus tore a path for soldiers from the North, clearing a route to Kyiv along the Dnieper River and allowing Russian troops to take the Chernobyl power plant. Amphibious assaults have been terrorizing Ukraine in the south via the Black Sea.
Despite heavy air strikes in Kyiv and other major cities and the destruction of civilian infrastructure, leaving hundreds of thousands without electricity and water, Ukrainians are mounting a stiff resistance to the invading forces. Ukrainian soldiers and volunteer forces continue to repel assaults on cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv, with emerging heroes like the Snake Island 13, a group of Ukrainian soldiers defending a strategically important island who told an approaching warship “Russian warship, go f*** yourself” before being taken prisoner. Ukrainians living abroad and their allies have shown their support, with massive protests occurring in New York, London, Tokyo, Tehran, and even in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
However, progress elsewhere has proceeded at a glacial pace. The United Nations Security Council on Friday voted on a resolution to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. As expected, the resolution was vetoed by the Russian Federation, with three other nations (China, India, and the United Arab Emirates) abstaining. As a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia has the ability to stop any measure put before the Council, despite the four other permanent member nations and eleven others voting in favor. Western nations may see this as somewhat of a win, as it shows Russia’s lack of support from the international community. However, the fact still remains–the UN security council has failed to even wag a finger at Russia for its unfounded and horrifically violent attack on Ukraine. The General Assembly did vote to denounce Russia on March 2—but the denunciation is little more than ceremony and provides no concrete support to Ukraine.
Ukraine is the latest in a string of violent conflicts that the UN has failed to stop with botched peace-keeping endeavors and the deployment of ill-equipped troops. Tragedies in Rwanda, Cambodia, Yemen, Myanmar, Syria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and countless others were ignored or even actively facilitated by the UN and its members. Failure to provide even humanitarian aid and the lack of cooperation from member states has plagued the UN since its foundation in 1945, prompting criticism from even its own members and committees.
This week, speaker after speaker at the UN has called for peace in Ukraine—to no avail. World leaders like Volodymyr Zelensky, Nancy Pelosi, and others have commented that the events of the past week bear similarities to the events leading up to the previous world war. Whether these comparisons prove true or not, the UN has grown to resemble its doomed predecessor—The League of Nations, which effectively collapsed during the war until it was officially dissolved in 1946. Criticisms of the League of Nations have an eerie similarity to the current ones levied against the UN. Both intergovernmental organizations are stricken with a lack of participation from powerful states, popular conception that the body itself is powerless, and constant disagreement and lack of progress between members.
One of the League of Nation’s crucial flaws—its requirement for unanimity—is frequently cited as a major cause of its downfall. Although this flaw was partially resolved (the UN does not require a unanimous vote for general assembly actions like the League did for its assembly), the UN Security Council still requires unanimous approval from its five permanent members—Russia, France, the US, the UK, and China.
These five nations increasingly have conflicting interests, especially in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. The council also fails to fully represent the interests of many smaller nations in geopolitical conflicts, a fact made glaringly clear by Russia’s resolution veto. Powerful permanent council members have significantly more voting and veto abilities over other council members, which gives them greater weight and prioritizes the needs of a few countries over the many. In addition, many of the permanent council members have opposing interests (i.e. Russia and the US). This results in a stand-still in much of the Security Council’s dealings, a result antithetical to the very purpose of international cooperation and peace negotiation.
If the United Nations wants to make meaningful strides towards peace, there must be significant reform in the process of drafting and voting on actions. If reform cannot be achieved, the future of the UN must be seriously reevaluated. Tangible actions towards peace and humanitarian aid are needed in Ukraine and around the world, and there is no more room for grandstanding and ceremony.
Ella Lane is a first-year at American University studying political science. She is a Staff Writer for the Agora.
Image courtesy US Department of State, Public Domain.