As the Russian military continues to mount rocket attacks that target Ukraine’s airports and military installations, and as its ground troops advance, reportedly firing missiles and long-range artillery, what can the United Nations do to stop the violence, protect civilians and work to achieve a diplomatic path to peace?
The UN Security Council is not able to act to restore international peace and security due to Russia’s veto of its resolution. But given the fact that Russia did not act in self-defense or with Security Council approval — and thus its military actions constitute illegal aggression — there is a step that the UN General Assembly could and should take immediately to promote a ceasefire, a withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine, and the pursuit of a diplomatic solution.
Under the Uniting for Peace resolution, when the Security Council is unable to act due to the lack of unanimity of its five permanent members, the General Assembly can take up the matter to restore international peace and security, even ordering the use of force. On February 27, the Security Council referred the matter of Ukraine to the General Assembly under Uniting for Peace.
Roots of the Current Conflict
In order to understand the full picture of the conflict in Ukraine and how the General Assembly could possibly act effectively to stop the fighting, it is necessary first to consider some basic structuring realities of the geopolitical dynamics that brought the conflict to this point.
As I explained in my Truthout column of February 23 (the day before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine), some of the conflict’s roots can be traced to the expansion of the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) since the fall of the Soviet Union. Although the United States promised the USSR it would not expand NATO eastward, 11 former Soviet republics or members of the Warsaw Pact have joined NATO. Russia considers NATO missiles in Poland, Romania and the Baltics a threat to its national security. “If Russia faces such a threat as Ukraine’s admission to the North Atlantic Alliance, to NATO, then the threats to our country will increase many times,” Putin said, citing Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty “from which it is clear that all the countries of the alliance must fight on the side of one of their members if one Ally is considered as under attack.”
In December 2021, Russia proposed two treaties to provide Russian security guarantees, deliver assurances that Ukraine will never join NATO and protect the region from nuclear war. The treaties stipulate the withdrawal of NATO forces and missiles from Eastern Europe as well as limits on offensive weapons and intermediate-range missiles. But the United States and NATO rejected Russia’s treaty proposals, sent more forces to Eastern Europe and are shipping heavy weapons to Ukraine. NATO continued to promise a path to membership for Ukraine. Moreover, Ukraine and the United States have resisted compliance with the Minsk II agreement, which Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany agreed to in 2015 to help end the war in the Donbas region.
Nevertheless, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine constitutes aggression prohibited by the United Nations Charter, and it is the responsibility of the UN General Assembly to take action in response.
Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Constitutes Unlawful Aggression
Ukrainian health minister, Viktor Lyashko, said on February 26 that 198 people, including three children, had been killed since the Russian invasion began. He added that 1,115 people, including 33 children, had been wounded. The UN refugee agency reported that over a half a million people have fled Ukraine.
“The military actions taken by the Russian military against the territorial integrity of Ukraine” have led to a “grave threat to international peace and security,” the International Association of Democratic Lawyers said in a statement. “There is no legal justification under Article 51 of the UN Charter for the military actions Russia has taken against Ukraine. There being no basis to claim self-defense, the actions by the Russian military represents an illegal aggression against the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
Article 2(4) of the UN Charter states, “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”
Article 39 provides, “The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security.”
An “act of aggression” is the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Charter. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine clearly falls into this category.
Russia Vetoes Security Council Resolution
On February 25, Albania and the United States proposed a draft UN Security Council resolution, supported by 81 UN member states. It condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and stated that it violated Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. Although the draft originally said that the UN Security Council would be acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter — which would allow the Security Council to order forceful measures — it was changed to Chapter VI — authorizing non-forceful measures — in an attempt to secure China’s vote.
The draft resolution affirmed the Security Council’s assurance of Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. It condemned Russia’s military operation and exhorted Russia to immediately stop its use of force against Ukraine and completely withdraw its military forces from Ukraine. The draft resolution also deplored Russia’s recognition of the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and said Russia should reverse that decision and work toward implementation of the Minsk agreements. In addition, the draft resolution expressed concern about reported civilian casualties and called for humanitarian access and respect for international human rights and international humanitarian law.
As expected, the Russian Federation vetoed the resolution. Eleven UN Security Council members voted in favor of it, one (Russia) voted against it, and three members (China, India and the United Arab Emirates) abstained from voting.
In explaining the Russian Federation’s veto, Russia’s delegate claimed that the draft resolution contravenes the interests of the Ukrainian people, arguing that the resolution omits reference to the shelling of the people of Donetsk and Luhansk by those who seized power in the 2014 coup, that Ukraine didn’t implement the Minsk agreements, and that neo-Nazis and militias are killing civilians. He also claimed that Russian troops are not bombing cities or targeting civilians and they can’t compete with the United States, which “is in no position to moralize” due to its numerous invasions.
Although Russia’s claims about Ukraine’s refusal to enforce the Minsk agreements and the proliferation of U.S. invasions are true, it is less clear whether those who took power after the 2014 coup are actually attacking Donetsk and Luhansk or that neo-Nazis in Ukraine are killing civilians.
The General Assembly Should Use “Uniting for Peace” to Stop Russia’s Aggression
The Security Council has referred the Ukraine situation to the General Assembly (GA) under GA resolution 377 (v) of 3 November 1950, called “Uniting for Peace.” Under Uniting for Peace, the General Assembly is empowered to take measures to restore international peace and security when the Security Council is unable or unwilling to do so. Either seven members of the Security Council or a majority of the General Assembly members can invoke Uniting for Peace. A Uniting for Peace resolution, which requires a two-thirds vote, has greater force than other General Assembly decisions.
Uniting for Peace says:
If the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to Members for collective measures, including in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression the use of armed force when necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security.
The United States spearheaded the enactment of the Uniting for Peace resolution in 1950. After North Korea invaded South Korea, the U.S. (because of the Soviet veto) was unable to obtain Security Council approval for a U.S.-led military operation to invade North Korea. Then Secretary of State Dean Acheson secured the passage of the Uniting for Peace resolution.
But before George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, the United States launched a preemptive campaign to prevent the General Assembly from convening under Uniting for Peace to stop the invasion. “The United States is putting a lot of pressure on many countries to resist,” Jan Kavan, then-president of the General Assembly, said at the time. “My gut feeling is if it is put to a vote, I think a majority would hold for a resolution that would be critical of military action.”
The Bush administration sent a communication to UN representatives around the world, stating, “Given the highly charged atmosphere, the United States would regard a General Assembly session on Iraq as unhelpful and as directed against the United States. Please know that this question as well as your position on it is important to the US.” The U.S. campaign to prevent the GA from convening under Uniting for Peace was successful.
In the case of Ukraine, a Uniting for Peace resolution in the General Assembly should call for an immediate ceasefire, withdrawal of Russian troops and weapons from Ukraine, and a diplomatic solution. The U.S. and NATO should remove heavy weapons and missiles from the Russian border areas and pledge that Ukraine will not join NATO. Both sides must comply with international humanitarian law and human rights law and provide access to humanitarian assistance. The Minsk II agreement should be enforced to guarantee the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, which would remain neutral.
Russian Leaders May Be Committing War Crimes in Ukraine
Beyond the Uniting for Peace resolution, Russian leaders could be charged with war crimes if they intentionally target civilians. The following are considered grave breaches of the Geneva Convention and therefore constitute war crimes: “wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.”
Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions defines as grave breaches, and thus war crimes: “making the civilian population or individual civilians the object of attack” and “launching an indiscriminate attack affecting the civilian population or civilian objects in the knowledge that such attack will cause excessive loss of life, injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects.”
On February 25, Amnesty International declared that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “has been marked by indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas and strikes on protected objects such as hospitals” that may constitute war crimes. Amnesty’s Crisis Evidence Lab analyzed digital evidence — including videos, photos and satellite imagery — of three attacks, in Vuhledar, Kharkiv and Uman, which were conducted early in the Russian invasion on February 24.
“The Russian military has shown a blatant disregard for civilian lives by using ballistic missiles and other explosive weapons with wide-area effects in densely populated areas,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty’s secretary general. “The Russian troops should immediately stop carrying out indiscriminate attacks in violation of the laws of war. The continuation of the use of ballistic missiles and other inaccurate explosive weapons causing civilian deaths and injuries is inexcusable.”
In addition, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said on February 25, “we are gravely concerned about developments” in Ukraine and “we are receiving increasing reports of civilian casualties.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denied that Russian forces were targeting civilians. “No strikes against civilian infrastructure are being carried out,” he said. “No strikes are being carried out on locations of Ukrainian army personnel in dormitories or other places not associated with military facilities.” However, Lavrov’s claims are belied by evidence amassed by Amnesty International and the UN high commissioner. By February 27, more than 350 civilians had been killed in Ukraine.
War crimes can be punished by the International Criminal Court or by individual countries under the well-established principle of universal jurisdiction.
Unilateral Coercive Sanctions Violate the UN Charter
The United States and other European countries have imposed illegal unilateral coercive measures — sanctions — on Russia. On February 26, the Biden administration and close allies said they would expel some Russian banks from the SWIFT financial messaging system, which will essentially bar them from international transactions. The move will “effectively block Russian exports and imports,” according to Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission. It stops short of a blanket removal of Russia from SWIFT, a move that would sever Russia from a large section of the global financial market.
President Joe Biden said the United States would limit Russia’s access to high-tech imports, which would impair their military and industrial capacity.
However, only the UN Security Council has the authority to order the use of sanctions. That means the United States and other countries cannot unilaterally impose sanctions against other countries without the approval of the council. Article 41 of the charter says: “The Security Council may decide what measures not involving the use of armed force are to be employed to give effect to its decisions, and it may call upon the Members of the United Nations to apply such measures. These may include complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations.”
But although the sanctions have been touted as punishing Russian leaders, they will harm the Russian people who are already suffering economically. “Diplomacy, not sanctions, is where the solution lies,” said CODEPINK. “Sanctions on the entire Russian economy will only hurt ordinary Russians and will spread economic hardship to Europe and potentially, the global community—including here at home with energy prices rising ever higher than they are now.”
Meanwhile, delegations from Russia and Ukraine are holding peace talks near the Ukrainian-Belarusian border.
The situation is extremely dangerous, as it could trigger a nuclear war between Russia and NATO countries. For the first time in its history, NATO has activated and deployed NATO’s 40,000-troop Response Force. On February 25, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared that NATO would protect and defend all of its allies, including Ukraine. Meanwhile, Western officials are calling for a no-fly zone which, together with the deployment of NATO’s Response Force, could lead to a nuclear conflagration.
People worldwide are mobilizing to demand peace in Ukraine. The past week has seen protests in countries around the world, including Russia. Two thousand people throughout the globe attended an emergency online discussion organized by an antiwar coalition on February 26 and are planning an international day of peace in Ukraine on March 6.