Emergency now: Urgent UN action is required for Ukraine

Many struggle to understand world powers’ refusal to enforce a No-Fly-Zone (NFZ), at least on the western rest of Ukraine not (yet) occupied by Russia. It has been repeatedly requested by its democratically-elected President Volodymyr Zelensky for the whole of his country. Ukraine is a founder member of the United Nations and the largest country entirely in Europe, at its geographic heart. Russia has no rights there. Its unprovoked and unjustified invasion was repudiated by the whole world in the UN General Assembly.

Precedents for a NFZ exist, amply. The NFZ can be justified as discharging R2P (the “Responsibility to Protect”). The latest Pentagon-Polish confusion over the deployment of MiGs has not helped but it does not have to be NATO that enforces it officially.  An “Allied Coalition” for R2P/Ukraine, including neutral countries, preferably under a UN mandate, is required urgently, and should be the top priority of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Enforcing a NFZ and enacting R2P should sustain a ceasefire which is essential. 

It should also be a priority to establish a cordon sanitaire protecting Ukraine’s nuclear power plants. The urgency of this is brought home today by the dramatic risks of Chernobyl over-heating due to the cut in power needed for cooling. But also for humanitarian corridors that must be more for delivery of aid and protection of civilians than their forcible evacuation which only enables de-population or ethnic cleansing.

Time is running out for Ukraine and world peace.  We are facing the abyss.

Under the precedent of the Uniting for Peace modality (UN General Assembly resolution 377 A in 1950, arising out of the Soviet veto during the Korean war), the UN General Assembly held an emergency special session, conscious of the failure of the Security Council to discharge its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security due to the Russian veto, and passed its resolution A/RES/ES-11/1 on 2 March 2022.  Remarkably, the resolution was passed by an overwhelming 141 members states, way above the two-thirds required, and with only 35 abstentions.  The five very few votes against came from Russia itself, as well as other fellow dictatorships, the co-responsible and sanctioned Belarus, as well as North Korea, Eritrea and Syria. 

The resolution is a resounding rebuke to the Russian Federation, its régime led by President Vladimir Putin and its accomplice Belarus. The resolution deplores in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine in violation of Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter. It compels measures to be undertaken by Russia, namely, that it immediately ceases its use of force against Ukraine and refrains from any further unlawful threat or use of force against any Member State; and that Russia immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraws all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.

It also demands all parties to allow safe and unfettered civilian passage to destinations outside of Ukraine and to facilitate the rapid, safe and unhindered access to humanitarian assistance for those in need in Ukraine, to protect civilians, including humanitarian personnel and persons in vulnerable situations, including women, older persons, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, migrants and children, and to respect human rights.

Despite resounding global condemnation and injunctions to desist and withdraw, Russia and its rogue president continue brazenly. Their aggravation of this notoriously unjustified war is stark proof of the utter disregard with which he and his government hold the world community, already evidenced by his repudiation, in deed if not in word, of the multiple démarches that leaders such as President Macron of France and others have undertaken to persuade him otherwise.

It is, more importantly, proof of the systemic contempt that he, and through him, the Russian Federation, and indeed Belarus, hold the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the rule of law, especially international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, and their manifest treaty obligations.

The repeated failure to honor, for the umpteenth time, the ceasefires for humanitarian corridors that Putin’s own commanders agreed-to, is testimony that Russia today cannot be trusted. There is little or no basis of trust required to conduct negotiations of any kind – trust in Russia has completely evaporated. Yet the world needs Russia as a vital partner for progress, not regress.

While, according to the International Court of Justice “enforcement action” remains the exclusive domain of the UN Security Council, the General Assembly has the authority to establish a peace-keeping force.

The UN must move immediately to do exactly that. It should muster a “coalition of the willing” and craft, constitute and deploy a robust and adequately-armed peace-keeping force or peace-keeping operation (PKO in the jargon), using lessons learnt and best practice from past PKOs. This would not necessarily be a NATO operation per se, but NATO members could indeed participate.

Whether or not they do or don’t, other European, neutral countries (Austria, Ireland, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, for example), and non-European states such as Australia, Brazil, Egypt, India, Israel, Japan, South Africa, or others, could. The PKO should include air cover adequate to protect the delivery of humanitarian aid, the protection of civilians, and the peaceful movement/evacuation and eventual repatriation of those at greatest risk. 

The air cover should have a protection mandate more robust that the precedent “UN Protection Force” (UNPROFOR) deployed during the Bosnian War, whose rules of engagement were limited to the protection of aid convoys but not civilian populations under siege.

Indeed the PKO, given the scope of the UNGA resolution, encompassing Ukraine within its internationally-recognised borders, should also have the authority to eventually cover the Donbass areas of Luhansk and Donetsk, and indeed Crimea. It should also have a remit to act as an interposition force to gradually increase the physical separation of belligerent forces enabling the complete withdrawal of all invading Russian military units. It should be an enabler for the fulfilment of the Minsk agreements, to the extent that they remain salient, and to facilitate the parties to work constructively in relevant international frameworks, including in the Normandy format and Trilateral Contact Group, towards their full implementation. 

It takes time to deploy a UN multilateral PKO, but as a short-term stop-gap measure, an advance deployment by the OSCE around the NPPs should be enabled by its Permanent Council in an urgent revamp of its Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. Russia must be obliged to respect a cordon sanitaire around the NPPs, as a primary global humanitarian obligation.

Beyond the immediate danger of degrading NPPs, the UNGA resolution condemns the decision of the Russian Federation to increase the readiness of its nuclear forces, and the world at large has dismissed as utterly inadmissible the apocalyptic nuclear threats by President Vladimir Putin, who now ranks as a pariah, and a suspect corrupt war criminal. 

Ukraine, through its heroic President Zelensky, has requested a No-Fly zone. NATO’s dismissal of such a notion should be regarded as a dismissal of its own collective involvement, not of the idea as such. Indeed, for other countries, non-NATO states, and indeed the UN itself to succumb to such threats would be a gross abrogation of moral and legal duty. Rather, the R2P (responsibility to protect) principle invokes the prima facie case for its application. 

While humanitarian interventions have in the past been justified in the context of varying situations, R2P focuses only on the four mass atrocity crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, of which Russia is accused, with mounting evidence that it is clearly engaging in a massive bombing of civilian targets (town centres, administrative buildings, power plants, ports, civilian factories, schools, hospitals, residential complexes, shopping centres, and other civilian infrastructure), as President Putin has repeatedly demonstrated and threatened.

So far, this war, launched by one man, waged by thousands of invading men, has forced the flight to safety abroad of over 2 million Ukrainian civilians, mainly women and including half a million children. UNHCR estimates it could soon total 4 million. 

This is a make-or-break situation for the UN.  Either it saves global peace or dies in World War III. Armed by this recent strongly condemnatory and prescriptive General Assembly resolution, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres should feel empowered to imperatively forge a global coalition to enforce a No-Fly Zone, through a robust peace-keeping operation, enabling a ceasefire, and enacting the responsibility-to-protect. 

Otherwise, there is no chance of any success in tackling global challenges from gender equality to food security, from human rights to inclusive governance, and from climate change and pandemic recovery to achieving sustainable development goals. A major part of the answer lies in a fundamental change in Moscow, and Russia’s exit from foreign lands, return to the rule of law, and fulfilment of all its international obligations – that is also the greatest guarantee of Russia’s own security and progress.

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