Back in the UN

Readers might remember that back in March we reported on the vote in the United Nations general assembly, which, in an emergency special session, voted by 141 to five to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and to demand that it “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.”

But the war continues, and Russia upped the ante last month with a set of bogus referenda in its partially-occupied Ukrainian provinces that purported to support incorporation into Russia. This is a violation of the most fundamental principle of the UN, that territory cannot be seized by force.

So the emergency session reconvened this week, and passed a new resolution declaring the annexations void and calling on all members [link added] to refuse recognition to them. It repeats the words “immediately, completely and unconditionally,” and (unlike the petitioners we discussed yesterday) situates its call for peace within that framework:

… to support the de-escalation of the current situation and a peaceful resolution of the conflict through political dialogue, negotiation, mediation and other peaceful means, with respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders and in accordance with the principles of the [UN] Charter.

The vote this time was 143 to five, with 45 countries abstaining or not voting. Four of the dissenters were the same as before (Russia, Belarus, North Korea and Syria); they were joined this time by Nicaragua, while Eritrea switched to abstaining. Five countries that had supported the March resolution abstained or failed to vote, while another seven shifted the other way.

That’s a bit more significant than it sounds, because Thailand, which abstained, was the only substantial power among the five previous supporters, whereas most of the new votes in favor were from moderately important countries: the seven were Angola, Bangladesh, Guinea-Bissau, Iraq, Madagascar, Morocco and Senegal.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that not much has changed since March. It remains true that global opinion is overwhelmingly against the invasion, but it’s also true that a number of major powers – including China, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Pakistan and South Africa – are unwilling to go on the record condemning Russia. Vladimir Putin has very little active support, but his passive support is far from insignificant.

That passive support probably dooms any attempt to circumvent Russia’s veto on the security council, either by suspending its permanent membership or by a direct authorisation from the general assembly for the use of force (which on one view is what the emergency session procedure was supposed to allow).

Of course, countries do not need UN authorisation to assist Ukraine in defending itself, any more than Ukraine itself needs anyone’s permission to fight in self-defence. But it means that on the biggest geopolitical issue of the day, and one which could fairly be described as exactly the sort of thing the UN was formed to counter, the organisation has instead returned to the impotence in which it spent most of the Cold War.

12 thoughts on “Back in the UN

  1. I think the principal problem lies in Putin’s bare-faced use of nuclear blackmail. No one wants a nuclear war, least of all Putin, unless he really is mad as well as bad. The Russians will have persuade themselves to get rid of him. They can be helped along that path by continued assistance to the Ukrainian military and civil sectors. It may take a while.

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  2. Charles,
    a lot of people, including the Australian Greens/left, think UN conventions are “international law”. They are conventions with no force of law and not a single country across the globe would either sign them or ratify them if they overrode domestic laws or they were forced to obey them.

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    1. Some people do think that there’s no such thing as international law, but assuming you don’t go that far I don’t think it can be doubted that the UN Charter falls into that category. Of course enforcement is imperfect (especially against a country with veto power), but enforcement of domestic law isn’t perfect either.

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      1. Remember in 2015 when the British Government website celebrating the Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary was called “800 Years of Democracy!”. The notion of democracy would have horrified King John *and* the barons that made him sign it. Britain didn’t have a parliament until a century later, and didn’t have anything resembling a democratic parliament until the 19th century. People always attribute to the Magna Carta properties that it does not have. Same as they do here in Australia with the Refugee Convention.

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      2. Bit of a long bow, I think, from Magna Carta to the Refugee Convention. Magna Carta wasn’t democratic, but it was quite effective as a legal instrument. The fact that people subsequently made inflated claims for it doesn’t make it meaningless.

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    2. International law is not the same as domestic law–if it were, it wouldn’t need a different name. That’s not the same as saying it doesn’t exist. If I tell you that somebody (or some country or government) is breaking international law and you respond that there’s no such thing as international law, you’re mistaken. If I tell you that somebody is breaking international law and you respond, ‘Well, maybe: but so what?’, then you have a point. Just because people talk about international law doesn’t convict them of the elementary error of supposing that breaking international law has the same consequences as breaking domestic law. More often than not, they have an adequate understanding of what they mean, and I think you probably do as well, even if for rhetorical purposes you may sometimes choose to pretend otherwise.

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  3. Is that seriously what you want to hang your argument on? Please! Do you think anybody would be silly enough to suppose that an Act of Parliament was not a law because the word ‘Act’ is in the title but the word ‘law’ is not?

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  4. Not a single government would sign or ratify them if they were bound to obey them. The core of the UN are still the Allied Powers from the Second World War and the conventions are carefully polished (notably the Genocide Convention so that the USSR wouldn’t land in the dock) and non-binding. The USA, for example, has severely delegitimized the ICC, refusing to place any of its own officials under its jurisdiction.

    To quote “Yes, Minister”, a cynic is what an idealist calls a realist.

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    1. So you think you’re being realistic/cynical, do you? Bless your little cotton socks! Do you know what somebody who was really realistic/cynical would tell you? They would tell you that you’re making a mistake if you think that any laws ever bind people to obey them. Ropes binds; chains bind; laws don’t bind. It’s true, of course, as any realist should know, that sometimes people who break domestic laws are penalised for doing so; but any realist should also know that sometimes people break domestic laws and get away with it. Well, exactly the same statements are true about international laws. Sometimes people who break international laws get away with it; but sometimes people who break international laws are penalised for doing so. You mentioned the International Criminal Court, for example: people have been tried, convicted, and sentenced to imprisonment by the International Criminal Court. If you told them that they were not bound by international law, of what value do you think that would be to them in their prison cells? But then, I remind myself of what Oscar Wilde said about cynics: that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

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