Ukraine leader Volodymyr Zelensky criticized the UN for failing to stop Russia’s invasion. But to do more would mean changing how the United Nations works.
Ukraine’s president Zelensky criticizes the United Nations for not doing enough to stop the war, during the UN General Assembly in New York, 20 September, 2023. Photo by Enrique Shore for News Decoder.
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Every September there is a chaotic week in New York, where high-level representatives of 193 countries attend the United Nations General Assembly. Security is tight and traffic in Manhattan is subject to frequent road blocks to allow for a myriad of convoys escorting heads of state and government.
Hundreds — if not thousands — of meetings take place, many simultaneously, aiming to tackle universal problems like climate change, human rights, international conflicts and food and health crises around the world. But all leaders of these governments come together to debate global issues in a meeting called the General Debate.
The physical presence of Ukraine President Volodymir Zelensky for the first time in the General Assembly attracted media attention, and he used his address at the General Debate to convey a message that the invasion of his country in February 2022 was not just a regional problem.
The consequences affect everybody, he said.
Albanian Prime Minister and current president of the UN Security Council Edi Rama opens a special session of the Council during the 78th UN General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York, USA, 20 September 2023. Photo by Enrique Shore for News Decoder.
The Security Council meets.
There was a special session of the UN Security Council to debate this conflict in particular.
Zelensky expressed strong criticism of the body set up precisely to maintain peace and security in the world. He denounced what he considered “inaction” against “a criminal and unprovoked aggression” and called for the suspension of Russia’s veto power.
Five nations hold permanent seats on the Security Council — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Each of these five have the power to veto any resolution. This makes it all but impossible to pass any measure to which any of these countries would object, such as one that would punish Russia over the invasion.
At the start of the Security Council meeting, Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya protested Zelensky’s participation and tried to block or delay it. But he was overruled by the current president of the Security Council, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama.
After a lengthy and heated exchange, Rama proposed a solution that prompted laughter from many participants: “You stop the war,” Rama said, “and President Zelensky will not take the floor.”
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres listens to global leaders at a special session of the UN Security Council during the 78th UN General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York 20th September 2023. Photo by Enrique Shore for News Decoder.
Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya requests to speak at a special session of the UN Security Council during the 78th UN General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York, 20 September 2023. Photo by Enrique Shore for News Decoder.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened the meeting of the Security Council by condemning the war and reiterating that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was “in clear violation of the United Nations charter and international law.”
Then Zelensky denounced once again the invasion as “a criminal and unprovoked aggression by Russia”, stating that the only way to lasting peace is the full withdrawal of Russian troops. He called for reforms that would allow the 193 members of the UN to suspend the veto power of one of the permanent members of the Security Council for violating the United Nations charter.
He expressed criticism that is shared by other United Nations members, saying that “veto power in the hands of the aggressor is what has pushed the UN into deadlock.”
The United Nations Security Council meets in New York, 20 September, 2023. Any proposals made by any of the 15 members of this group could be vetoed by one of its five permanent members which include China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Photo by Enrique Shore for News Decoder.
Zelensky later left the room, avoiding a direct confrontation with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who arrived after he had gone. Lavrov then defended his country’s actions and blamed the West for “interfering in domestic affairs of Ukraine.”
But perhaps the sharpest criticism of Russia came from Rama, who changed hats and pronounced a powerful speech not as president of the Security Council but as representative from Albania, stressing that in this conflict there is a clear aggressor (Russia) and a clear aggressed (Ukraine). He denounced Russia to “brutally undermine all the principles that gave birth to the United Nations.”
He said that an aggression in the heart of Europe cannot be a European problem only, this aggression should be everyone’s business and paraphrased the famous quote from Martin Niemöller, originally aimed at the Nazis, adapting it to the current situation:
“First they came for Georgia. I did not speak out. Then they came for Crimea. It was not my country so I did not speak out. Then they came for the whole Ukraine, but I was not Ukrainian, so I did not speak out, and then they came for me, but there was no one left to help and defend me.”
Three questions to consider:
- What is stopping the United Nations from taking action in Ukraine?
- Do you think an organization like the United Nations can be effective without military power?
- What role do you think the United Nations has in trying to end global conflicts?
Enrique Shore is a News Decoder correspondent, photographer and pictures editor with three decades experience covering World Cups, Olympics, presidential elections, summits and the first Gulf War. He was Reuters chief photographer for Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, then based in Madrid in charge of the Iberian Peninsula. He later looked after media clients in Spain and Portugal. He is currently an independent photographer, editor and consultant based in New York.
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