The Security Council has played an important function during the war in Ukraine.
There is a general perception that the war in Ukraine has caused an existential crisis for the UN and paralyzed the UN Security Council.
This perception is incorrect. On the contrary, the Security Council has shown itself to be proactive, flexible and resourceful in the midst of an international crisis involving a war of aggression by Russia – a veto-holding member of the Council – against Ukraine.
A catwalk for international politics
While it is true that the Security Council has failed to stop the war in Ukraine, this is more because the necessary conditions on the ground are not in place than because Russia is blocking proposals by exercising its veto.
Even so, the Security Council has played an important role in the war through its often underestimated function as a meeting place, or ‘catwalk’ for international politics.
I’ve described this idea of the Council as a catwalk before, in the book Palaces of Hope – the anthropology of global organizations (2017). My intention with this is to highlight the importance of the Council in continuing to draw global attention.
Currently, the only place where Russia and Ukraine meet to talk about the war is in the Security Council.
As Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN Sergiy Kyslytsya told me when I met him at Ukraine’s UN delegation in early June:
“Even if the Security Council cannot pass any meaningful decision on Ukraine when it comes to stopping the war, it is still very important because it is the only global platform where the war is discussed regularly. It is also [very important] that Russia is publicly exposed and isolated in the Security Council.” Most Security Council meetings are open to the public and broadcast in the media.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February, the Security Council has held over 20 meetings to discuss the war. These meetings maintain the political pressure on Russia, and Ukraine is invited to attend as an affected party.
Russia also attends all these meetings, despite the strong criticism they receive regarding their actions in Ukraine, except from China and a group of non-western elected members, who see a noncommittal position as in their own best interests. Everything said in these meetings is documented and will be important when the war is finally over.
Of importance right now
In addition, the Security Council has managed to find clever solutions. Russia blocked the Council’s first draft resolution condemning its war of aggression. But in an extension of the resolution process, a group of council members took the initiative for the Security Council to vote on transferring consideration of the matter to the UN General Assembly.
A procedural resolution to convene the General Assembly only needed nine votes and could not be blocked by a veto. Accordingly, consideration of the resolution was transferred to the General Assembly, at which all of the UN’s 193 member states have an equal vote.
A large majority of UN member states condemned Russia’s war of aggression, with 141 countries voting in favour of the resolution and only four countries voting in support of Russia: Belarus, North Korea, Syria and Eritrea.
We should of course note that several large and populous countries abstained, but this does not alter the political reality that only four countries supported Russia. And most important of all, Russia received a clear message from the whole world: Stop the war!
Transferring the matter to the General Assembly put pressure on every country in the world to adopt a position on the war and to make its position clear right now, while also having it documented for posterity.
This collaboration between the Security Council and the General Assembly is generating much attention concerning the war and the position adopted by each country, thus enhancing the Security Council’s ‘catwalk’ function.
As Ireland’s ambassador to the UN recently stated in a speech to the General Assembly on 8 June:
“This is an important moment of accountability, the General Assembly has been enabled to speak when the Security Council has been silenced.” But it was the Security Council that made this moment possible.
More unpleasant to use a veto
In April this year, we saw yet another important innovation that strengthened both the relationship between the Security Council and the General Assembly and the Council’s catwalk function.
For 18 years, Liechtenstein has been attempting to ensure that the five permanent members of the Security Council are bound to appear before the General Assembly and explain themselves whenever they exercise their veto. The most recent attempt to get such a measure adopted was lauched two years ago, but the resolution was defeated.
But now, in the midst of what several commentators have described as an existential crisis for the UN and the Security Council, the UN has managed to pass a measure that will make exercising a veto more unpleasant. This is an innovation and a step in the right direction.
The new measure was put into use as early as 8 June, when Russia and China had to explain to the General Assembly why they had vetoed the imposition of stronger sanctions on North Korea.
China’s and Russia’s speeches were followed by a long series of speeches from other UN member states, which in turn increased international awareness of what had happened in the Security Council.
My catwalk concept is not about the UN being a “catwalk for dictators,” to quote the Russian chess player Garry Kasparov.
In fact, it is quite the opposite. Currently, it is raising awareness of Russia’s isolation.
The eyes of the world are focused on a regime that has few friends on the international stage. This catwalk of international politics focuses attention on meetings, debates and speeches, all of which are documented for posterity and broadcast to anyone who is interested.
If one were able to evaluate the Security Council only by the resolutions it is not able to adopt, one could rapidly dismiss the Council as helpless and perhaps in the throes of an existential crisis.
But as already mentioned, the Security Council has many other important functions that even Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN highlights as extremely important. And if there is anyone who has authority to state an opinion as to whether the Security Council is useful or helpless right now, it must be him.
Moreover, the Security Council has passed approximately as many resolutions so far this year as at the same time last year, which also suggests that the war in Ukraine has not paralyzed the Council or rendered it helpless.
The glare of media attention focused on Ukraine has tended to cast a shadow over other conflicts. But the Security Council does not forget these conflicts and has also not ceased to function as a decision-maker in these matters.
- Niels Nagelhus Schia is a Senior. Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI). Alongside PRIO researchers, he takes part in the Dialogue Forum for Norway’s membership in the United Nations Security Council
- A Norwegian version of this text was published at NRK Ytring 24 June 2022: “FNs sikkerhetsråd tar grep“