On the eve of the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, February 23, 2023, the UN General Assembly once again demanded that Russia cease fighting and withdraw from Ukraine. This was already the fifth request of this kind (A/RES/ES-11/6). Consequences: none! Russia continues its attacks unabated. So the UN come in Article 1 of their Paper enshrined goal of “maintaining international peace and security”. Russia cannot be stopped with resolutions alone.
In order not to be misunderstood: It is good and right to reaffirm the international law prohibition of the use of force. Referring to actions by Western states that are in fact sometimes borderline and also cross-border, Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to make people believe that he is acting within the framework of international law. It is important to counter this with a clear edge and an overwhelming majority in the General Assembly: The ban on violence applies! Regardless of what other states have done. The aggression is against international law and must be stopped immediately. It is also important to point out in the resolutions the protection of the civilian population and the civilian infrastructure, the ban on annexation and the obligation to make reparations. However, the UNGA is only doing what Article 11 of the UN Charter expressly stipulates: discussing issues relating to the maintenance of world peace and making recommendations in this regard.
A well-known pattern: problem management instead of problem solving
This is “business as usual”, as the great expert on the UN, the recently deceased Inge Kaul, judged in a contribution to the debate a year ago on the first resolution on Ukraine. In other words: bureaucratic. Problems are managed, not solved. Unfortunately, this can also be observed elsewhere in the area of security. Just think of the blue helmet missions, whose mandates are repeatedly extended without any political perspective. Next year, the UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) 60. Their website states succinctly: “Due to the lack of a political solution (…) UNFICYP stayed on the island.”
Of course, the UN does more than just draft resolutions: they provide humanitarian aid, clarify human rights violations or secure nuclear power plants through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But nothing to silence the guns. The Secretary-General’s diplomatic initiatives have not brought about this either. In this situation, the General Assembly must do more to fulfill its responsibility for peace. And she can. It can decide anything that appears suitable for the fulfillment of its tasks – except one thing: impose obligations on the states. Only the Security Council, which is canceled because of Russia’s right to veto the Ukraine war, is allowed to do that.
What action can the General Assembly take?
The General Assembly should include the States ‘follow up’ measures put under pressure to justify and negotiate, as the Committees of human rights treaty bodies do with success. If a violation is found, it will be discussed with the States concerned and put on the agenda until it is remedied. For example, the UNGA could set up a committee to negotiate on an ongoing basis the implementation of the individual points in the resolutions: from agreements on prisoner exchanges and grain exports (which is already working), to protection of the civilian population and civilian infrastructure, to a ceasefire and the withdrawal of troops. However, a war as understood by the UN is not a purely bilateral matter, but one of the world community. The committee would therefore have to discuss other issues, such as confidence- and security-building measures, such as are widely known from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), arms control, disarmament, security guarantees and a European security architecture – at least that’s where it is Chinese peace initiative a point.
If you draw the circle of topics so wide, Russia would also have something to gain. Unlike bilateral negotiations between the warring parties, where you can only lose. After all, Ukraine’s territorial integrity is not up for debate, even after China’s peace plan. A state cannot legally annex territory through aggression, even with the consent of the attacked state.
Prerequisites for an effective committee
At best, the committee should include the members of the Security Council, with the involvement of Ukraine. This would save the complicated selection of suitable states and would mean the participation of the most important states. Without them having a right of veto there and being able to withdraw from the discussion with a simple “Njet”.
Instead, Russia and Ukraine would have to campaign for majorities for their interests in the committee and allow their own perspectives to be questioned. In order to remain solution-oriented, the chairmanship should rotate monthly among the members who are neither directly involved in the war nor support a side with arms deliveries. The respective presidency would have to present a work program at the beginning and report on the results to the UNGA at the end. In this way, a debate is initiated among all states and world public opinion is created.
Bringing Russia (world) public into a position of justification
In addition, the UNGA should set up a body of legal experts to assess the legality of acts of war. So it is not about the – time-consuming – proof of personal guilt, but “only” about an assessment of whether international humanitarian law has been violated in individual cases. The basis for this could be documented complaints from one warring party and replies from the other side within a short period of time. The compulsion to justify alone would moderate Russia. It would have to prove why it mistook targets attacked for military objects. If it does not succeed in this, it is – officially sealed, so to speak – in the eyes of the world as a state that commits war crimes and Crimes against humanity commits.
High-ranking personalities beyond any doubt should participate in this body: former judges of the International Court of Justice or members of the International Law Commission (ILC). They would have to justify the results of their deliberations, including deviating votes; and submit a monthly report to the UNGA so that it can assess the course of the war.
None of this will end the war immediately, but it will increase its political cost to Russia. In view of his global political ambitions, that cannot be irrelevant to him.
By Prof. Dr. Ulrich Fastenrath, Center for International Studies at the Technical University of Dresden, Member of the Executive Committee of the Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia State Association of the DGVN