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  • Writer's pictureDebra DeLaet

The United Nations Response to the War in Ukraine

Updated: May 5, 2022

The United Nations Response to the War in Ukraine By Debra DeLaet (Executive Director, Iowa United Nations Association)

On February 24, 2022, Russia launched a military offensive in Ukraine, violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine violates the core principle of non-intervention enshrined in Article 2 of the UN Charter. This crisis represents a critical test of the international institutions built up in the aftermath of World War II.

Because Russia is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council (P5), the Security Council has been unable to respond assertively to Russian aggression. Chapter 5 of the UN Charter provides the P5 with veto power in all Security Council decisions. Thus, the Security Council is unable to exercise its authority to approve enforcement action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. Russia vetoed a draft Security Council resolution brought forward on February 25 that would have condemned Russian aggression and would have called for Russia’s immediate and unconditional withdrawal from Ukraine. Russia’s status as a P5 member of the Security Council with veto power will continue to thwart Chapter 7 enforcement action. Russia’s status as a nuclear power also fundamentally constrains the military options available to the international community as it responds to this crisis. World leaders are responding with caution as they seek to exert pressure on Russia via economic sanctions while not escalating militarily.

On Wednesday March 2, the UN General Assembly strongly and unequivocally condemned Russia’s aggression in a historic vote during an emergency special session on Ukraine, the first emergency session held by the General Assembly since 1982. The GA Resolution deplored the Russian invasion and called for an immediate ceasefire and Russian withdrawal of military forces. Under Chapter 4 of the UN Charter, General Assembly resolutions are non-binding. Unlike the Security Council, the General Assembly does not have jurisdiction to authorize enforcement action. Nevertheless, the General Assembly vote represents a striking indication of international resolve to isolate Russia diplomatically. The resolution was supported by 141 of the 193 members of the UN. Only five countries—Russia, Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, and Syria—voted against the resolution. Thirty-five countries, including China, abstained on this vote. The overwhelming support in the General Assembly for this resolution is a sign of Russia’s isolation. Notably, even Serbia, traditionally an ally of Russia, voted for the resolution. China’s abstention is also noteworthy. The widely-supported global condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also aligns with broad economic sanctions against Russia, supported by over 30 countries. The hope is that political isolation and economic sanctions will exert pressure on Russia to engage in diplomacy and peaceful resolution of this conflict.

Beyond the realm of diplomacy, the United Nations is playing an essential role in responding to the devastating humanitarian crisis resulting from Russia’s aggression. To date, over 3 million refugees already have fled Ukraine. This number will continue to rise as long as the violence continues. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that upwards of 12 million displaced people in Ukraine and 4 million refugees in neighboring countries will need assistance. UN institutions are playing a critical role in responding to the developing humanitarian and refugee crisis. In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion, UN Secretary-General António Guterres released $20 million from its Central Emergency and Response Fund to be used to respond to the crisis. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are coordinating an emergency appeal to raise $1.7 billion from member states to respond to the humanitarian crisis. UN agencies, in addition to raising funds, are also active in providing humanitarian and refugee assistance on the ground in Ukraine. These efforts include work by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme, and the UN Population Fund.

The United Nations will continue to work on two tracks as it responds to the war in Ukraine. In the realm of peace and security, the United Nations will continue to amplify the broad global condemnation of Russia’s aggression as it strives to advance international diplomacy. In the realm of humanitarian and refugee assistance, the UN will follow the core humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality as it provides assistance to innocent civilians on all sides of the conflict.

The Iowa United Nations Association encourages individuals who would like to support the UN’s humanitarian relief efforts to consider making a donation to the Ukraine Humanitarian Fund. All donations contribute directly to the UN’s humanitarian work in response to the crisis in Ukraine.

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