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Russia’s UN Security Council presidency and its meaning for global security

1 June, 2023

by Oleksandra Zadesenets, Research Assistant

The creation of the United Nations in 1945 was determined by the purpose of maintaining a peaceful and secure world order, promoting economic, scientific and cultural exchange between states, shielding human rights, and cohesively responding to the challenges and threats presented by the contemporary era. It implies that each state, being a member of this organisation, inherently subscribes to these principles and therefore commits to architect their domestic and international affairs in compliance with the UN’s fundamental values — the respect for international law, state sovereignty and civil liberties. However, the demonstration of vivid violation of these principles and the presence of illiberal countries such as Russia and China within the UN engenders the concept of double standards, thus questioning the credibility of the UN as a peace-promoting entity and casting doubts on the authenticity of its values in the global landscape.

The current situation in the global political world demonstrates that the UN fails to respond cohesively to the challenges of the modern world due to insufficient coordination and lack of agreement among its members. Bearing in mind the fact that the UN is unable to fulfil its primary mission, it becomes apparent that nowadays this organisation is experiencing a severe crisis and the erosion of its structures.  The United Nations faces the same challenges as their predecessor League of Nations, which may result in the recurrence of the same shortcomings, and only a solid set of reforms is capable of preventing it. For example, Russell S. Sobel argued that the primary cause of the League of Nations failure was the free-rider problem tied to the non-binding character of  the League’s decisions. To put in another way, it meant that there was no obligation for the states to enforce the League’s decisions and it posed a quandary where the states were taking advantage of the collective security without contributing to it by shouldering the same responsibilities. It resulted in the lack of cooperation among states and weakened the League of Nations ability to combat global issues effectively.  Thus, considering that the structure of the UN Security Council is akin to the League’s Council, it can be contended that the same issue is likely to be witnessed on the example of the United Nations.

The deficiencies of the UN structure are vividly demonstrated in the current state of affairs inside the UN Security Council, whose primary responsibility is to maintain international peace and security. It is important to emphasise that authoritarian regimes pose the main threats to human and global security. The Security Council, as a body responsible for addressing such issues, should take measures to eliminate these threats.  First and foremost, these measures should include the strengthening of democratic institutions worldwide represented by fostering free elections, combating corruption, supervising the compliance with the rule of law, as well as safeguarding independent media and non-governmental organisations that serve a platform for population political participation.  In essence, they should protect human rights and justice, encouraging other states to adhere to these principles. The presence in the UN of authoritarian countries such as Russia and China renowned for their oppression of civil liberties is one of the main obstacles for this mechanism’s fulfillment. Following multiple crimes against humanity conducted by these countries’ current governments, including the Uyghur genocide from Chinese side and repressions of Crimean dissidents on the territory occupied by Russia, it is apparent that these countries neglect abiding the principles vital for the successful functioning of the Security Council. Instead, they only hinder them.

Yet, it is alarming that Russia, being officially recognised as a sponsor of terrorism by several nations, assumed the presidency of the Security Council. Russia’s international affairs are constructed utterly contradictory to the purposes and principles of the UN. Through its interference in the domestic affairs and invasion of the sovereign territories of Ukraine and Georgia, Russia repeatedly demonstrated a flagrant disregard for Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter, which prohibits the use of force in international relations and obliges each member of the UN to respect the integrity of other states. The fact that a state responsible for spreading conflict and terror in the contemporary world holds the presidency of the structure designed to combat such issues sheds light on the absurdity of the current system and underscores the existence of a double standard. It explicitly demonstrates that the decisions and principles of the Security Council exist only in a formal sense and that there is no strict procedure in place to ensure their implementation.

The structure of the UN Security Council has remained unchanged since 1945, which may complicate its effectiveness in solving modern global problems. For instance, in 1998, the UN managed to respond productively to global issues when the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court was adopted, creating a new international institution to prosecute crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes against peace.   It was an achievement that was hard won after years of effort and negotiation. However, having analysed the procedures, methods and difficulties in their solutions nowadays, it is possible to conclude that the composition of the Security Council does not reflect the modern political picture of the world. The form of decision-making in the Security Council often leads to blocking important initiatives, which can delay the response to crisis situations. Thus, the presence of Russia in the Security Council can aggravate this situation as it may use its position to further its own national interests, as seen in its recent presidency. It should also be noted that Russia is entitled to use its veto right, which can affect the resolution of issues affecting the entire world community.

As stated by the Foreign Minister of Ukraine, Dmytro Kuleba, during an online discussion held by Chatham House and the Diplomatic Academy of Ukraine on 30 March, Russia is predisposed to take advantage of its presidency in the Security Council to promote manipulative narratives about the war in Ukraine facilitating the adoption of illicit decisions profitable for the Russian government. Ukrainian diplomats have also expressed concern that Russia may use its presidency as a tribune for propaganda, which may result in distorting the picture of the current situation.

The concerns of Ukrainian diplomats justified themselves after the dubious speech of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Sergey Lavrov, at the UN Security Council on 24 April. The theses that sounded from the rostrum of the Security Council resonated with the narratives of classic Russian propaganda about the Nazi Kyiv regime and hostile hegemonic West. Lavrov, appealing to the principles of international law and the importance of its observance, stated that the UN is “going through a deep crisis”, and the USA and Western countries are to blame for this. The representative of the state responsible for destroying civilian infrastructure on sovereign Ukrainian territory highlighted the importance of respect for sovereignty and condemned the presence of double concepts in the international arena. At the same time, he agitated for consideration of Russia’s interests, which inherently poses a threat since the expansion of Russian influence in the world facilitates the probability of conflict exaggeration.

The permanent representative of Ukraine to the UN, Serhiy Kyslytsia, commented on this speech by saying that Russia is reviving the policy of Stalin at the 1945 Yalta Conference, where Russia opposed granting other nations any rights that might conflict with Moscow’s wishes.

According to the Washington Post, Russia’s behavior in the UN bares another sign of this institution’s decline since the Security Council consolidated the global order that existed after the end of the Second World War, which nowadays is increasingly irrelevant due to the modern threats and conflicts. During the Cold War, the Security Council faced significant challenges emerging from the clash of ideologies and bipolar world order. Two superpowers, the US and the USSR, competitively used the Security Council as a platform for protecting their national interests and serving their political aspirations. Utilising their veto power, they struggled for influence and blocked solutions unpropitious for them, which restrained the Security Council from adequate response to the alarming problems of those times, including nuclear crisis, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

The collapse of the Soviet Block and their defeat in the Cold War led to the emergence of a chain of the newly independent states, which shifted the balance of power in the world. Moreover, development of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle that partially reshaped the nature of conflict solving and the declaration of the war on terror created new challenges in the modern era. Although the question of tension between capitalistic and communistic worlds became no longer the urgent case, the conflict between authoritarian and democratic governance remains relevant. In the modern era, Russia and China, taking the economic benefits of belonging to the international community, use their veto power in the Security Council as a tool for their profit, which usually implies illiberal practices that pose a threat to the entire world. For instance, the Syrian Civil War caused a significant humanitarian crisis  and resulted in notorious violations of human rights. As the counterparts of the conflict and allies of the Syrian government, China and Russia blocked the UN attempt to find a political solution to the conflict and hindered the prevention of human rights abuses. It resulted in the escalation and the subsequent freezing of the conflict: the international community failed to manage this war, allowing atrocities to happen until the present day. This leads to the conclusion that regardless of the space, shape and time, antidemocratic governments will endanger the successful functioning of international security and human rights protection institutions. While democratic governments also often act selfishly in the international arena, the domestic accountability and legal restrictions they operate under limit the scope of this behavior.

The primary cause of the United Nations’ ineffectiveness lies on the surface: the absence of rigorous mechanisms for membership inclusion and expulsion poses a significant threat to its efficacy, undermining global security. For example, after the collapse of the USSR, the Russian Federation became the successor of the Soviet Union and therefore inherited the seat on the UN Security Council that belonged to the former USSR. However, it still remains a big point of discord amongst some as to whether Russia legally inherited all of the USSR’s credentials.

Speaking before the Security Council, Sergiy Kyslytsya raised doubts about Russia as a rightful successor of the USSR’s permanent seat in the Security Council following the uncertainty in the world after the Socialist camp  collapse.  In addition,  international lawyer Yehuda Z. Blum also voiced apprehensions about the prudency of the solution allowing  Russia to effortlessly take over the USSR’s heritage. He expressed the opinion that after the collapse of the USSR, the lawful manner for Russia to join the UN would be through equal admission alongside the newly independent countries from the former Socialist Block. For example, as it was after the recognition of the Baltic states’ independence by the international community and their subsequent admission to the UN or following Two-Plus-Four Treaty underpinning the unification of Germany and making it a sovereign subject of international law.   The fact that Russia had never been officially accepted as a member of the UN indicated that the lack of a core procedure that controls such issues hinders the UN from fulfilling its main function.  Therefore, the reformation of the UN should start from the development of such a necessary procedure.

Above all, there is a necessity for amendments in the decision-making procedure of the Security Council to prevent a situation where single or multiple permanent members use their veto right to block decisions. One approach to achieving this goal is expanding the number of permanent members of the Security Council. For example, the countries such as India, Japan, Brazil, and Germany (Europe’s largest economy), which are key actors in the international arena, do not possess permanent seats in the Security Council. This investment will facilitate a more rapid and comprehensive response to the new challenges since the issues will be discussed from the different geographical and political perspectives, which is crucial for making long-term effective decisions. It will facilitate a more representative character of such an important organ as the Security Council and ensure the rotating basis in the decision-making process. Furthermore, it will assist in the withdrawal from the concepts of great powers making a more just and inclusive international order.

Today’s world faces a chain of global challenges, such as climate change, growing geopolitical tension, the spread of war and terror, the crisis of managing migration processes, cyber threats, and others. Only global reforms may be adequate to solve these problems. It is vital to ensure more effective cooperation and coordination between states and establish clearer and more transparent principles for managing global processes. However, such reforms require considerable effort and support from all participating states, which can be difficult due to diverging interests and views. That is why it is vital to increase the responsibility of member states for compliance with international law and UN decisions.

International law, like any other system, must evolve and adapt to the changing needs and challenges of the world. But it is important to remember that any changes must comply with the basic principles and goals on which international law is based.  History shows that achieving important international agreements and reforms is possible even under challenging conditions, but this requires significant efforts, will and cooperation from all participating countries.  In order to improve international relations, it is necessary to develop criteria for evaluating the effectiveness of the diplomatic corps in the work of participating countries.  These criteria should include such elements as promotion of strengthening cooperation between governments, fulfilment of international obligations and observance of international law, development of international trade and economic cooperation, provision of global security and stability, international legal order and human rights.  The evaluation should be based on the analysis of the implementation of international agreements, participation in international forums and organisations, the level of interaction with other countries, responsible negotiation and conflict resolution, as well as compliance with the principles of international law and international norms.

By implementing these reforms, the UN could become a more effective and credible institution, fulfilling its mission of promoting peace, security, and human rights worldwide.

Image: Barak Obama chairs a meeting of the UNSC (Source: White House (Pete Souza) / Maison Blanche (Pete Souza)/Public Domain)

About Oleksandra Zadesenets

Oleksandra Zadesenets is an undergraduate student at the University of Glasgow, where she is pursuing a degree in International Relations. During her recent internship with the School for Policy Analysis at NaUKMA, she co-authored an analytical article on the socio-cultural aspects of the transformational processes in Ukrainian society following the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, which was presented at a scientific conference. Oleksandra's research interests cover a broad range of issues that shape international landscape. She is particularly drawn to the constructivist theory of international relations, and her area of research interest encompasses democratic transformations in post-Soviet countries, competitive authoritarian regimes, post-Cold War international affairs, closed autocracies, nationalist and dissident movements, human rights and human security, R2P, cultural diplomacy, war making and peace making.