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Unpacking the UN in Ukraine–Is it as Useless as People Say?

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As the war in Ukraine surpasses 500 days, policymakers continue to debate the best course of action—sanctions remaining their preferred weapon of choice. In spite of this, recent reports have shown that they aren’t working. European businesses and third-world countries actively circumvent these measures, providing Russia with goods and services for its war effort. This duality from the international community–where one front remains firm in condemnation, whilst another battles the harsh reality that such policies are being undermined–is a glaring mirror to the inner workings of the United Nations. Although the UN is a fundamentally vital institution that has worked to promote peace and security, the recent war in Ukraine has shown how limiting the organization can be and the systemic flaws that bar it from making more meaningful change.

What has the UN done in Ukraine?

On March 2, 2022, the UN adopted a resolution to demand that the Russian government withdraw its troops immediately from Ukraine. Additionally, the UN was able to make an agreement with Turkiye that enabled safe passage for ships carrying grains and food products across the Black Sea. It is clear then, that the UN has provided aid and support to the war effort, but it’s important to note that the powers of its representative organ, the General Assembly (GA), are much less significant to that of the Security Council. Resolutions passed in the GA are mere suggestions; they serve a symbolic purpose, as opposed to the Security Council, whose resolutions are legally binding.

When we look at this council (two of its veto members consisting of China and Russia), their contentious response over the war has indicated only effective, punitive measures against Russia. Given Russia’s veto, no resolution has been put forth concerning the war. During a meeting marking the war’s anniversary, neither Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov nor Chinese Minister Wang Yi attended. Prior to the start of the meeting, Russia’s UN Ambassador even contested the number of nations allowed to speak, then demanded that “all lives are priceless” after Ukraine’s representative asked for a moment of silence for the war’s victims.

The Problem

A supposed space for diplomacy and common ground has rather devolved into a Youtuber-boxing-esque arena. Russia has made numerous unsubstantiated claims, from stating that the US was operating biolabs in Ukraine to requesting Roger Waters (former frontman of Pink Floyd) to tell the council that Ukraine’s invasion was justified. Perhaps even more bizarre was how at the start of the war, Russia held the rotating presidency of the Security Council and even chaired the meeting. During the council’s meeting to commemorate the war, Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, recounts the Russian ambassador’s remarks as having “more to do with psychiatrists than with politics.”

Unfortunately, the gridlock facing the council and its inability to enforce accountability for Russia demonstrates a failure of the UN’s institution. Created after WW2, the Security Council had five permanent members with veto powers intended to “police the world after the defeat of Nazi Germany.” Despite the council growing to 15 members, the number of members with veto powers has remained minimal. Thus, when such a stringent political divide occurs between the permanent members, it is effectively impossible for any change to occur–leading to western countries accusing Russia of dragging the bureaucratic process with loosely related tangents.

However, the problems facing the UN are not limited to the Security Council, but the UN itself–which is often prone to influence from dominating powers. Take a look at funding. The United Nations is funded through assessed and voluntary contributions depending on member states’ economic size. But, these funds are then micromanaged by agencies like the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, which is dominated by nations that are the largest contributors. Thus, developmental projects are strongly influenced by those who contribute the most—making the UN incredibly vulnerable to earmarking.

For instance, in 2006, the UN Development Program accepted its “largest-ever bilateral donation” from Spain. However, the priorities set forth were not based on the Millenium Development Goals but on eight “thematic windows” defined to only benefit 59 countries of interest to Spain. Furthermore, just days after the invasion of Ukraine, the UNDP accepted funding from Russia for a project of interest to the country in Central Asia. The program is so focused on gaining more funds that it will accept money from any source.

How can an institution whose sole aim is unity and welfare actively achieve these goals when its mechanisms for executing them perpetuate the problem? That is not to say that the UN is useless; as mentioned above, the UN has done copious amounts of humanitarian work, raising awareness about a plethora of problems, and continues to be our best space for international, diplomatic peacemaking. But there are, of course, some flaws that first make political gridlock inevitable and, secondly, make it difficult for the agency to promote impactful change when it has to deal with various parties of such conflicting interests—from big donors to developing countries, to the secretariats and agency bodies themselves. Tangled within these problems are also questions of sovereignty, the impact of colonization on a country’s potential to be a big donor in the first place, and the nature of international relations in itself.

These issues may be unavoidable given all the diverse interests and complexities of global politics, but that does not mean the system cannot be improved upon. Thus, though I fundamentally believe in the UN and its mission goals, the institution still paints a paradoxical picture: one that is rooted in the core belief of security and peace, but is nonetheless torn by its flawed mechanisms and ineffectiveness.

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