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PResident Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s address to the UN Security Council came at a crucial time for the United Nations as well as for Ukraine. Russia’s unlawful war of aggression, and the collective failure of 192 other member states to stop it, represents the biggest crisis for the UN since Iraq in 2003. This visceral threat to the authority of the organization – practical, legal and moral – is one it may not recover.

The principles enshrined in the UN’s founding charter of 1945, aimed primarily at maintaining peace between sovereign states, have been torn apart by the Kremlin. Repeated calls by UN Secretary General António Guterres for an immediate end to hostilities are being ignored. And the humanitarian laws of war are being brutally flouted, as evidenced by the multiple crimes committed in Bucha, Mariupol and throughout Ukraine.

The UN was not born by chance. Nor should its aspirations and responsibilities be seen as optional or somehow secondary. After the collapse of the League of Nations, it emerged from the smoldering ruins of the second world conflict of the 20th century. The common and urgent motivation was simple: “never again”. Seventy-seven years later, governments and nations badly need to remember its central message.

Amid feverish talk that invading Ukraine could trigger World War III, the UN charter has regained relevance. Its preamble states: “We, the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has caused untold suffering to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in the fundamental rights of the man. [undertake]…to practice tolerance and to live together in peace, as good neighbours, and to join forces to maintain international peace and security”.

Unsurprisingly, Vladimir Putin’s regime flouted the obligations assumed by its Soviet predecessors. Dismayingly, China – like Russia, one of the five permanent members of the Security Council with veto power (the others are the US, UK and France) – does not respect neither is the charter, while other leading states, such as India, are twirling their thumbs unnecessarily.

The UN has not remained silent on Ukraine. In early March, 141 countries in the 193-member general assembly passed a resolution demanding that Russia end all military operations immediately – more than the required two-thirds majority. Only North Korea, Eritrea, Syria and Belarus (and Russia) voted against. So what happened? Nothing. Were fines imposed or enforcement action taken? No.

Three weeks later, the assembly overwhelmingly passed another resolution, insisting on access for aid agencies and the protection of civilians and criticizing Russia for creating a “disastrous” humanitarian situation. This must have been around the time when, as we now know, civilians in Bucha were being executed, raped and tortured by Russian troops. Once again, the UN vote was largely ignored by Moscow.

The 15-member UN Security Council, the only body that could really make a difference, had already proven its impotence. In the days following the invasion, a resolution condemning the assault failed after Russia used its veto. China, India and the United Arab Emirates abstained. Ukraine’s furious ambassador told the council memorably, “Your words are worth less than a hole in a New York pretzel.”

Not giving up, Zelenskiy on Tuesday called on council members to end what he calls genocide and expel Russia from the security council, which he said was crippled and ineffective. Kyiv, he said, wants a transparent international investigation. In fact, the UN Human Rights Council has already opened an investigation. And later this week, the United States and Britain, who currently hold the presidency of the Security Council, will try to expel Russia from the HRC.

“We cannot let a member state that overthrows all the principles we hold dear continue to participate,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US Ambassador to the UN. “Russia’s participation in the Human Rights Council is a farce.” Most objective observers would certainly agree. In truth, one can say that his words apply to Russia’s presence in the UN as a whole.

How can the rank behavior of a violently aggressive and out of control rogue regime be tolerated indefinitely? And how to make the UN more effective?

These fundamental questions now hang over the future of the United Nations. They also apply to other serial abusive states. But Russia is essential, given its privileged position after 1945. If the UN is to retain its authority as the guardian of the rules-based international order, if it is to be able to act decisively when these rules are broken and, indeed, if it is to survive at all as anything more than a shop of talk and stage for the politics of gesture, it is in desperate need of reform.

It’s not a new idea. Many proposals have been floated and sunk over the years, mostly involving expanding the permanent members of the UNSC to include states such as Japan, Brazil, India, South Africa and Germany. Some suggest abolishing the UNSC’s right of veto. Predictably, all of these ideas descended into national rivalries and the jealous preservation of existing rights, with Britain and France being among the main culprits.

This situation clearly cannot continue as long as Ukraine is burning. A sensible and achievable first step would be to change the rules, via an exceptional single vote, to allow majority voting in the Security Council on issues specifically related to Ukraine. Russia’s inevitable veto could be overridden, and the rule change ratified, by the anti-Russian two-thirds majority that already exists in the general assembly. If Putin didn’t like it, he could regroup it. And if he did not comply with subsequent resolutions – for example, on the withdrawal of Russian forces – all UN members would be expected to support the punitive measures agreed by the UN, as in the case of North Korea.

Majority voting at the UNSC could be introduced more generally over time. But, in any event, António Guterres should now ask all member states to support the convening of a new founding conference similar to that of San Francisco in 1945, to relaunch the UN, institutionally and organizationally, in a way that reflects global power balances and priorities. of the 21st century.

It is a critical moment. Ukraine needs urgent help. The United Nations desperately needs a fresh start. And so it is with the disintegrating international order. If the UN fails on Putin and Ukraine like the League of Nations failed on Mussolini and Ethiopia, then the global consequences, as in the 1930s, could be catastrophic for all.

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