Opinion: The UN is flawed, and Russia’s war on Ukraine is exposing all of its imperfections

How can Russian President Vladimir Putin get away with brazenly attacking a neighboring country, targeting non-combatants and killing thousands of innocent people while repeatedly claiming that his troops are not committing atrocities or targeting civilians? Can’t he be stopped?
The West, led by the United States and other NATO members, has been arming Ukraine’s defenders and imposing harsh economic sanctions on Russia. But the world’s new weapon, metaphorically speaking, aims to isolate Russia from international organizations.
That’s why on Thursday, the United Nations General Assembly voted to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, the body tasked with the “promotion and protection of human rights around the world.” The vote was 93 in favour, 24 against and 58 abstentions. (Russia later said it was “withdrawing” by election, but would continue to abide by its international human rights obligations.)
The fact that Russia has a prestigious seat on the UNHRC at a time when it is massacring civilians and committing what many world leaders have considered war crimes shows how broken the UN system is. That the UNGA was able to issue a damning indictment by expelling her from the UNHRC shows that, however flawed, the UN continues to provide a venue for the expression of global outrage.

But excluding Putin’s Russia from the UNHRC is a purely symbolic act. It won’t save a single life. That is, unless it becomes the first step in an effort to repair the architecture of international diplomatic institutions.

The failure of the UN has never been more visible than in this war. Russia, the perpetrator of ongoing atrocities that shock our conscience, possesses the most powerful tool of international diplomacy: veto power in the UN Security Council. No major action against the aggressor can be approved because Russia can simply stop it.

Exasperation with the UN’s helplessness was palpable as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the body on Tuesday, a day after visiting Bucha, the kyiv suburb whose name is now synonymous with mass graves and the deaths of innocent Ukrainians. .

Zelensky described what he saw after the withdrawal from Russia: “They cut off limbs, they cut their throats… Women were raped and killed in front of their children.” (Russia’s spokesman has denied these claims, calling them “baseless” and “a fabrication,” even though the horrors in Bucha were only discovered after the Russian occupation of the suburb ended and just as Human Rights Watch announced it had documented accusations of war crimes there.)
“Where is the security that the Security Council needs to guarantee?” Zelensky demanded of his members, making the demand essentially impossible, that Russia be expelled from the most important UN body. “What is the purpose of our organization?” he asked an embarrassed audience in silence.
As Zelensky pointed out, Chapter 1, Article 1 of the UN Charter declares that the purpose of the UN is the preservation of peace and security. In fact, the entire letter reads like a blueprint for indicting Russia. Article 2, for example, commits members to refrain from threatening the use of force against the territorial integrity of their neighbors.
Does Putin care that he has been expelled from the UNHRC or that members are calling for Russia’s expulsion from the G20? It’s not a big deal, said the prevaricating spokeswoman for him. But history has shown that Putin is obsessed with Russia’s prestige as a world power, and membership in these organizations is a badge of honor.
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After Russia illegally seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the G8 expelled Russia (making the group the G7). Once Donald Trump assumed the presidency, he repeatedly tried to get the G7 to readmit Putin, which caused serious friction with the rest of the countries, which strongly rejected the idea. If Putin weren’t interested in returning to the group, it’s hard to imagine that Trump would have defended him, raising more questions about his relationship with Putin, to make this happen.
Ahead of Thursday’s vote to suspend Russia from the UNHRC, the Chinese ambassador warned that the move would set a dangerous precedent. We can only hope that he is right, and that the precedent is dangerous for the many tyrants whose representatives have paralyzed the agency’s mission, to the detriment of those who suffer human rights abuses around the world.
those who vote against expelling Russia looks like a who’s who of human rights violators. The list of countries that have sat on the UNHRC also includes an appalling cross-section of violators, which explains why the organization’s work seems like a satire on its mission.
Among those chosen in recent years to defend human rights are not only Russia but also China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and others. The parody extends to other organizations. North Korea was chosen to chair a UN disarmament forum; They will go before the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
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Just as Russia’s presence on the Security Council helps protect it from the UN, violators can protect themselves and each other at the UNHRC. Since its founding, it has created just one commission of inquiry on North Korea and a handful of other countries. Notably, there have been none on China, Iran, or the many other countries accused of chronic human rights abuses. Not even one on Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
He established one regarding Ukraine a few weeks ago, eight years after Russia invaded Crimea and fueled a separatist war in eastern Ukraine, and decades after Putin’s actions in Chechnya and against his opponents at home. Meanwhile, there have been nine UNHRC-mandated inquiries or investigations into Israel, a country that is far from perfect, but has a democratically elected government, hardly deserving of this level of critical attention relative to the rest of the world.

Arguably, most countries, including the United States, have committed moral transgressions. Few, if any, are unblemished. That makes it hard for them to claim moral high ground, a phenomenon that clears the way for the worst offenders.

But this is not the first time that the international community has put an end to Moscow’s time in the UNHRC. In 2016, amid Russia’s brutal bombing of Aleppo in Syria, Russia attempted to win re-election to the UNHRC. In a shocking blow, it was blocked. But it was not long before the same Moscow regime, a chronic violator of human rights, was elected again; and now suspended.

So will anything change now?

It’s hard to be optimistic. But there is a general feeling that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is reshaping the world order. If ever there was a time to rethink the structure of international institutions, and develop a means of making respect for basic norms a condition for legitimacy and influence within those institutions, it is now.

After all, the mass graves in the Ukraine, the new orphans and widows, and the horrors we are likely to discover soon are proof that the current system has failed in its primary mission.

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