What's In Blue

Posted Tue 19 Sep 2023

Ukraine: High-level Open Debate

Tomorrow morning (20 September), the Security Council will convene for a high-level open debate on Ukraine. The meeting, titled “Upholding the purposes and principles of the UN Charter through effective multilateralism: Maintenance of peace and security of Ukraine”, is a signature event of Albania’s September Council presidency. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama is expected to chair the meeting, at which Secretary-General António Guterres will brief. Several heads of state, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, are expected to participate in the meeting. This will be Zelenskyy’s first in-person address to the Security Council since the onset of the war in Ukraine in February 2022. No outcome is anticipated in connection with tomorrow’s meeting.

Albania has prepared a concept note ahead of tomorrow’s meeting, which says that the open debate seeks to “address the implications of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine for multilateralism” and to offer member states an opportunity to consider potential collective efforts to “reinforce the international rules-based order and strengthen multilateralism”.

The concept note underscores the profound changes that the world is experiencing and suggests that, 78 years after the UN’s founding, its Charter’s principles are facing unprecedented risk. It points out that, in addition to challenging the core tenets of the “international rules-based order” by flouting border sanctity and violating Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter, which prohibits the threat or use of force, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also strained multilateralism. Such actions have exposed the limitations and vulnerabilities of the multilateral system, casting doubt on the UN’s role, particularly that of the Security Council, in managing such crises.

Against this backdrop, the concept note highlights the renewed appeals for Security Council reform, aiming to make it more representative and responsive to global crises. It further emphasises the ongoing need to bolster multilateral institutions and have them evolve so as to effectively address intricate global issues and maintain international peace and security.

The concept note poses several questions to help guide the discussion at tomorrow’s meeting:

  • How has Russia’s war against Ukraine impacted the functioning of multilateralism in general and of the UN in particular, and what are the responsibilities of member states in undertaking collective action in preserving the UN Charter?
  • What are the consequences of the war in Ukraine for the Security Council as the body entrusted with the responsibility for the maintenance of peace and security and the prevention of conflict?
  • How can the international community achieve an end to the war in Ukraine in line with the UN Charter and Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity?

The Council has discussed the UN Charter and the multilateral system several times in the past few years. The most recent discussion was on 24 April, during Russia’s Security Council presidency, on the topic of “Effective Multilateralism through the Defense of the Principles of the UN Charter”. Previous meetings on similar topics have included an open debate on “New Orientation for Reformed Multilateralism”, organised by India on 14 December 2022, and a high-level briefing organised by China on 7 May 2021 on “Upholding Multilateralism and the UN-Centred International System”. While these meetings delved into questions on strengthening multilateralism and upholding the principles of the UN Charter, tomorrow’s open debate will be the first meeting seeking to discuss these issues with a specific focus on the war in Ukraine.

At a 1 September press conference on this month’s plan of work, Ambassador Ferit Hoxha (Albania) noted that the open debate would mark the first meeting on Ukraine held at the level of heads of state. He expressed hope that the meeting could serve as an opportunity for leaders to examine ways to resolve the crisis, including by discussing proposed peace initiatives.

Nearly 19 months into Russia’s military incursion, the war shows no sign of abating and prospects for a peaceful resolution remain bleak as both sides continue to rely on military means to shape the war’s outcome. Ukraine’s diplomatic approach has evolved considerably since the collapse of peace talks with Moscow in April 2022. Ukrainian officials have been unwilling to resume dialogue with Russia, instead opting to engage in diplomatic efforts to garner maximum support for a ten-point peace formula that Zelenskyy unveiled at a Group of 20 (G20) summit on 15 November 2022. The peace formula includes calls for nuclear safety, food and energy security, the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine, restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the release of all prisoners and deportees, and the establishment of a special tribunal to prosecute Russian war crimes.

On 5 and 6 August, at Ukraine’s request, Saudi Arabia hosted a meeting to discuss fundamental principles for restoring peace in Ukraine. This followed an earlier meeting held on 24 June in Copenhagen, Denmark. The gathering in Jeddah saw participation from over 40 countries, including several that have not condemned the Russian aggression, most notably China. Russia was not invited. Since the Jeddah summit, Ukraine has continued engaging with member states to build support for Zelenskyy’s ten-point peace formula, with the aim of convening a global peace summit later this year.

Ukraine’s allies have also rejected the idea of bilateral discussions with Moscow, accusing Russia of breaching trust by persistently targeting civilian infrastructure in Ukraine and of being unwilling to negotiate on terms that align with the principles of the UN Charter. Consequently, many of Ukraine’s allies, such as members of the Group of Seven (G7), have pivoted to offering Ukraine security assurances in the form of long-term commitments and arrangements designed to ensure that Ukraine maintains a robust military force, both to counter Russia’s ongoing operations and to deter potential future aggression.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Guterres is likely to reiterate his concerns regarding the growing geopolitical divides that have been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. In his address at the general debate of the 78th session of the General Assembly this morning (19 September), the Secretary-General cautioned that as the world moves rapidly towards multipolarity, strong and effective multilateral institutions are essential to guarantee peace. He emphasised, however, that “global governance remains stuck in time”, reflecting the political and economic realities of 1945. In his report titled A New Agenda for Peace, Guterres argues that a more secure world hinges on building trust and solidarity among UN member states as well as on broader compliance with international law norms, including those contained in the UN Charter, such as respecting human rights and the territorial integrity of member states.

Guterres is also expected to provide his perspective on the UN’s role with respect to current geopolitical challenges. In an interview yesterday (18 September), Guterres said that the “Secretary-General has no power and no money”, severely limiting what the UN is able to accomplish in the realm of peace and security. Although the UN possesses moral authority and the ability to bring parties together, geopolitical rifts have hindered global governance in many areas. Referring to the war in Ukraine, Guterres noted that since the 2014 Minsk Agreements, Russia has been reluctant to involve the UN in mediation. Thus, the UN has pivoted towards diplomatic efforts focused primarily on humanitarian issues, such as facilitating the release of civilians from the Azovstal steel plant in the city of Mariupol in April 2022 and spearheading the Black Sea Grain Initiative in July 2022. In this regard, Guterres may express his regret over Russia’s decision to end the grain agreement in July.

Contrasting views of the international system and multilateralism are likely to be on display at tomorrow’s meeting, which may be contentious. China and Russia might express the view that Western adherence to the UN Charter has been selective over the years, and that the US is more interested in being a global hegemon than a constructive international actor. Western and other like-minded states may argue that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine represents a gross violation of the UN Charter and an assault on the rules-based international order. Therefore, any resolution to the conflict should adhere to the principles of the UN Charter and respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Several members are expected to call on Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders. Some, particularly member states from the Global South, may emphasise the need for all parties to return to the negotiating table. They might also welcome the various mediation efforts and proposals, including diplomatic initiatives by Brazil, China, and South Africa.

Some members are likely to argue that the Council does not reflect today’s geopolitical realities and call for its structural reform. Members may also express concern about the use of the veto. The war in Ukraine has highlighted the significant constraints on Council action when the interests of one of its veto-wielding permanent members is at stake. There may be references to General Assembly resolution A/RES/76/262 of 26 April 2022, which stipulates that the General Assembly will convene whenever a veto is cast in the Security Council to hold a debate on that situation.

Council members are broadly supportive of Security Council reform and acknowledge that the organ needs to reflect today’s geopolitical realities. They remain divided, however, on the specifics of reform. Addressing the General Assembly today, US President Joe Biden reiterated Washington’s commitment to increasing the number of permanent and non-permanent members, stressing that the Security Council needs “more voices and more perspectives”. As well, the declaration from the 15th BRICS summit in South Africa, held between 22 and 24 August, highlighted the importance of increasing representation for developing countries within the Council. Notably, the declaration backed the “legitimate aspirations” of Brazil, India, and South Africa to secure permanent seats on the Council.

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