Hamish De Bretton-Gordon
So far the conflict in Ukraine has become synonymous with many things: the advancement of drone warfare, casualty rates akin to the First World War, beautiful cities destroyed. Yet none, surely, have been as shocking as the Russian war crimes we have seen perpetrated on European soil – crimes thought to have been consigned to history.
Putin is already an indicted war criminal at the International Criminal Court for allowing the abduction of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia, and there will be many other crimes added to his list and those of his henchmen: the deliberate targeting of civilians in missile strikes, for instance, and the summary executions of innocent people in Bucha and Irpin. The monstrous Russian regime is unconcerned with civilian casualties and collateral damage. Quite the opposite. It thinks that if it kills enough civilians and raises Ukraine to the ground they will prevail – as they did in Syria. Such horrors offered the UN the opportunity to prove its worth and stand by the principles of its foundation. Yet in the eyes of many the UN has been singularly useless so far in the war. Beyond platitudes, one would be challenged to point to a single achievement. It did not prevent the war from breaking out, it did not rally the world to Ukraine’s cause, it has not preserved the grain deal so important to feed the starving in Africa, and it has gone silent about Russia’s destruction of the Kakhovka Dam which triggered an environmental catastrophe. Its Secretary General, António Guterres, looks woefully out of his depth: his condemnation of the war has been limp, his leadership seemingly non-existent. In almost every photograph one sees of him, he looks permanently anxious. It’s embarrassing.
Yet perhaps its biggest failing – the one many like me find so morally outrageous – is to not even contemplate expelling Russia from the UN Security Council. I am willing to acknowledge that this is a complicated subject. If they were expelled, what would that mean for open dialogue? Would they fall straight into China’s lap? These are valid questions, but that’s the point: they are questions to be asked and considered. Yet why is no one senior in the UN – and I include the other four permanent members of the Security Council (the US, UK, France, and China) in this – even openly discussing it as a possibility? Imagine, for a moment, how serious it would be for Russia if they believed they were to be removed as a permanent member of the Security Council: it would be a national humiliation, the full-stop to their global decline since the end of the Cold War. Putin might not even survive it. It would serve as an earthquake throughout the international order, showing that there are serious consequences of wrongdoing.
What kind of message does it send to the world that Russia is still there, that its membership is seemingly beyond even being questioned? To me, it says that you will be forgiven for anything as long as one is powerful enough. What a dangerous signal to send in what is set to be a tumultuous century. After all, Russia hardly deserves to be a permanent member: there are plenty of other nuclear powers who are not, like Pakistan and India. I feel those countries’ frustration at being excluded for no more reason than tradition, especially when one of its permanent members perpetuates policies many consider genocidal. Besides, it was the Soviet Union that was granted permanent status: not Russia. I hear those who say that China would simply veto Russia’s removal from the Council if the other permanent members sought to do so. Fine – let them. At least we will see their true colours, instead of veiling their hostile position in diplomatic niceties.
The UN should be the most powerful body on the globe – one feared and respected in equal measure. Instead, it looks like a talking shop which allows all and sundry to sprout disinformation and propaganda with no consequence. Heck, they allow Russia to preside over the UN – to set its agenda on rotation – even with an indicted war criminal as leader. You have to laugh, or you’d cry. The UN screams to me of an organisation treading water and unwilling or afraid of powerful pariahs who cajole and threaten members to support them. If the UN is to be the force for good it was initially set up as – if the rules-based world order is to endure – it must get rid of criminal states like Russia or at least take away their veto. Russia is a sea anchor dragging the UN down with it, and unpunished evil grows. We should at least be asking the question – the very essence of the democracy that Ukraine is fighting for, and which Russia is trying to stamp out.