Silence the guns in Ukraine – what international diplomacy can (and can’t) do

It is not easy to trust the international system and multilateral organisations in the face […]

Head of Programme on European Union and Institutional Relations Manager at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI)

It is not easy to trust the international system and multilateral organisations in the face of a military aggression and the death of thousands of innocent civilians right before our eyes. And yet international diplomacy still matters, and the rules of international law are still the paradigm against which unlawful acts can be judged and punished. Wars do not prove the failure of this system but are a reminder of its importance for a peaceful coexistence among nations.

It might be difficult to prove it at this particular juncture, given the stalemate of the United Nations in taking action against the Russian invasion of Ukraine and in being an honest broker of peace and stability. Its inaction is exemplified by one of the latest emergency meetings of the UN Security Council, where Russia was chairing the discussion on a resolution that demanded Moscow to immediately stop its attack on Ukraine and withdraw all troops. The resolution was finally vetoed by Russia itself, one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, while another permanent member, China, abstained alongside India and the United Arab Emirates. Eleven voted in favour. 

Once again, the supreme body in charge of maintaining international peace and security has failed to do its job due to the opposition of members directly involved in the controversy and equipped with a veto power. Endless negotiations for the reform of an obsolete institution that mirrors the post WWII power system and works according to outdated decision-making rules have not succeeded in achieving any concrete results. And at each major crisis, we are reminded of the impotence of a system that is not democratic and does not adequately represent the current multipolar world. It is on the basis of a similar outdated mentality that Vladimir Putin has attacked Ukraine, assuming the right of Russia to intervene in a country that it considers ‘its own backyard’ and to negate the path democratically chosen by its population and enshrined in its constitution to establish closer relationships with the West, in particular NATO and the European Union. 

But we are no more in a WWII scenario. The Soviet Union has disintegrated, and Ukraine is a full member of the UN backed by the overwhelming majority of the international community. And in fact, the UN Security Council set up an emergency UN General Assembly session on the Ukraine crisis where 141 countries out of 193 voted in favour of a resolution, which reaffirms Ukrainian sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. It also asked Russia to “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders”. Only five countries – Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, Syria and Russia itself – voted against. The international community spoke clearly in defence of the values and principles contained in the UN Charter and against a diplomatically isolated Russia.

It is easy to argue that this has not stopped Putin and people in Ukraine are still suffering under Russian bombs. But diplomatic isolation cannot be underestimated, and other actions are underway. A UN crisis coordinator has been nominated in the person of Amin Awad, who is now on the ground with the task of coordinating all UN efforts, including its humanitarian response, on both sides of the contact line. His presence and action might be especially crucial in guaranteeing safe corridors and adequate assistance for those escaping Ukraine to bordering EU countries. 

The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva has agreed to establish a commission to investigate violations committed during Russia’s military attack on Ukraine. At the same time, after receiving referrals from 39 member countries, the International Criminal Court has declared it will “immediately proceed” with an investigation into potential war crimes during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The EU is also considering the suspension of the ‘most-favoured nation’ treatment for Russia at the WTO, which means that the bloc would be able to impose tariffs or quotas on Russian imports, and to limit Russian access to finance at the IMF. This would come on top of the already heavy sanctions decided by the US, EU, and UK, joined by many other partners.

And yet if all these initiatives can impose a heavy toll on Putin’s Russia in the medium term, they are not the right instrument to reach an immediate cessation of hostilities and stop the human suffering of the Ukrainian people. Neither the UN Security Council nor other UN institutions seem able to lead a powerful peace initiative that could bring Putin to the negotiating table with Ukraine. Moscow, the Belarusian border, and Antalya have offered the setting for diplomatic efforts, not Geneva. 

The United Nations is the greatest achievement in global governance of the 20th century. If we want to restore the credibility of the multilateral system and give international diplomacy a chance, we need to be serious about reforming collective institutions and realise a global architecture that is fit for the 21st century.

Photo credits: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

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