Ukraine conflict highlights need for UN reform

In recent days it has become increasingly clear that the Russian army has carried out war crimes in Ukraine. Reports of summary executions, mass graves, wanton destruction, and the targeting of civilians have proliferated. Such actions blatantly contravene the Geneva Convention – the documents that protect human rights during wartime unanimously agreed upon after the horrors of the second world war. In consequence, calls have grown for Nurenburg-style trials of Putin and Russian officials. Yet, this very call highlights the inadequacy of the international mechanisms of peace and justice that have been brutally exposed by this bloody conflict. 

A great deal has been made of the impressive public unity and coordination of the European and North American powers in response to Putin’s war. With the divisive Trump regime, the resurgence of European nationalism, and the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, the decade past had certainly seen the erosion of political unity amongst Russia’s enemies. Yet, despite this regional political unity being restored by the invasion, global institutions are being exposed. 

The 犀利士 ps://”>International Criminal Court, the intergovernmental organisation that would theoretically be responsible for handling such a trial, would ultimately be powerless to prosecute or effect substantial change. In the first instance, the ICC requires the cooperation of the relevant state in order to bring a case against an individual; the ICC has historically struggled to prosecutive incumbent leaders for exactly this reason – 13 people wanted for trial by the ICC remain at large and 3 have died before prosecution.

The tragic irony of calling for a post-conflict trial, of little more than symbolic value, in the context of an immediate, and devastating, humanitarian crisis is tragically emblematic of the preeminence of rhetoric above action in the operation of international law. As the Russian delegate in the UN insists “not a single civilian suffered any kind of violence”, just minutes after seeing harrowing images of bodies strewn across the road, it becomes apparent that words have rarely meant less in modern history. The very institutions designed to prevent this kind of catastrophic violence are having their fundamental, and long-standing, flaws starkly exposed. The unanswerable question for the UN is what to do with non-cooperation? Smaller states, and states outside the direct strategic priorities of the Permanent 7 (P7), can, and have been, forced to comply with the institutions of global governance. But the P7’s right to veto any UN resolution in effect places them outside the system of global governance, Zelenskyy has cuttingly described this situation as giving Russia a “right to kill”. 

Wishing to see Russia expelled from the Permanent Council, Zelenskyy threw down a gauntlet by asking world leaders; “do you think the time of international law is gone?” The failure of the UN to take up this challenge is troubling. International law is not gone, the institutions of global governance will remain, but it is absolutely clear; in the face of the powerful, the UN has become a talking shop.