Russia’s War Against Ukraine: How Should the United Nations Proceed?
February 23, 2023
By Chris Kerber ’23
By now most are probably familiar with the terrible crimes being committed against Ukrainian citizens at the hand of the Russian Military. It seems like every day investigators locate a new mass grave or reports are released about the Russian Military’s continuous targeting of civilian infrastructure. Little known to many, under the cover of mainstream news coming out of Ukraine, Russia has started a second war.
Russia is now fighting a war on two fronts: One against Ukraine’s military and the other against its own people. Since the beginning of the Ukraine war there has been a surge of civil unrest across Russia as citizens voice their discontent with the illegal invasion. The Russian government has a model to deal with this problem: North Korea.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has been suppressing its population for years. There is no freedom of speech or expression, no freedom of the press, no right to assembly, no access to international media, nor any geographic mobility. The full list of rights violations could fill a book; a copy of which would probably sit on Vladimir Putin’s desk.
Russia is well on its way to a full implementation of North Korea’s platform. There have been multiple crackdowns on media in the country. The Russian government has shut down independent sources of news, including newspapers, TV channels, and radio stations. It has also restricted access to social media platforms and other websites, including Facebook. All of this has come in the wake of new legislation from the Kremlin that essentially bans any public opposition to the war in Ukraine.
This law doesn’t only affect media companies, but is also applied to normal citizens. Any act of protest against the war is considered a crime. In September, over 2,377 people were arrested and detained after widespread demonstrations against the war rocked the country. Those detained are often beaten, and their fair trial rights violated. There are even reports of activists being tortured while in Russian police custody. Russia has not enforced this level of restrictions since the Soviet Era and their actions position themselves firmly among authoritarian countries like North Korea.
This crackdown on civilians violates numerous human rights treaties that Russia is a party to. For example, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights protects against torture and arbitrary arrest, while also guaranteeing freedoms of opinion, expression, assembly, and the right to have a free and fair trial. The Russian Federation has ratified several additional international human rights treaties that protect these rights including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the European Convention on Human Rights. Russia’s behavior at home and in Ukraine violates several provisions of these treaties.
In response to Russia’s attack on civilians, the United Nations has taken several steps. In April 2022, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. More recently in October 2022, the UN Council on Human Rights passed a motion to appoint a Special Rapporteur to monitor the repressive environment occurring within the country. Russia immediately stated it would not cooperate.
While these were both essential steps, the United Nations and the governments of its member countries must continue to put pressure on Russia to fulfil its human rights obligations. But what else can it do? It’s true that most of the actions the United Nations can take would require voluntary participation by Russia. However, some have recently pushed for more drastic measures in wake of Russia’s blatant disregard for the rules of the UN.
Many groups have begun to question the legitimacy of Russia’s permanent member status on the UN Security Council, especially since they could utilize their veto vote to block any policy that disadvantages their position. The Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) argues that there are paths to Russia’s expulsion from the Security Council, through procedural credential procedures. Apparently Russia was never actually credentialed on the Security Council. Russian delegates simply took the spot of the former USSR, which is still reflected in the United Nations original charter. Technically Ukraine, a fellow UN member, could have filled this seat as well, since it too was a state of the USSR at the time of its collapse. Legally, Ukraine was eligible to fill the USSR’s spot in 1991, and it could still do so now through a credential challenge, a procedural motion which Russia cannot veto.
Others have argued for more swift action. Another way to suspend Russia from the Security Council would be to remove Russia from the United Nations all together. This could be done through a vote of the General Assembly. Obviously, Russia cannot serve as a member of the Security Council if it is not a member of the United Nations.
While these are both possible routes under the UN Charter to curtail Russia, both are unlikely. The UN has never voted to expel a member and the removal of a world superpower like Russia would likely lead to further diplomatic breakdowns. Even with their strict limitation to freedoms, and little power in the international affairs sphere, North Korea has been a member of the United Nations since 1991. There is also hesitation when considering the precedent removing Russia would create, especially for other powerful countries like the China and the United States who are often involved in unpopular foreign conflicts.
While the atrocities being committed by Russia are truly terrible, and their unwillingness to cooperate with the rest of the world unattractive, cool-heads should prevail. UN member countries should continue to support Ukraine and work to find more creative ways to pressure Russia to end its illegal war. For those looking to have their voice heard you can contact the U.S. Mission to the United Nations here.
Chris Kerber ’23 is an Economics & Management and Political Science double major with a concentration in public policy from the Gerald R. Ford Institute for Leadership in Public Policy and Service. He is a member of the Prentiss M. Brown Honors Program and has experience working in the Michigan Legislature, multiple political campaigns, and the private sector. Chris recently finished his last term on the board of directors for a nationally recognized political organization.
The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of Albion College.