“Uniting for Peace”: UN General Assembly vis-à-vis Russia

On March 2, the General Assembly voted in favor, with an overwhelming majority, of the resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory, formally asking Moscow to cease the clashes, and recognizing the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine. The resolution, supported by 141 votes in favor out of 193, has seen the abstention of 35 members including China, and the contrary vote of Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, and Syria, in addition to the Russian one. Therefore, the affirmative vote of a two-thirds majority, required for important matters before the General Assembly, was far exceeded – making its message loud and clear.

The resolution said the UN deplores in the strongest terms the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine and its recognition of independence of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, thus demanding that Moscow “cease its use of force against Ukraine” and “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces”. By recognizing the Russian invasion as an attack on the territorial integrity of another sovereign State, it underscores one important caveat: any related territorial change will not be recognized internationally. Furthermore, it expresses grave concern at reports of attacks on civilian facilities and casualties, which justify the need for urgent action to stop conflicts on a scale not seen in Europe for decades, and “save this generation from the scourge of war”. Although the resolution, since it is adopted by the GA, is not legally binding, it can certainly be considered both a political thermometer of the international community’s opinion and a policy direction for UN membership, aimed at increasing pressure on the Kremlin.

The vote falls within a type of emergency voting established in 1950 with the resolution 377A(V) “Uniting for peace”. The act, in fact, allows to convene an “emergency special session” in case of lack of unanimity, and consequent deadlock, among the five permanent members of the Security Council, which fails “to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression”. The convening of this GA session, in fact, comes after the failure of the Security Council’s action on February 25, which saw Russia veto – and China abstain – on the draft resolution in blue, issued pursuant to Chapter VI, deploring the act of aggression against Ukraine of the day before. Referring explicitly to Article 27(3) of the UN Charter, Russia, as a party to the dispute, should have abstained from voting – a provision of the Charter that in practice appears to be voluntary rather than mandatory and never used in 62 years. The resulting paralysis of the UN’s central organ, due to the veto placed by one of the permanent members, led the SC to put the question in the hands of the General Assembly.

The resolution passed at the GA calls aggression a violation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, which sets that all member States shall refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the UN. The resolution, however, falls among those issued under Chapter VI of the Charter instead of Chapter VII: in fact, if Chapter VII deals with threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression, and allows, in the event of determination of one of these circumstances, to take measures also concerning the use of force, Chapter VI only addresses the pacific settlement of disputes. This softening of the text compared to the original draft was necessary to convince China to abstain from the vote, both in the Security Council and in the General Assembly: the word condemns in reference to the Russian action has been removed from the text and change to deplores. The abstention of China, increasingly closer to the Eastern superpower, is perceived as a victory for the US diplomacy, which has managed to convince Moscow’s traditional allies to abstain from support, making it even more isolated in terms of diplomatic relations. But, of course, at the expense of a clear-cut condemnatory resolution.

Beijing does share Moscow’s criticism of the current international order, so much so that it has laid all the blame for the conflict on NATO’s attitude. Furthermore, China and Russia are united by significant trade relations, especially in the energy sector, bound in what is often described as a “strategic partnership”. Despite this, China does not intend to expose itself in favor of Moscow, thus jeopardizing economic relations with the rest of the world – the real driving force behind Chinese economic growth. Perhaps, in fact, Beijing prefers not to take sides openly, aiming instead to play a mediating role in the conflict, a position that a vote in one direction or another would make impossible to obtain. Analysis of the votes against also shows further fractures in the Kremlin’s circle of alliances. In fact, only four other countries, besides Russia, voted “no”: Belarus, Moscow’s accomplice in this war – but not the other former Soviet countries now members of the Eurasian Economic Union, a political union under Putin’s thumb; Syria, which receives military protection from Moscow – but not Cuba, which has abstained; Eritrea, over which Moscow has extended its ties of commercial influence, and North Korea, that consistently condemned Washington’s hegemonic and authoritarian policy – but not Iran, with whom Putin has close economic relations, and India, which abstained both in the SC and GA.

This General Assembly meeting is the eleventh emergency special session since the “Uniting for Peace” resolution was settled – the first in 25 years. The emergency session was first invoked in 1951, when, following three vetoes by the USSR on the situation in Korea, six Security Council members requested the General Assembly to address the issue. The Soviet Union was indeed boycotting the Security Council at the time of the outbreak of hostilities in Korea, making daunting any Security Council’s action and condemnation against the Chinese communist intervention. Under the resolution approved by the SC in 1950, the GA shall immediately consider the matter and may make appropriate recommendations to the members of the UN for collective measures, including the use of armed force, when necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security. Extraordinary emergency sessions – the mechanism created to safeguard the timeliness of the GA action – have been convened eleven times. This mode has made it possible to deal with several situations of extreme international delicacy – Suez Crisis, Hungarian Revolution, UN operation in Congo, Soviet-Afghan war are just a few – which had thus paralyzed the SC. It had been invoked for the last time in 1997 to handle the question of Palestine, calling for the unconditional and total withdrawal of Israel from the territories occupied since 1967. The current scenario bears some similarity to developments following a Russian veto of a draft resolution on Ukraine declaring the 2014 referendum in Crimea illegal. In that instance, however, the SC did not decide to refer the matter to the General Assembly; rather, the GA reacted independently to the situation by adopting the resolution “Territorial integrity of Ukraine”, which received only 100 votes in favor against the 11 against and 58 abstentions. In that case, however, the resolution had led to a null result: the referendum for the annexation of Crimea to Russia, considered illegitimate and condemned by the General Assembly and the overall international community, as a violation of international law and the Constitution of Ukraine, is instead deemed valid by Russia, which considers the peninsula its de facto annexed territory. This resolution, in fact, provides a mechanism for the General Assembly to override any veto of the Security Council: the resulting interpretation of the Assembly’s powers of “ultimate responsibility” – rather than “secondary responsibility” – for matters of international peace and security, allows the problem of the SC “veto power” to be overcome. It is precisely this potential power that the resolution has gifted into the hands of the GA that has prevented the consolidation of an uncontested practice within the international community: indeed, the resolution has revealed a latent power of the Assembly that has effectively usurped the primary role of the Security Council in maintaining international peace and security. When P5 members realized that the mode of action allowed to the GA by the resolution potentially limited their respective sovereign interests, it was relegated to obscurity. For this reason, it is rarely used until the gravity of the situation demands it.

The approval of the resolution is part of the unified international response of condemnation against the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. The European Union and NATO, in fact, have immediately deplored Putin’s unprovoked and unjustified military aggression. The EU, through the official statements of Michel, Von Der Leyen and Borrell, strongly condemns Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. On February 24, the leaders of the Member States met in an extraordinary meeting of the European Council in Brussels to prepare a response to the Russian invasion: their demands are to “immediately cease military actions” and “withdraw the troops”, as well as to “respect the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine” and “the international law”. But while NATO has explicitly stated that it intends to remain on a formal condemnation of the aggression – not being willing to get involved militarily –, the EU has promptly moved into practice, adopting increasingly stringent penalties. Sanctions against Duma members, restrictions on economic relations and access to EU markets, restrictive measures in the fields of finance and energy, freezing Putin and Lavrov’s assets, ban on airspace for Russian aircrafts, prohibition on transactions with the Russian Central Bank and SWIFT ban for seven Russian banks are just some of the EU measures taken since February 23rd. As if to make up for NATO’s lack of military intention, Von Der Leyen also stated that the EU has adopted two assistance measures under the European Peace Facility that will help “strengthen the capabilities” and “the resilience of the Ukrainian armed forces by protecting the civilian population against ongoing military aggression” through the provision of equipment and supplies to the Ukrainian armed forces – including, for the first time, lethal equipment.