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Russia rebuke at the UN: last gasp or multilateralism on the march?

The General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to ‘deplore’ the Ukraine invasion, but past US actions may have dulled its impact.

Analysis | Europe

The U.N. General Assembly’s 145 –5 vote against the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Wednesday was overwhelming and marks a major rebuke to Putin, but what does it signify?

The result from this eleventh Special Session, called under the 1950 Uniting for Peace procedure is, on its face, a triumph for Joe Biden and the West. But the knotty history is a tangled roadmap of American diversion from multilateralism which has effectively disarmed much of the force that the resolution should have had. In effect, Moscow is now in the same pariah position that the United States has occupied for half a century, but Washington’s insouciance to multilateral institutions has preemptively softened the blow for Putin.

The Uniting for Peace procedure was originally a Western ruse to bypass the Russian veto during the Korean War, which was only set in train because of Putin’s predecessors’ ill-advised walkout from the Security Council to protest its refusal to admit China’s delegation. An illuminative footnote is that the British had already extended recognition to what was then Peking.

Among the few allies in the General Assembly on whom the Soviets could rely were Ukraine and Belarus which, on Stalin’s insistence, were admitted as founder members of the U.N. and even served as elected members of the Security Council. Indicatively, neither of them ever, ever, voted differently from the USSR — until the Soviet Union dissolved. Hence the extra layer of irony that Stalin’s heir in Moscow now disavows that diplomatic triumph and discounts Ukraine’s sovereignty in word and deed.

While we can, and should, sneer at the “Axis of Autocracy” — Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria — that turned out for Russia on this vote, a vote like this gives a tour d’horizon of diplomatic cabals, a gauge of American diplomatic potency. There are countries that abstain or cast their so-called bathroom vote — those delegations that absent themselves from the vote. Morocco for example, whose forcible Western Sahara acquisition was recognized by Trump, and has not yet been disavowed by Biden; Uzbekistan whose people are the least Russophile of the Stans — but are very close to Moscow. Missing in action also was Moldova, which is the dubious beneficiary of Russian “peacekeepers” and reported being threatened with the arrival of even more.

Cuba and Nicaragua had some vestigial grasps of principles and so, despite heavy pressure from Moscow, only abstained, but Venezuela’s kleptocrat rulers presumably had pocketed the U.N. dues, since its arrears prevented it from voting. Washington had had some firm albeit quiet words with Israel, whose attempt to keep Moscow on side had had it threatening an abstention, and with the UAE, which had bravely but foolishly abstained in the Security Council the week before. Other Arab countries were converted by the power of the word. The original resolution had “condemned” the invasion, but waverers were wooed by changing the minatory condemnation in the draft to a hand-wringing “deploring.”

While the West can claim a Russian defeat here, a wider perspective should compare these votes to the regular humiliation of the United States over Middle East issues where similar lopsided tallies had the U.S. and Israel supported only by sundry assorted diminutive totally dependent Pacific atolls.

After Korea, the Uniting for Peace procedure was invoked in 1980 for Afghanistan but was revived in earnest by the Palestinians in the nineties to bypass the U.S. veto on Israel’s behalf. But since then, Washington has pushed the line that the General Assembly resolutions are “non-binding,” and merely advisory. They had been enough to start the Korean War, and it was also a General Assembly resolution that partitioned mandatory Palestine and established Israel, and they are regularly cited in international court rulings. But a half century of U.S. efforts to shield Israel from global disapproval has preemptively defanged this resolution and the procedure itself.

Whereby dangles another thread. While the U.N. Charter gives the USSR a permanent seat on the Security Council — and thus a veto, Russia is not mentioned at all. When the Soviet Union dissolved, its disappearance posed an acute dilemma. There was no official resolution or decision that the Russian Federation should inherit Soviet membership, even of the General Assembly, let alone the Council. Apart from Ukraine and Belarus, the other former Soviet Republics had to apply anew for membership. (In a similar case, the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Serbia was forced to apply anew.)

But in 1991 the triumphant West drew back from ritual humiliation of Yeltsin. In fact, the British and French were foremost in lubricating Moscow’s way back in, since they both desperately wanted to avoid any questions being raised about their Security Council seats whose potential loss they saw as a form of diplomatic emasculation. There was increasing pressure from Germany and Japan and the Third World to wind up the U.N. clock from 1945.

So it was tacitly agreed that no one would question it when the Russian delegation slipped into the Soviet seat. Indeed, American diplomats jokingly quipped that Sir David Hannay, the British ambassador, just sneaked in at night and changed the nameplates on the former Soviet space.  On the day of last week’s invasion, I posted this memory and felt proprietary pride when the Ukrainian ambassador mentioned that evening that his country wanted all the relevant documents and decisions bearing on the switch with a view to challenging Moscow’s credentials and pretensions to a veto.

So now the United States appears freshly converted to multilateralism after many years, not least since Donald Trump. While previous administrations had performed all kinds of contortions to reconcile generally agreed international law with its current whims, the last administration moved from bending the rules to breaking them, and accepted Israeli claims to the Golan Heights and Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara, territories inadmissibly acquired by force. As Nobel-prize winning philosopher Bob Dylan once sang, “to live outside the law, you must be honest.” The International Criminal Court has now, correctly, instigated investigations into Russia’s acts in Ukraine. We can but applaud, but Washington has not yet walked back on George W. Bush’s disavowal of the ICC jurisdiction.

If Washington wants a rules-based international order, there are a lot of threads it needs to disentangle. But the rest of the world takes these things more seriously than the U.S. public and politicians. It is a tough job, but Biden has to do it, or the U.N., which, like it or not, is the foundation of the modern international system, is about to slide into irrelevance, assisted by a complaisant Secretary General whose profile could hardly get any lower.

New York, NY - February 28, 2022: Romania and Spain delegations seen with poster in support of Ukraine at General Assembly emergency session on Ukraine at UN Headquarters (Photo: lev radin via shutterstock.com)
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