UN General Assembly condemns Russia’s war on Ukraine and calls for peace

By Ray Acheson
4 March 2022

Following yet another predictable failure of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to address a war launched by one of its permanent, veto-wielding members, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) held an emergency session to respond to Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. From 28 February to 2 March, UN member states convened to share their views, with the vast majority calling an immediate ceasefire and cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of Russian forces, and the pursuit of a diplomatic path to peace. 141 countries voted in favour of the resolution “Aggression against Ukraine,” which echoes these calls. Only five states—Russia, Belarus, Syria, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and Eritrea—voted against the resolution, while 35 abstained.

While the discussion and the adoption of the resolution showed firm opposition to war by most UN members, it also underscored the hypocrisy of many states—particularly the most heavily militarised ones. Many of the delegations condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine have either engaged in or fueled conflicts, invasions, and occupations in other parts of the world over many decades, and have prevented refugees from those conflicts from seeking shelter on their shores. Nevertheless, the calls to end this war and provide humanitarian relief to those who have suffered from it were nearly universal, as were the condemnations of Russia’s violations of the UN Charter and international law.

Violations of international law and human suffering

The majority of UN member states unequivocally condemned Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine as a violation of the UN Charter and international law, particularly against sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence. Many also condemned Belarus’ facilitation of the war. “This outbreak of hostilities was not inevitable,” noted Ireland. “Responsibility rests with those who chose conflict over dialogue, and war over peace.”

Most delegations also condemned the way in which Russia is waging the war, citing it for violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) and human rights. In particular, Russia’s use of explosive weapons in populated areas—its bombing of cities, civilians, and civilian infrastructure—has caused extraordinary destruction and has led to many civilian deaths and injuries. Several states specifically highlighted its use of cluster munitions, which are prohibited under international law.

Some pointed out the broader structural issues underpinning these violations of IHL and human rights. Costa Rica noted in its explanation of vote on the resolution that despite existing international legal protections, the international community is failing to uphold its obligations to protect civilians in conflict if it allows the destruction of civilian infrastructure and services and ignores the direct, indirect, and reverberating effects of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Costa Rica called on all member states to support a strong political declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from Humanitarian Harm arising from the use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas.

Those raising these issues called for immediate cessation of all actions that harm civilians. Many delegations also demanded that Russia be held accountable for this war of aggression, and several welcomed the decision of the International Criminal Court to launch an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity. A few also encouraged the Human Rights Council to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate human rights violations, upon which the Council did subsequently agree.

A note about hypocrisy

While the calls to end attacks against cities, civilians, and civilian infrastructure are crucial, and the condemnation of the use of cluster bombs and explosive weapons in populated areas is imperative, these remarks also reflect the underlying hypocrisy of several of the delegations making these comments. Wars of aggression by the United States (US) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) have also resulted in devasting human suffering and destruction of civilian infrastructure, lives, and livelihoods. Many of the countries condemning bombing civilians in Ukraine sell weapons to countries that use them to bomb civilians. These are not merely past crimes; in many cases they are currently ongoing. Right now, civilians in multiple countries around the world are dying and suffering at the hands of the very same countries condemning equivalent violence by Russia in Ukraine.

Russia and Belarus tried to justify their war on the basis of these double standards, reiterating their rhetoric about the security threat to Russia posed by Ukraine and NATO. Syria said that the UNGA’s response and resolution represents a prejudiced attitude based on political propaganda, arguing that those states that are eager support this resolution should have been eager to oppose Israeli occupations and US violations of Syrian territorial integrity.

Austria, however, pushed back against this “whataboutism,” which is used to “try to justify evil with past evil”. Just because we didn’t stand up in the past to injustice and evil, that shouldn’t prevent us from standing up now, it said. Furthermore, Austria argued, if a government has security concerns, it should solve them with dialogue, not tanks. If a country with one of the largest armies and nuclear arsenals has insecurities, it should resolve them through dialogue and disarmament.

Some delegations also highlighted the hypocrisy of Russia and others defending its actions. While Russia claims to be a staunch defender of the UN Charter and international law, it has clearly violated them. Others commented on the imperialistic nature of Russia’s war. Palau, for example, pointed out that while Palau and Ukraine have a different history, this war could have been one of Palau’s former colonisers attacking Palau. Few are immune to “historical unity” as an alleged justification for war, said Palau, asking how many former colonies are in the room right now. The world cannot stand by while Russia tries to dismantle the rules-based world order in pursuit of its own interests, said Palau.

Some countries, whether abstaining or voting in favour of the resolution, highlighted the importance of recognising the double standards while still condemning Russia’s actions and calling for an immediate end to the war. Iraq said it decided to abstain on the resolution because of its historical background—the US invasion in 2003—and the suffering of its people resulting from continuing wars. However, it said it does not support wars as mechanism to settle disputes and reiterates that all conflicts should be settled peacefully. Bolivia likewise rejected all wars and threats of aggression as the way to solve disputes and conflicts between states, including other invasions and unilateral actions by various states throughout recent history. While condemning Russia’s actions, Bolivia stressed that NATO also has responsibility and has displayed moral double standards, which fan the flames of confrontation, which only brings death and destruction to people.

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, which voted in favour of the resolution, also highlighted the insidious effects of interventionism across the developing world. It said that Russia's security concerns need to be addressed through constructive diplomatic efforts, but also emphasised that the war cannot reasonably be justified. War only endangers peace and security and exacerbates human suffering across the globe, noted the delegation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Adherence to international law and dialogue is the only path to peace and progress, however difficult it may be.

Describing the war in Ukraine as a power play between Russia and NATO, Brazil said there has been a discrediting of security concerns and violations of the Minsk agreement that prepared the ground for this conflict. Cuba similarly said it is not possible to honestly analyse the current situation without considering the factors that have led to use of force and non-observance of principles and international standards. It argued that the US’ determination to continue expanding NATO towards Russia has led to a scenario with unpredictable scope that could have been avoided. However, Brazil said, these circumstances in no way justifies the use of force against any member state. This war is against the most basic norms and principles by which all UN members must abide, and a clear breach of UN Charter. Cuba said that dialogue and negotiations, not war, are the only way to resolve this conflict.

Humanitarian assistance and racist responses

With millions of civilians already affected by the war, nearly all delegations called for unfettered access for humanitarian aid, and assistance for refugees and displaced persons. They urged the establishment of humanitarian corridors for civilians trying to flee, and protection for humanitarian and medical aid workers to access communities in need.

Within this context, several delegations also raised concerns about racism and discrimination in the treatment of refugees. While Poland and others asserted their borders are open to all, reports that refugees of colour trying to flee Ukraine have been turned away at borders or denied access to buses and trains make it clear this is not the case. Furthermore, as Kenya’s delegation said, it is deeply disturbing that expressions of solidarity in parts of Europe have pushed the demeaning view that violence only belongs in the global south.

The issue of racism is not a “distraction,” said Kenya. Racism has already led to millions of lives lost in Europe and around the world. It and other countries “reject racism in all places for its inhumanity at the same time that we denounce the illegal and inhumane war in Ukraine.”

Nuclear threats and risks

Amidst the devasting violence already being inflicted in Ukraine, the spectre of nuclear war has been invoked several times by Russian President Putin. Many delegations condemned Putin’s decision to elevate the alert status of Russian nuclear forces and his threat to use nuclear weapons against anyone trying to “intervene” in the war. A few delegations also expressed concern about Belarus' decision to amend its constitution to allow stationing of nuclear weapons on its territory, in violation of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

“This is a chilling development,” said the UN Secretary-General. “The mere idea of a nuclear conflict is simply inconceivable. Nothing can justify the use of nuclear weapons.” Several delegations echoed this sentiment—including, hypocritically, some of the states that have rejected the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and that support NATO’s “nuclear security” doctrine. The US criticised Russia for putting nuclear weapons on high alert, even though the US invests billions of dollars a year into its enormous nuclear arsenal, has used and tested these weapons around the world, and refuses to join the TPNW. Certain nuclear-supporting states, including Australia, Republic of Korea, and many NATO members also condemned Putin’s nuclear threats, despite working desperately for years to try to prevent the UN from banning these weapons. Slovakia, for example, said putting nuclear forces on alert is a type of action that “does not belong to the 21st century but to the dustbin of history,” while fellow NATO member Spain asked, “How can anyone allege security interests as a justification for war when declaring a high alert for their nuclear forces, which is the great possible threat against international security?”

While these condemnations are welcome, in that they signal an instinctual abhorrence towards nuclear weapons, these delegations must recognise that the risks posed by nuclear weapons in this conflict are posed by all nuclear weapons, in all circumstances, at all times. This came through clearly in the expressions of concern from countries that have renounced nuclear weapons and support their abolition. “The threat to use nuclear weapons is a violation of the UN Charter. It is also a violation of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” said Costa Rica. “But beyond violating international law, and beyond the absolute failure of so-called nuclear deterrence theory are the lives of millions of innocent civilians that are being directly threatened by this abhorrent brinkmanship. It so clearly reveals the fantasy of safety and security in a world order built around the idea of ‘mutually assured destruction’.”

Austria likewise condemned any threat of nuclear weapons as a violation of the UN Charter, highlighting that the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons do not respect borders. Ireland similarly said that the threat of nuclear weapons is irresponsible, dangerous, and considerably heightens the risk of catastrophic miscalculation. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said the use of nuclear weapons is inconceivable and wholly unacceptable and counseled against the mere suggestion by anyone.

In response to the clear threat posed by nuclear weapons in this conflict—and the implications this has for nuclear weapon possession in general—several delegations called for urgent action for nuclear disarmament. Costa Rica called on nuclear-armed states to comply with their obligations under the NPT to pursue nuclear disarmament in good faith, and urged all states to join the TPNW. Malaysia called on all nuclear-armed states to adhere to the joint statement made in January by the five permanent UN Security Council members reaffirming that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, and to refrain from arms races, implement nuclear risk reduction measures, and fulfill their nuclear disarmament obligations. Switzerland called upon all nuclear-armed states to refrain from any threat or use of nuclear weapons, while Colombia urged the consideration of all possible nuclear disarmament mechanisms for all nuclear-armed states.

A few delegations also expressed concern with Russian attacks against nuclear power plants in Ukraine, including Chernobyl and other operational plants. Guatemala emphasised that any attack against a nuclear facility is a violation of UN Charter, international law, and the Statute of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Since the UNGA session, Russian forces have attacked other nuclear facilities, further compounding the nuclear and radiological risks in Ukraine.

De-escalation and diplomacy

With all this horror and pain from the violence so far, and the compounding risks of nuclear war, almost all delegations called for an immediate end to the war. They demanded a ceasefire, the withdrawal of Russian forces, and engagement in dialogue and diplomacy for a negotiated settlement. “Silencing the weapons is essential to pursuing peace,” said Côte d'Ivoire, while Gabon insisted, “There is always time to choose dialogue over force.”

Many delegations expressed support the negotiations announced between Ukraine and Russia during the session. Others encouraged the involvement of the UN Secretary-General and regional organisations to help foster dialogue and mediate in the discussions.

In the context of demanding diplomacy, most countries highlighted the imperative of always pursuing dialogue rather than settling tensions or conflicts through force. “No solutions can be found at the end of the barrel of a gun,” said Malaysia, while Uruguay argued, “War is never justified as an instrument of policy” and Suriname pointed out there are no winners in any war, which brings only devastation and suffering.

Outside of the heavily militarised countries of the world, the majority of UN members see Russia’s war not just as an aggression against Ukraine or NATO, but against the UN Charter itself. This, to many states, is an existential threat to all. We “will never accept as legitimate or excusable such egregious violation of the UN Charter and international law on which we small states, bereft of military power, rely upon for our security,” said Trinidad and Tobago. “Our suit of armor is the principles of the UN Charter.” The Maldives similarly said, “We don’t possess powerful weapons of destruction, instead we rely on our principles and solidarity of nations that comes from unwavering commitment to these principles.”

Bhutan said its “mighty mountains” cannot shield it from the reverberations of war thousands of miles away. The violation of international law and UN Charter have impacts well beyond the borders of Ukraine. All member states are beholden to UN principles, which is are the “guarantor of our existence.” Ghana described the UN Charter as the world’s beacon of hope. “When other countries enter the terrible waters of war and destruction, we must point them back to lighthouse of peace.”

Other delegations highlighted the ways in which this conflict compounds other crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. Antigua and Barbuda noted that Russia’s war derails attention from the urgency of climate change just as the latest International Panel on Climate Change report is released.

Costa Rica once again pointed to the structural issues underpinning the conflict. “Ending this conflict is imperative. But we must also end the mindset that got us here.” It said it supported the resolution “because we must reject a worldview in which force is used to achieve foreign policy goals, a worldview in which weapons and war are prioritised while the well-being of people and the planet are forgotten.”

Calls for caution

In the context of de-escalation, several countries—some of which abstained on the adoption of the resolution—urged caution by all sides and asked states not to fan the flames of war further. China, which said the conflict has “evolved to a point that China does not wish to see,” called on all parties to exercise restraint and step-up diplomatic efforts for political solution. It spoke against any approach that may exacerbate tensions. It did agree that territorial integrity should be respected, that the UN Charter should be upheld, and that one country’s security shouldn’t come at expense of another’s.

South Africa, which also abstained on the resolution, said it is not conducive for dialogue, trust, and confidence-building, and risks driving a deeper wedge among parties rather than contributing to conflict resolution. Brazil warned that the rapid succession of events could lead to much broader confrontation, in which everyone will suffer. In this context it called on all actors involved to reassess their decisions concerning supply of weapons, cyber-attacks, and selective sanctions including in relation to food security. Eritrea, which voted against the resolution, said it did so because it opposes unilateral sanctions, which further polarises international tensions, hurt people, and do not bring peace and security.

The failure of the UN Security Council

The reason the UNGA stepped in to act on Ukraine at all is because Russia vetoed action at the UNSC. The resolution adopted by the UNGA was a slightly modified version of the resolution put forward at the UNSC days before. This kind of UNSC failure is nothing new; the five permanent members have consistently used their vetoes to protect their own political, military, and economic interests. When it happens, however, other member states express shock and outrage; yet sincere efforts for UNSC reform continue to languish—because the states with vetoes block the reforms.

Kenya noted that when using the veto in this instance, Russia had said that the veto is a tool for ensuring balance of interests to ensure global stability. Seeing the world from the lens of 1945, Kenya’s delegation argued, Russia is partially correct. But Kenya strongly disagreed that these “interests” solely belong to the world’s military “powers,” or that we must live with “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

In this context, several delegations made renewed demands for UNSC reform. Austria questioned if system of veto power is still able to regulate international relations, while Antigua and Barbuda said this situation calls for a change in the way the veto used. Mexico, which has long advocated against the veto, called for the establishment of a mechanism that allows the UNGA to convene automatically whenever a veto is used in the UNSC.

Others called for the elimination of the veto altogether. Spain said it is an anachronism and should be gotten rid of, while New Zealand, which has always opposed the veto, said there is no place for it in the UNSC.

Where to now

Now that the UNGA has adopted the resolution, all UN member states must work for peace through de-escalation, diplomacy, and disarmament.

The resolution urges the UN Secretary-General, UN member states, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and other organisations to “support the de-escalation of the current situation, as well as the efforts of the United Nations, including of the United Nations Crisis Coordinator for Ukraine, and humanitarian organizations to respond to the humanitarian and refugee crisis that the aggression by the Russian Federation has created.”

A ceasefire must be implemented immediately. The bombing and shelling of towns and cities must stop, attacks against nuclear power plants must end, and nuclear weapons must be taken off alert. Humanitarian corridors and access and safety of humanitarian and medical aid workers must be guaranteed. As the resolution demands, Russia must withdraw its troops immediately.

The resolution also calls for “the immediate peaceful resolution of the conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine through political dialogue, negotiations, mediation and other peaceful means.” This provides a framework for all states to prioritise peace over violence. Providing humanitarian relief while also opening all channels for dialogue are imperative. Rather than more weapons, war, and violence, rather than increasing military budgets and escalating the conflict, states must instead take stock of how they got here and sit together in dialogue.

As Costa Rica said, “This crisis should be seen as an opportunity to resolve long-standing challenges to the extent possible and, crucially, to put new agreements in place to avoid future confrontations. It’s an opportunity to take a feminist, inclusive approach to peace and security that puts people above profits, the planet above geopolitics.” These words, and the views of all the states who rely on the UN Charter rather than military might for their protection, should guide the way forward on this crisis—and preventing the next one.