United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres addressed the UN Security Council on April 5th to kick off the Security Council’s meeting on Ukraine. He took Russia to task for what he condemned as “the full-fledged invasion, on several fronts, of one Member State of the United Nations, Ukraine, by another, the Russian Federation – a Permanent Member of the Security Council – in violation of the United Nations Charter, and with several aims, including redrawing the internationally-recognized borders between the two countries.”
The Secretary General said that he would “never forget the horrifying images of civilians killed in Bucha.” Those images included scenes of civilian bodies, some with their hands bound, lying in the streets of Bucha. Russia’s military forces had occupied Bucha before withdrawing and leaving their killing field behind.
Secretary General Guterres then pulled his punches. He called for “an independent investigation to guarantee effective accountability” and left it at that.
Calling for an independent investigation is fine for the longer term. An impartial judicial body should determine, based on careful gathering and assessment of evidence, the legal responsibility of specific individuals who are accused of ordering and committing acts of carnage in Bucha and other parts of Ukraine. The International Criminal Court has already announced the launching of an investigation into charges of war crimes in Ukraine.
However, the Secretary General’s call for an independent investigation is not mutually exclusive with his calling out the Russian regime now for its egregious war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is not enough for Mr. Guterres to rely on the statement of his High Commissioner for Human Rights who has spoken of “possible war crimes.” (Emphasis added) It is the moral duty of the Secretary General, as the leader of the United Nations, to speak truth to power and denounce the Russian regime, ruled by its brutal autocrat, for systematically massacring innocent Ukrainian civilians.
Russia’s military has engaged in indiscriminate bombardments and missile attacks on hospitals, residential buildings, and schools. Russia’s military has laid siege to Mariupol, cutting off the supply of food and vital medical supplies to civilians trapped in that city. Russian soldiers have stopped humanitarian shipments from reaching the people in dire need still in Mariupol and blocked civilians from escaping the devastation that the Russian regime has wrought.
As the expression goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Following the moving speech that Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered virtually to the Security Council, Ukraine’s delegation presented a video showing close-up images of dead civilians in Bucha and other Ukrainian cities.
President Zelenskyy told the Security Council that more than 300 Ukrainians were tortured and killed in Bucha alone. He recited Russia’s multiple war crimes. “They shot and killed women outside their houses,” President Zelenskyy said. “They killed entire families, adults and children, and they tried to burn the bodies.”
“The civilians were crushed by tanks while sitting in their cars in the middle of the road,” Ukraine’s president added in listing the charges of atrocities committed by Russia’s military. “They cut off limbs, cut their throats, slashed their throats. Women were raped and killed in front of their children. Their tongues were pulled out only because the aggressor did not hear what they wanted to hear from them.”
The Russian regime has the blood of the murdered civilians in Bucha and of many other Ukrainians on its hands as a result of its unprovoked war of aggression.
The attempt by Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia to place the blame on Ukraine for these killings and to accuse Ukraine of “criminally” staging the photographed bodies in Bucha is laughable. So is the Russian ambassador’s claim that not one civilian was killed by Russian forces during Russia’s occupation of Bucha. Ambassador Nebenzia’s assertion that Russia came into Ukraine “not to claim land but to bring peace to Donetsk and remove the Nazi tumor” is beneath contempt.
Ukraine’s UN ambassador threw Nebenzia’s lies back in his face and said that it was the Russian regime that has committed acts reminiscent of the Nazi era. Other members of the Security Council also pushed back at Russia’s actions and falsehoods. Nevertheless, it is time for the UN Secretary General himself to use his global platform to finally issue his own unambiguous condemnation of Russia’s war crimes, crimes against humanity, and its web of lies.
On April 4th, the day before the Security Council meeting, I asked Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary General, whether the Secretary General had any doubt that Russia is responsible for the atrocities committed while Russia occupied Bucha. Mr. Haq ducked the question.
“It’s not a question of doubting one side or doubting what the visual evidence we have at hand is,” Mr. Haq replied, “but we do believe, as always, that these need to be thoroughly investigated. And we will make our evaluations based on the results of what those investigations entail.”
I then followed up with this question regarding how far the Secretary General is willing to go in condemning Russia:
“Why is he not prepared to go as far as many world leaders, including President Biden, and acknowledge the elephant in the room that Russia is, by all accounts, largely responsible for these atrocities in Ukraine, including the ones in the images we’ve seen in Bucha? Why can’t he take that additional step as a moral conscience of the United Nations?”
Here was Mr. Haq’s response:
“Speaking as the moral conscience of the United Nations, the Secretary‑General has said some very strong things, including about Russia’s actions, and I would just turn you over to look at what he said in the past weeks. They’re very clear. They’re very strong.
At the same time, like I said, we, as an organization, believe in waiting for the evidence to be thoroughly investigated, and we do that as a point of principle. It’s not a question of doubting any side. It’s that we need to make sure that the facts verify what the visual evidence seems to show.”
Later during the April 4th press briefing, Mr. Haq was asked to clarify whether or not Secretary General Guterres supported suspending Russia from its membership on the UN Human Rights Council as the U.S. delegation to the UN has suggested. After saying that this was a matter for the Member States to decide, Mr. Haq expressed the UN Secretariat’s concern about the “precedent” that would be set if such an action were taken.
After a UN correspondent pointed out that there was already such a precedent – Libya’s suspension from the Human Rights Council in 2011 – Mr. Haq replied, “I think you and I both know what the difference is.”
The difference is that the United Nations bureaucracy, right up to its highest level, is afraid to go too far in antagonizing Russia.
In any case, suspending Russia from the dysfunctional Human Rights Council, whose membership includes China, Cuba, Venezuela, and Sudan, would end up being a feel-good, symbolic gesture at best.
While Articles 5 and 6 of the UN Charter allow for the suspension and expulsion of a Member State from the UN in certain circumstances upon the recommendation of the Security Council, that is a non-starter in light of Russia’s veto power as a permanent member of the Security Council.
Ukraine’s president challenged the United Nations to live up to the principles of the UN Charter and take action against Russia’s aggression or dissolve itself. “Where is the security that the Security Council needs to guarantee? It’s not there,” he said. “Where is the peace?”
President Zelenskyy called for fundamental reform of the UN’s global security system. Referring to Russia’s ability to block any binding action by the Security Council to address Russia’s aggression, he said that “The U.N. system must be reformed immediately so the veto isn’t the right to die. There can be no more exceptions or privileges.”
Will Secretary General Antonio Guterres and the free world heed this demand from the leader of a country under brutal attack by Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council? We will have to wait and see.