“Even at this Late Hour”: One Year On, a Look Back at the Security Council and General Assembly’s Response to the Invasion of Ukraine
The General Assembly resumed on 22 February 2023 an emergency special session to discuss the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. While the Security Council has hosted the most visible, and perhaps heated discussions of the incursion, only the Assembly, the UN’s main deliberative body, has been able to adopt measures on the situation. These include a resolution approved on 23 February on “the principles underlying a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in Ukraine”. For its part, the Council will mark one year since the start of the all-out war with a high-level meeting on 24 February. Here, we look back at the days preceding and immediately following the invasion as they played out in these two principal UN bodies.
The escalating tensions around the situation on Ukraine’s eastern border in early 2022 were also felt at United Nations headquarters in the form of increasingly urgent debates in the Security Council and the General Assembly.
On 31 January 2022, the Security Council met, at the initiative of the United States, to raise the alarm about the Russian Federation’s military build-up near Ukraine. The delegation of the Russian Federation objected to the holding of the meeting, calling it an example of “megaphone diplomacy” meant to “whip up hysterics”.
On 17 February 2022, as the Council convened again, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo said “tensions in and around Ukraine are running higher than at any point since 2014. Speculation and accusations around a potential military conflict are rife. Whatever one believes about the prospect of such a confrontation, the reality is that the current situation is extremely dangerous.”
Four days later, the Council held an emergency meeting after Moscow’s unilateral recognition of the “independence” of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine earlier that day.
On 23 February, the General Assembly met to discuss those actions. The Secretary-General, in his address, said Member States were gathering “in the face of the most serious global peace and security crisis in recent years.”
“The decision of the Russian Federation to recognize the so-called ‘independence’ of Donetsk and Luhansk regions — and the follow-up — are violations of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and inconsistent with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations,” he said.
Tensions were at their peak when the Council convened on the evening of 23 February 2022 for its second emergency meeting of the week. As the meeting began at 9:32 p.m., the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation, Vasily Nebenzia, took his seat as President of the Security Council for the month, between the Secretary-General and Under-Secretary-General DiCarlo.
“President Putin, Stop Your Troops”
In his opening remarks, the Secretary-General warned that there had been indications during the day that an offensive against Ukraine was imminent.
Guterres appealed to Moscow directly, facing the camera in the centre of the Chamber: “President Putin, stop your troops from attacking Ukraine. Give peace a chance. Too many people have already died.”
“Even at this Late Hour”
Under-Secretary-General DiCarlo echoed the Secretary-General and made a last-minute appeal for diplomacy:
“President Zelenskyy earlier this evening called for continued diplomacy. Separately, President Putin also spoke about his continued readiness to engage in dialogue. We encourage such efforts, even at this late hour … We cannot predict exactly what will happen in the coming hours and days in Ukraine. What is clear is the unacceptably high cost — in human suffering and destruction — of an escalation. The people of Ukraine want peace. And I’m certain the people of Russia want peace. We must do everything in our power to ensure that peace prevails.
A “Special Military Operation” in Donbas
It quickly became evident that Russian troops had started moving over the Ukrainian border as the Council was meeting. Just over an hour into the meeting, there was murmuring among delegates and in the public gallery. Then, taking the floor, Ambassador Nebenzia said:
“During this meeting, the president of Russia, Putin, spoke and said that they’d made a decision for a special military operation in the Donbas. We don’t know all the details today, but briefly I would like to inform you that from his statement it says that the occupation of Ukraine is not in our plans.”
“Your President Declared a War on Ukraine”
The Permanent Representative of Ukraine, Sergiy Kyslytsya, looking obviously shaken, said of his prepared statement that “most of it is already useless since 10 p.m. New York time.” He went on to address Nebenzia directly:
“I was intending to ask the Russian ambassador to confirm — on the record — that the Russian troops will not start firing at Ukrainians today and go ahead with the offensive … [but] about 48 minutes ago, your president declared a war on Ukraine. So now I would like to ask the ambassador of the Russian Federation to say — on the record — that at this very moment your troops do not shell and bomb Ukrainian cities, that your troops do not move in the territory of Ukraine … you have a smart phone — you can call Lavrov right now.”
Several Council members took the floor for a second time after learning of the invasion, with United States Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield noting that “at the exact time as we are gathered in the Council seeking peace, Putin delivered a message of war, in total disdain for the responsibility of this Council.”
Speaking to journalists after the session, Guterres said that “this is the saddest moment in my tenure as Secretary-General of the United Nations,” and, again addressing President Putin directly, urged him “to not start what may be the most devastating war since the start of the century.”
The Work of the United Nations
The invasion has obviously impacted the workload of the Security Council. Of the 276 public meetings it convened in 2022, 46 were devoted to the situation in Ukraine.
On 25 February, the Council failed to adopt a draft resolution that would have deplored “in the strongest terms the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine in violation of Article 2, paragraph 4 of the United Nations Charter,” as Russia exercised its veto. On 27 February, the Council adopted a procedural resolution (such measures cannot be vetoed) referring the situation in Ukraine to the Assembly.
That resolution paved the way for the 11th emergency special session of the Assembly. The Assembly then went on to adopt five resolutions on Ukraine: the first had the Assembly “deplore in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine, in violation of Article 2 (4) of the Charter;” the second “demands an immediate cessation of the hostilities by the Russian Federation against Ukraine, in particular of any attacks against civilians and civilian objects;” the third “decides to suspend the rights of membership in the Human Rights Council of the Russian Federation.”
The fourth “Demands that the Russian Federation immediately and unconditionally reverse its decisions of 21 February and 29 September 2022 related to the status of certain areas of the Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine, as they are a violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and inconsistent with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders;” and the fifth “Recommends the creation by Member States, in cooperation with Ukraine, of an international register of damage to serve as a record, in documentary form, of evidence and claims information on damage, loss or injury to all natural and legal persons concerned, as well as the State of Ukraine, caused by internationally wrongful acts of the Russian Federation in or against Ukraine, as well as to promote and coordinate evidence-gathering.”
· “Aggression against Ukraine,” 2 March, 2022
· “Humanitarian consequences of the aggression against Ukraine,” 24 March, 2022
· “Suspension of the rights of membership of the Russian Federation in the Human Rights Council,” 7 April 2022
· “Territorial integrity of Ukraine: defending the principles of the Charter of the United Nations,” 12 October 2022
· “Furtherance of remedy and reparation for aggression against Ukraine,” 14 November 2022
Marking One Year of the War
Over the last 12 months, the UN has mounted one of its largest humanitarian operations to respond to the devastating effects of the war. The Black Sea Grain Initiative and other efforts have also helped mitigate the impact of the war in the region and globally. Diplomacy to end the conflict, on the other hand, has largely stalled. But as the Secretary-General told the Assembly on 22 February 2023, “It is high time to step back from the brink.”
“Complacency will only deepen the crisis, while further eroding our shared principles proclaimed in the Charter,” he went on.
“While prospects may look bleak today, we must all work knowing that genuine, lasting peace must be based on the UN Charter and international law,” he said. “The longer the fighting continues, the more difficult this work will be. We don’t have a moment to lose.”
On 23 February, the Assembly adopted the resolution “Principles of the Charter of the United Nations underlying a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in Ukraine” by a vote of 141 in favour, with 32 against and 7 abstentions. By the text, the Assembly “Calls upon Member States and international organizations to redouble support for diplomatic efforts to achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in Ukraine, consistent with the Charter” and “Reiterates its demand that the Russian Federation immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders, and calls for a cessation of hostilities.”
On 24 February, the Council hosted Foreign Ministers and other senior officials from dozens of UN member states to mark one year since the start of the Russian invasion. In his opening remarks, the Secretary-General reiterated that:
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a blatant violation of the United Nations Charter and international law. It has unleased widespread death, destruction and displacement. Attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure have caused many casualties and terrible suffering…Life is a living hell for the people of Ukraine. … The guns are talking now, but in the end we all know that the path of diplomacy and accountability is the road to a just and sustainable peace.