The UN General Assembly Resolution on Ukraine and International Order

March 03, 2022
Photo credit: lev radin /
Geopolitical competition is gaining ground as the perceived organizing principle of international relations, replacing rules-based cooperation among interdependent states.

Russia’s current aggression against Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity seems to confirm this trend, proving right those who believe that international law is on its way to being replaced by the law of the strongest.

The notion of geopolitical competition also permeates the joint statement made by China and Russia in Beijing on February 4, 2022, which brims with criticism, both explicit and implicit, of the West. In it, China opposes for the first time the expansion of NATO and endorses the Russian proposal to establish “legal security guarantees” in Europe—guarantees that, as articulated by Russia, in effect mean the recognition of a Russian zone of influence. Both countries, in line with Russian interests, oppose “color revolutions”— pro-democratic movements—and, responding to Chinese preoccupations, express serious concern over the Australia-US-UK strategic agreement (AUKUS) on the Indo-Pacific.

Moreover, the statement reflects the intention of both powers to redefine the concepts of democracy and human rights according to their own interests. Both countries declare themselves opposed to “interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states under the pretext of protecting democracy and human rights,” invoking cultural and civilizational diversity to justify the need for different types of democracy.

The same justification is applied to human rights; these, too, the statement continues, should be interpreted within the context of each country’s specific situation and should not be used as an instrument to pressure other states. This idea, advanced in particular by China in the framework of the Human Rights Council over the last few years, is diametrically opposed to the advances made in this regard since the Second World War, according to which human rights are a concern of humanity as a whole, without exception. 

These elements combined form a narrative which seems aimed at hollowing out and ultimately dismantling the rules-based international order as we know it.

Finally, with regard to the UN, the statement affirms that Russia and China, “as world powers and permanent members of the Security Council, intend to firmly adhere to moral principles and accept their responsibility, strongly advocate the international system in which the United Nations plays an essential role (…), defend a world order based on international law...,” and so on. The contrast between these words and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and subsequent veto of the UN Security Council Resolution on Ukraine, as well as China’s timorous abstention, could not be starker. And starker still is the contrast between President Vladimir Putin’s recent thinly veiled threat to use nuclear weapons and Russia’s recognition only weeks ago, with the other permanent members of the Security Council, of its responsibility in preventing nuclear war.

These elements combined form a narrative which seems aimed at hollowing out and ultimately dismantling the rules-based international order as we know it. It requires a counterstrategy, not only from Western countries, but from all members of the international community who reject the use of force to resolve international disputes, the denaturalization of human rights, and the instrumentalization of multilateral institutions. Fortunately, the international architecture put in place after World War II to protect these values and principles is holding up despite the attacks it is subject to.

Russia’s veto of the UN Security Council Resolution on Ukraine should indeed not overshadow the resolution’s wide endorsement among UN member states and the strong reaction of the Secretary General of the Organization, who has personally asked President Putin to stop the military operations. On the contrary, the international mobilization in favor of Ukraine has been impressive and has resulted in, among other measures, the suspension of Russia’s representation in the Council of Europe; the condemnation of the aggression by NATO, the EU, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Economic Community of West African States, and the Chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe; the call by the Chair of the African Union for Russia to respect international law; the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of Ukraine; and the countless expressions of condemnation by countries spanning five continents. The EU, members of the G-7, and other states have accompanied their statements with significant economic sanctions against Russia.

Confronted with Russia’s veto of the resolution on Ukraine, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), in an emergency special session convened on March 2, adopted a resolution of historic significance on the aggression against Ukraine with 141 votes in favor, 5 votes against, and 35 abstentions among the 193 UN member states. This resolution, given its wide support, should be seen as an expression of the general sentiment of the international community.

UNGA reaffirms its commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders, condemns in the strongest terms the Russian aggression, which violates the United Nations Charter, and demands that Russia immediately cease its use of force and withdraws immediately, completely, and unconditionally from the territory of Ukraine. Furthermore, it condemns Russia’s recognition of the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, demands that Moscow immediately and unconditionally reverse it, and calls on the parties to respect the Minsk agreements (which provide for the autonomy of these territories within Ukraine), and to work constructively within the relevant international frameworks. Finally, it demands all parties allow and facilitate rapid, safe, and unimpeded access for humanitarian assistance to protect civilians, including humanitarian personnel, and people in vulnerable situations, and condemns all violations of international humanitarian law and of human rights. It should also be noted that in its preamble, the resolution also condemns Russia´s decision to increase the readiness of its nuclear forces.

In addition, Ukraine has requested an urgent meeting of the Human Rights Council on the dire situation of its civilian population due to the Russian offensive—a meeting which (despite Russia and China voting against it) is due to take place on March 3, and in which Russia will undoubtedly invoke its false claims of an alleged genocide in Donbas. This will thus be a new episode in the battle over the relevance of human rights in international relations, in which all available voices in defense of their universality, indivisibility, and inalienability will be needed, including that of the United States, whose absence from the Council until recently had weakened this position.

And the attempted misappropriation of the idea of democracy seems to have increased in vigor in reaction to the current US administration’s Democracy Summit, which was held virtually at the end of last year and will have an in-person follow-up at the end of this year. Clearly, both China and Russia see this initiative as menacing, as it contradicts their narrative that the West and its values are in crisis. The resilience of democracy in countries such as Ukraine is all the more dangerous for the two because it highlights the validity and universality of these values.

This crisis has highlighted the international community’s cohesion in defending the principles and purposes enshrined in the United Nations Charter.

In the face of the aggression against Ukraine, the West has reacted with a high degree of unity and speed, which perhaps President Putin did not expect. But this crisis has highlighted the international community’s cohesion in defending the principles and purposes enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The Ukraine crisis constitutes an assault on the current European order and an attempt to take it back to the times of the Cold War, but it is also an assault against an international order based on the principles of equality among states, territorial integrity, political sovereignty, the principles of democracy, and respect for human rights.

Negotiations have started between Russia and Ukraine. Even though there is a clear lack of confidence from the international community toward Russia after it broke its repeated commitment not to invade Ukraine, negotiations must certainly be given a chance—but they should be conducted in the basis of these principles.

At a time when, under the label of geopolitics, it seemed that the new paradigm of international coexistence was moving toward the law of the strongest, the international reaction to the Ukraine crisis represents a vindication of the multilateral, international architecture. The resolution adopted by UNGA on March 2 is the embodiment of the international community as a whole awakening to the need to protect the current rules-based international order in the face of attempts to undermine it.

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