On March 1st of 2022, more than 100 UN delegates walked out during Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov’s, speech that aimed to excuse Russia’s attacks against Ukraine. Protestors, led by Ukrainian UN Representative Yevheniia Filipenko, filed out as Lavrov claimed that his country was defending itself against the Ukrainian majority. Riddled with a blatantly obvious, propagandistic tone, the minister criticized the “Russophobic” United Nations for turning a blind eye to Ukraine’s violation of human rights against its Russian minority through their neo-Nazistic regime (AP News 2022). Filipenko later thanked her fellow UN delegates, as many other of her peers noted that the United Nations could not serve as a stage for disinformation.
On the surface, the United Nations serves as a haven of hope for many. Created during the aftermath of World War II while millions were rebuilding their homes, the United Nations signified a change for the better–where democratic values of “the common good” (Schrumpter 425) are represented through the choices of elected officials that aim to create a better future for the generations to come. Currently, the UN has 193 member states that dedicate themselves to the foundations created by the UN Charter, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Court of Justice. Each pillar focuses on different aspects of a democratic union: re-affirmation of equal rights between peoples, education about the importance of a human’s dignity, and the protection of human rights through international legal statutes.
The United Nations is supposed to be a symbol of unity for the experiment that is democracy. So the question stands–how well does it work?
Despite the UN’s history as a merger of countries that work together for global peace, its success as an instigator and protector of democracy is questionable. Before the viral moments of the walk-out, the UN Security Council (UNSC) had previously voted in favor of demanding Moscow to stop its invasion on Ukraine. However, as a permanent member of the council, Russia used its veto power on the resolution that would call for their de-escalation against Ukraine (UN 2022). Despite the Security Council’s responsibility to maintain “international peace and security”, hundreds of citizens in Kyiv struggled to escape and shelter themselves from Russian military warfare. While UN Assembly members sternly wagged their fingers at the Russian Federation for the possible consequence of their actions, the Ukrainian people had already suffered from the consequences of Russia’s actions.
The reaction and slow response of the United Nations to enact any critical ramifications on Russia for starting a war against an unprepared population demonstrates the inability of the global institution to protect and establish democracy in a collective setting. Therein lies the issue of the United Nations at hand; its creation as a symbolic foundation of democratic values contributes to democratic erosion due to its incompetency to bring together the Assembly’s powers to legitimately prevent authoritarian governments from abusing their power. The UN’s power to fight for democratic values stops on the screen and is useless outside of the auditorium.
Author Joseph Schrumpter argues that the issue with democracy, and the institutions that aim to support its values, automatically assume that the “will of the people” (Schrumpter 411) is the same for all citizens. Constitutions and charters, along with their protective legal systems, hold an unspoken belief that all individuals hold the same rationale–a rationale that encourages them to vote for representatives that will make decisions that further represent the “rule of the people.” Nonetheless, Schrumpter asserts that it is impossible to have a collective ideology on what the “people” want; there are never any definite answers for individual situations. The “institutional arrangement” of democratic union that the UN relies on thus forgets its historical oppression against differing communities, their society’s favoritism to the elite, and the ability to exclude people that oppose those already in power (Schrumpter 459).
Schrumpter determines that, in order for a democracy to prevent non-democratic practices, it must follow a set of rules that rely on a sense of trust between the citizen and the politician representing them (Schrumpter 496). Together, the function of democracy thus relies on their faith in the institution to establish the right rules and decisions for their society, always dependent on the context of the situation. However, the veto against UNSC by the Russian Federation, the Ukrainian UN’s protest against the foreign minister, and the following ignorance of the UN’s pleas through Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demonstrate that there is an intense lack of trust between delegates in the UN cohort. The United Nations is supposed to be a heightened version of democratic values, claiming to only work with those who have the same goal of creating a collaborative future for all. If a representative is unable to cooperate or fights with another, the probability of non-democratic practices for a country to get their way is far more likely to occur.
Like their people, democratic countries have their own individual practices, values, and goals that do not always work with others. Russia’s veto demonstrates that symbols of freedom and peace are incapable of stopping undemocratic practices when they actually happen. If a global institution that symbolizes the unification of democracy fails to maintain trust between its members–to the extent where blood is shed–democratic values will eventually hold no value or meaning to the citizens that look to it.
Russia’s continued participation in the UN General Assemblies, as well as the lack of action from other assembly members together in the UN to reprimand them for attacking another delegate, shows the world that the UN is unable to promote unity among its own members. This disunity inevitably leads to the fall-out of democratic countries to collaborate, and, instead, to a country’s use of anti-democratic practices in order to carry out their agenda. Assembly members such as the United States and some within the European Union have been able to individually provide assistance to Ukraine by blocking flights from Russia (Cumming-Bruce 2022), imposing sanctions (Rappeport 2022), and allowing refugees to temporarily situate themselves in these countries (Sullivan 2022). The United Nations has provided a platform for powerful international states to hopefully influence the actions of others so that their “democratic” efforts inspire others to do the same. Furthermore, the UN Human Rights Council has voted to remove Russia from the group while the UN Secretary-General Guiterres begged both Russia and the Security Council to “give peace another chance.” (BBC 2022)
Yet through the mass growth of international media, it becomes hard to believe the UN is an instrument that fights for peace when, simultaneously, there are numerous reports posting photos and firsthand accounts of Russia’s attacks visible at the touch of a screen. The vetoing power of Russia demonstrates a “grave weakness” of the Security Council and global democratic governance at hand–the fact that a country can refuse the majority of people’s representatives to gain more power (Dervis and Ocampo 2022). Ukrainian President Kelenskyy further noted the hypocrisy of the institution in a speech from his office, asking if “international order” still existed after the UN failed to stop Russia from bombing his country (Treisman 2022). His words note the reform needed for not only the Security Council, but the UN and its procedures to prevent a situation like Russia’s from happening ever again.
On March 1st, Ukraine had already experienced 7 days of bombings and military warfare. 136 civilians had been killed in action–13 of those being children (Reuters 2022). Democracy only functions when people trust institutions to support the journey towards equitable representation. The United Nations must take proper action to nurture trust between democratic countries, as well as reform its charters to ensure accountability when a country chooses to abuse its power. Lack of reform leads to loss of life–a scene no one wants to replay again.
Schumpeter, Joseph. 1947. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. Harper & Brothers. Chapter 22 (Another Theory of Democracy)
Thank you for choosing such an interesting topic! I think you make a number of goods points and criticisms regarding the United Nations and its inability to live up to its intended purpose/vision. The UN’s inability to counter authoritarian regimes and human rights violations is often used as an argument against it, sometimes by those who think it should not exist (suggesting that this global bureaucracy that meddles in countries’ affairs should not exist, in part, because it doesn’t even do anything). I tend to agree with these criticisms, but with the opposite position, that the UN must be strengthened in order for it to be effective. However, this raises a lot of questions. You mention a lack of trust as part of the problem. Another way of looking at this is that the UN has practically no way of actually enforcing any of its policies, especially when it is up against a country that is part of the security council. If this is the case, are you suggesting that the UN should have greater authority and means to enforce its will on nations, thereby undermining the sovereignty of its members? This itself is another loaded question. It seems unlikely that permanent security council members would let this happen. Nuclear weapons add an extra layer of complexity to this as well (aka how do you undermine a nation’s sovereignty when it has weapons that can destroy the world). These are a lot of big questions, but are interesting. I personally very much think that national-sovereignty is a net-negative for democracies. There are some movements like “Uniting for Consesus” that advocate for more non-permanent security council members. Others wish to abolish the security council entirely. Once again, thanks for the post!
The UN is contradictory by its creation; inclusion of all nations means that the mandate must be broad enough and light enough to not offend on an international scale, with the effect that what can get done is inversely proportional to the amount of countries participating. This sets the UN as not being that effective at enforcing international human rights norms with force, instead providing the forum that countries can communicate their dismay.
Running into the question of whether or not the UN could have done more to make Russia not invade Ukraine. Which puts a bit too much emphasis on both soft power and international norms having effect against political/other interests of an autocrat.
Strengthening the power of the United Nations is dangerous, and risks destroying the actual purpose of the organizational; to have a formal space that any and all countries can represent themselves in, no matter the state of their politics.