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Ukraine calls for UN Security Council overhaul as Zelenskyy and Lavrov spar in debate

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NEW YORK – Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy took the floor at the UN Security Council on Wednesday (20 September) to launch an appeal for its reform, in a nod to countries of the Global South he hopes to win over for Kyiv’s peace efforts.

Debates of the 15-member UN Security Council, charged with ensuring international peace and security, are almost always contentious but have achieved relatively few results when it comes to Ukraine, due to Moscow’s ability to veto any council resolution critical of its actions.

Exactly one year ago, the atmosphere was charged when Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba both attended.

The UN’s security body has held more than 50 meetings on Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February 2022.

Kyiv and its Western allies have managed to isolate Russia diplomatically at the UN, where the 193-member General Assembly has overwhelmingly voted several times to condemn the invasion and demand Moscow withdraw its troops.

Thursday’s highlight was the encounter between Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russia’s Lavrov – and it got heated even before the actual debate started as Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia objected to Zelenskyy addressing the body.

In a standoff with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who is presiding over the session as the current president and who chose the meeting’s topic, Nebenzia asked why Zelenskyy, whose country is not a member of the UNSC, has been allowed to speak before the 15 members.

Rama responded: “I want to assure our Russian colleagues and everyone here that this is not a special operation by the Albanian presidency.”

“There is a solution for this: If you agree, you stop the war and President Zelenskyy will not take the floor,” Rama said, explaining that giving Zelenskyy the floor first would allow members to reply to his remarks.

Beyond Ukraine, a dozen other countries that are not UNSC members, including North Macedonia as the current chair of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), were also invited to participate in Wednesday’s debate on the war in Ukraine.

Remove veto power, add members

Zelenskyy has addressed the UN’s security body several times by videolink from Ukraine since Russia’s invasion started but this was the first time he personally attended a session.

Addressing members in his trademark green military fatigues, Zelenskyy urged United Nations reform as a “necessary step” to stop what he called Russia’s abuse of the veto power in the Security Council.

“It is impossible to stop the war because all actions are vetoed by the aggressor,” he told the council.

Zelenskyy added that the United Nations “finds itself in a deadlock when it comes to resolving conflict” because of the Council’s structure.

His proposal would mean a fundamental change in the way the UNSC operate, with the General Assembly receiving the power to override vetos and unseating Russia from the Council.

Zelenskyy also said the Security Council should be “fully accountable” to UN members and that its permanent members should reflect the “current realities”.

Proposing an overhaul to broaden membership, Zelenskyy said Ukraine considers it “unjust” when billions of people do not have a permanent representative in the Security Council, while Russia does.

“The African Union must be here permanently, Asia deserves broader permanent representation. It cannot be considered normal when nations like Japan, India, or the Islamic world, remain outside the permanent membership of the Security Council.”

Germany should also have a place among the permanent members, as well as the Pacific states, he added.

Striking a nerve?

However, Zelenskyy’s call for abolishing Russia’s veto power in the Security Council is unlikely to happen any time soon. It would have to be approved by all five permanent members — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States — with Moscow likely to reject any attempt to cancel its veto power.

The UN rules theoretically provide a way for the General Assembly to vote to expel a member entirely, but it has never happened as it requires unanimity and is considered a last-resort ‘nuclear option’.

Western UN members echoed Zelenskyy’s criticism of Russia’s veto powers in the debate.

Several speakers at Wednesday’s session expressed their deep frustration with Moscow’s position at the United Nations, while many of them pointed towards the global impact of the war on food security, energy supply and nuclear safety.

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Russia’s “abuse of the veto power” to obstruct decisions by the Security Council “cannot be accepted by the international community”.

Zelenskyy’s proposal is also likely to strike a nerve, particularly with developing countries in the Global South, which Kyiv would like to woo for support of its 10-point peace plan.

Many leaders from developing countries brought up the structure of the Security Council in New York this week. Ghana’s President Nana Addo Dankwa told the Assembly the veto power of Russia and other major powers made the Council ineffective.

Powerful nations that preach democracy and justice “are happy to practice the opposite here at the United Nations,” Dankwa said, adding that the UN appeared to be “unwilling or unable” to influence events in Ukraine.

Russia fires at West

Russia’s Lavrov, who entered the chambers halfway into the debate, accused the West of “selectively” turning to UN norms and principles on a case-by-case basis “based on their parochial geopolitical needs”.

Turning to familiar Kremlin themes, Lavrov denounced the US for using the United Nations to level accusations at countries “who for one reason or another are inconvenient to Washington.”

He also complained that France and Germany neglected the Minsk Accords, a failed international agreement intended to bring peace to Ukraine prior to the Russian invasion, and decried US military intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere.

Zelenskyy had left the Security Council chamber after his speech and was not present for Lavrov’s remarks.

Russia’s delegates mostly appeared absent during the debate, texting on their phones, while only one Russian diplomat could be seen at the country’s desk during most of the other speeches.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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