UN Chief vs Russia: A Second Battlefront in the Ukraine War

Secretary-General António Guterres (centre) visits residential neighborhoods of Irpin, in Ukraine's Kyiv Oblast February 2023 . Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
  • by Thalif Deen (united nations)
  • Inter Press Service

Mercifully, and hopefully, he has no plans to run for a third term and face a Russian veto--- as did former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who defied the US, and was defeated in his bid for a second term (when 14 members of the Security Council voted for him while the US exercised its veto).

Guterres, a former Prime Minister of Portugal, has been consistent in his attacks on Russia pointing out that Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine is a violation of the United Nations Charter and international law.

In his most recent a statement released July 23, Guterres “strongly condemned the Russian missile attack on Odesa that resulted in civilian causalities and damaged the UNESCO-protected Transfiguration Cathedral and other historical buildings in the Historic Centre of Odesa, a World Heritage site.”

“In addition to the appalling toll the war is taking on civilian lives, this is yet another attack in an area protected under the World Heritage Convention in violation of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.”

Guterres said he was concerned about the threat that this war increasingly poses to Ukrainian culture and heritage. Since 24 February 2022, UNESCO has verified damage to 270 cultural sites in Ukraine, including 116 religious sites.

Still, is Guterres -- and the international community-- fighting a losing battle against Russian President Vladimir Putin? Are there any other alternatives in sight?

James Paul, a former Executive Director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum (GPF), told IPS the Secretary-General should really be able to help with negotiations-- or even lead them.

“Thus, he cannot be too partial. But the Secretary-General (SG) is always partial to the US and any criticism is dealt with very severely as when Kofi Annan said the US had broken international law in Iraq,” said Paul, author of the 2017 book titled “Of Foxes and Chickens: Oligarchy and Global Power in the UN Security Council”.

“All his staff were stripped away, and he was humiliated in The New York Times,” he pointed out. “I think the SG should try to stay in a position that enables him to act as an intermediary”

“Did the then SG criticize the damage to heritage sites in Iraq by US forces? No. The P-5 are not equal”, said Paul, who was a prominent figure in the NGO advocacy community at the United Nations and a well-known speaker and writer on the UN and global policy issues.

Martin S. Edwards, Professor, School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University in New Jersey, told IPS the SG is playing this correctly, working to delegitimize Russia, and rightly so. There’s not much else that can be done to make Russia into a pariah state.

“The SGs voice on this in recent days (not only in criticizing this missile strike but also the end of the grain deal) has been both steadfast and needed,” he said.

“The main problem, sadly, is that this needs to be resolved on the battlefield”.

“The more that Putin realizes he will not achieve any of his objectives, and the more that he realizes his regime is in danger, the more he would be willing to listen to overtures for peace. This war remains a huge tragedy for all involved,” declared Edwards.

Andreas Bummel, Executive Director, Democracy Without Borders, told IPS it is part of the UN Secretary-General's duties to protect the rules and values of the UN Charter.

The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, aimed at annexing territory and erasing Ukraine's existence as an independent state, is the most blatant violation of the Charter's fundamental rules and of international law, he pointed out.

“The Secretary General has no choice but to condemn Russia for its criminal actions even if this means that Russia does not accept him as a mediator. As the UN General Assembly has said, there is no solution to this war except for Russia to withdraw its troops and to cease all attacks,” declared Bummel.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has described the deaths and destruction in the nine-year-old civil war in Yemen as “the world’s worst humanitarian disaster”.

The killings, mostly civilians, have been estimated at over 100,000, with accusations of war crimes against a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) battling Yemen, described as one of the world’s poorest nations in the UN’s list of least developing countries (LDCs).

But the weapons used in these killings originated in the US which has remained the primary arms supplier to both countries. But neither the UN nor successive SGs have at least hinted or accused the US of being implicitly responsible for the civilian killings,

The New York Times said in 2017 that some US lawmakers worry that American weapons were being used to commit war crimes in Yemen—including the intentional or unintentional bombings of funerals, weddings, factories and other civilian infrastructure—triggering condemnation from the United Nations and human rights groups who also accuse the Houthis of violating humanitarian laws of war and peace.


Going back to 2003, then Secretary-General Kofi Annan challenged the United States, and surprisingly, lived to tell the tale—but paid an unfairly heavy price after being hounded by the US administration..

When the US invaded Iraq in March 2003, he described the invasion as "illegal" because it did not have the blessings of the 15-member UN Security Council, the only institution in the world body with the power to declare war and peace.

But the administration of President George W. Bush went after Annan for challenging its decision to unilaterally declare war against Iraq: an attack by a member state against another for no legally-justifiable reason.

The weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), reportedly in Iraq's military arsenal, which was one of the primary reasons for the invasion, were never found.

Subsequently, Annan came under heavy fire for misperceived lapses in the implementation of the "Oil-for-Food" program which was aimed at alleviating the sufferings of millions of Iraqis weighed down by UN sanctions

Meanwhile, in his 368-page 1999 book titled "Unvanquished: A US-UN Saga," Boutros-Ghali provided an insider's view of how the United Nations and its chief administrative officer (CAO) were manipulated by the Organization's most powerful member: the United States.

Although he was accused by Washington of being "too independent" of the US, he eventually did everything in his power to please the Americans. But still the US was the only country to say "no" to a second five-year term for Boutros-Ghali.

In his book, Boutros-Ghali recalls a meeting in which he tells the then Secretary of State Warren Christopher that many Americans had been appointed to UN jobs "at Washington's request over the objections of other UN member states."

"I had done so, I said, because I wanted American support to succeed in my job (as Secretary-General"), Boutros-Ghali says. But Christopher refused to respond.

When he was elected Secretary-General in January 1992, Boutros-Ghali noted that 50 percent of the staff assigned to the UN's administration and management were Americans, although Washington paid only 25 percent of the UN's regular budget.

When the Clinton administration took office in Washington in January 1993, Boutros-Ghali was signaled that two of the highest-ranking UN staffers appointed on the recommendation of the outgoing Bush administration-- Under-Secretary-General Richard Thornburgh and Under-Secretary-General Joseph Verner Reed -- were to be dismissed despite the fact that they were theoretically "international civil servants" answerable only to the world body.

They were both replaced by two other Americans who had the blessings of the Clinton Administration.

Just before his election in November 1991, Boutros-Ghali remembers someone telling him that John Bolton, the US Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, was "at odds" with the earlier Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar because he had "been insufficiently attentive to American interests."

"I assured Bolton of my own serious regard for US policy." "Without American support" Boutros-Ghali told Bolton, "the United Nations would be paralyzed."

IPS UN Bureau Report

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© Inter Press Service (2023) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service