Ukraine and the future of collective global security

| February 17, 2023

A year on, the war in Ukraine remains one of the most debated and highest visibility crises in the world. In laying out the United Nations’ priorities for 2023, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has pointed recently to the situation as one of the main threats “driving the world closer to annihilation.” “I fear the world is not sleepwalking into a wider war,” he said, but rather it is doing so “with its eyes wide open.”

To be sure, the continuous pushing of boundaries between NATO countries and nuclear Russia over the delivery of critical military aid to Ukraine has been testing nerves the world over. Likewise, the impacts of the war — economic primarily, but in other areas also — have been felt not only in Europe but globally. Reactions to the invasion have been therefore outstanding in their intensity and scope, but also in their resilience and longer-term potential effects.

The dynamics at the United Nations, the use and challenges of international law, and mobilisations of multinational corporations, international organisations, media, and public opinion all play a part in the wide-ranging, Western-led sanctions regime established over the past year in reaction to the invasion. A common thread connecting these processes relates to their significance to the future of international collective security, and more specifically, to responses to existing or future crises in other parts of the world.

A system of collective security

Shortly after the start of the invasion on 24 February 2022, international reactions to the evolving crisis were pointed to by commentators as a potential “make or break” moment for the future of global collective security. The world order established post-World War II had been built around a vision of an international community standing united to deter, prevent, or stop acts of aggression by individual states or alliances.

However, soon after and frequently since, this ideal has failed to meet its promise. UN member states continue to pursue their national interests, at times at the expense of vulnerable populations or of shared benefits for all. At the UN Security Council (UNSC), the veto power entitlement has become, instead of an instrument of checks and balances, a tool for advancing self-interests and protecting allies.

Institutional developments

As the most frequent deployer of veto power, Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine was bolstered no doubt by the knowledge that it could shoot down without significant repercussions any unwelcome resolution brought before the Security Council. However, what has followed since might not have been entirely anticipated by the Kremlin.

After a strong censoring resolution, introduced on 25 February 2022 (co-signed by more than 80 states) was vetoed by Russia, an invocation of the Uniting for Peace resolution — first time in forty years — enabled transferring the debate from the Council to the General Assembly (UNGA). Dating back to 1950, the Uniting for Peace resolution permits the Assembly to discuss matters of international peace and security in relation to which the UNSC has become deadlocked.

An ensuing, rarely called, special emergency session of the UNGA produced then a non-binding but politically significant resolution, which isolated Russia diplomatically from most of its traditional allies, with only Belarus and other pariah states North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria in support.

The measure was soon followed by other UNGA actions, including a decision to suspend Russia’s membership in the UN Human Rights Council, and the adoption of a landmark resolution requiring all UNSC permanent members (P5) to justify to the Assembly within ten days any use of veto.

While this latter resolution would not prevent the use of the veto in the future, it has opened the way for some UNGA oversight and has raised expectations for resumed discussions on a long-awaited Council reform.

Mediation as a diplomatic alternative

The major powers’ showdown over Ukraine has put many states in uncomfortable diplomatic positions. Developing nations in particular, many of whom maintain significant economic and/or security interests on both sides of the conflict, have found it difficult to decide on how to vote at the UN or whether or not to join the comprehensive sanctions regime initiated by the West.

While abstaining at UN votes has long been a prudent compromise for many, mediation services offered instantly by states such as Turkey, India, and Israel, all with significant interests against choosing a side, point to a potentially attractive escape hatch for states in these situations. If adopted more extensively, such tactics may weaken unity and undermine the implementation of international collective security.

The Genocide Convention

Another measure, taken up by Ukraine, was the filing of legal proceedings against Russia before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) under the Genocide Convention. A clause in the Convention (Art. IX) delegates to the ICJ the jurisdiction to adjudicate disputes between states parties over its interpretation, application or fulfilment.

Ukraine’s submission centered on Russia’s allegations — used in part as a pretext for the invasion — that Ukraine had been committing genocide against Russian speaking minorities in Eastern Ukraine. In its application, Ukraine rejected these allegations and requested the court to indicate provisional measures that would order Russia to immediately suspend its military operations.

On 16 March 2022, the ICJ issued provisional measures, by 13 votes to two (the Judges from Russia and China voting against), ordering Russia to immediately suspend its operations. Months later, however, Russia is yet to comply with the order. Enforcing the Court’s decision would require, once again, a Security Council resolution, which cannot bypass a Russian veto.

The measures discussed thus far were accompanied by additional legal, institutional or military responses, including an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation of mass atrocity crimes allegedly committed by Russia, and one by the UN’s Human Rights Council into “alleged violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law, and related crimes.” Regionally, a much revived NATO has been celebrating newfound unity and knocks on its door by previously reticent countries Finland and Sweden.

Such actions, brought to bear on Russia over its flagrant breaches of the UN Charter’s prohibition on the use of force, may offer some renewed hope for the long-debased ideal of international collective security. The question to ask though is to what extent and in what ways the unprecedented mobilisation over Ukraine could be replicated in the future in relation to less “consequential” crises in less visible and “prioritised” parts of the world.

More research is therefore needed into the roles of the media and international public opinion in leading, following, supporting, or acquiescing to governments’ cues. This applies not only to the rare accords but to the persistent misalignments between narrow political interests of powerful states and the moral imperative to protect vulnerable civilian populations from wars and mass violence.

While a Russian win in the war could embolden future cases of aggression, in Taiwan and elsewhere, a failure may set a precedence for future international responses to cross-border aggression, and perhaps also to domestic instances of mass atrocities.