On Saturday, in what some critics say sounds more like an April Fools’ joke than reality, Russia will take over the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council for the month, and no one can prevent it.
With Russia’s war in Ukraine entering its 14th month, an arrest warrant being issued by the International Criminal Court for President Vladimir Putin, and Moscow planning to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to neighboring Belarus, critics are questioning how Russia could helm the U.N.’s most powerful organ.
“The question is very clear: Can the war criminal head the U.N. Security Council?” Andrius Kubilius, a Lithuanian member of the European Parliament, asked during a session Wednesday, referring to Putin.
On March 17, The Hague-based ICC issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader for his alleged role in the abduction and unlawful deportation of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia.
“I think that people are seeing it the wrong way round. I think that people should understand that this month is more of a headache than an advantage for the Russians,” Richard Gowan, U.N. director for International Crisis Group, told VOA.
“If they try and use the presidency to try to stir up trouble for the Ukrainians, or push their narratives about the war, they will just get an enormous amount of blowback,” he added.
The 15-nation Security Council is the U.N.’s most powerful organ. It can authorize military action, deploy peacekeepers, sanction nations and individuals, and refer possible war crimes cases to the International Criminal Court.
Council members take turns as president according to alphabetical order (by English spellings). The last time Russia came up in the rotation was February 2022. On the 24th day of its presidency, Putin launched his “special military operation” into Ukraine, in a flagrant breach of the U.N. Charter and international law — also in the middle of a council meeting hoping to prevent it.
The only time in recent history when a country missed its presidency was in 1994 in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, according to Security Council Report, a think tank that studies the council’s transparency and effectiveness. At the time, Rwanda was a non-permanent council member.
Rwanda’s council seat was vacant for six weeks from mid-July, when Pasteur Bizimungu became Rwanda’s president, until September, when Rwanda should have been council president.
“But clearly the new government had just taken up the seat; they didn’t have time to prepare. They just had experienced the genocide and they had a new government,” Security Council Report told VOA. “So, they skipped Rwanda, and the seat went to Spain, which was next in alphabetical order.”
The council decided that Rwanda would get its chance, once the alphabetical rotation had been completed, and it did sit as president in December 1994.
As for Russia’s presidency, no one can prevent it.
From the White House podium on Thursday, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that a country that “flagrantly violates the U.N. Charter” and invades its neighbor has no place on the council, but there is “no feasible international legal pathway” around that.
“As unpalatable as it may be to see Russia presiding over the council, the reality is this is a largely ceremonial position which rotates to council members month by month in alphabetical order,” she said, adding that the U.S. encourages Russia to conduct itself professionally so the council can carry out its work.
“Russia is a permanent member,” said one council diplomat. “While they are misbehaving gravely on Ukraine and just tearing the [U.N.] Charter apart, my expectation is they will do this presidency in a professional manner.”
Ukraine is outraged that Russia is on the council, much less chairing it. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Moscow’s presidency is a “bad joke.”
Kyiv argues that Moscow should have formally applied for U.N. membership after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and since it has not done so, it does not have the legal right to be on the council, much less a permanent, veto-wielding member.
“Russia’s presence in the U.N. Security Council is the result of the largest diplomatic fraud of the 20th century,” Kuleba said Thursday at a Chatham House discussion of Russia’s war. “We should delegitimize Russia’s presence in the U.N. Security Council first, by exposing the truth to everyone.”
Regardless of optics or opinions, U.N. observers say there is little Russia can do to exploit its position as council president.
“It’s not like the G-20, G-7 or EU presidency where you chair six months or a year and where you inject your own agenda,” the council diplomat said.
“I think the role of the council president is a bit overrated,” Crisis Group’s Gowan said. “Most of it is just chairing meetings and shuffling paper.”
Among Russia’s planned meetings in April will be a ministerial-level debate chaired by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the defense of the U.N. Charter.
Moscow also plans to hold an informal council meeting early in the month on the issue of Ukrainian children abducted and forcibly deported to Russia, which Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said was planned before the ICC issued its warrant for Putin. The envoy has described the issue of the children as “totally overblown.”
And on April 10, Russia has scheduled a meeting on Western arms transfers to Ukraine. Western nations say they are sending equipment, weapons and ammunition to Ukraine as it is fighting in self-defense. They accuse Moscow of obtaining illegal arms transfers from Iran and North Korea.
There have been some calls for nations to boycott Russia’s presidency, including a nascent online petition campaign. Ironically, the only council member ever to boycott council proceedings was the former Soviet Union.
In 1950, the USSR boycotted council meetings for more than six months over the issue of China’s U.N. representation. Moscow had recognized the Communist People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government and wanted its representative to replace the Nationalist Chinese delegation.
“They did come back into the council on August 1, 1950, which was their presidency,” Security Council Report told VOA. “The reason why they came back was because that was during the Korean War and all these votes on U.N. engagement in Korea were being adopted because they were not there to veto them. So they realized it was disadvantageous to them to not be sitting in the council.”
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