Come April 1, a post-Ukraine Russia, will preside over the UN Security Council in a month-long presidency on the basis of alphabetical rotation.
But Russia will not be the first or the only country—accused of war crimes or charged with violating the UN charter—to be either a member or preside over the most powerful political body in the United Nations.
Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and coordinator of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco who has written extensively on the politics of the Security Council, told IPS the United States has served as president of the Security Council while committing war crimes in Vietnam and Iraq.
France and the United Kingdom, he pointed out, served while committing war crimes in their colonial wars. China has recently served despite ongoing war crimes in Xinjiang.
“So having Russia take its turn as Security Council president would hardly be unprecedented.”
“It is certainly true that Russia would be the first to illegally annex territory seized by military force. However, given how the United States has formally recognized illegal annexations by Israel and Morocco of territories seized by military force, it’s not like Russia is the only permanent member to think that is somehow okay,” declared Zunes.
The ICC has also previously accused several political leaders, including Omar Hassan al-Bahir of Sudan, Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia and Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi of war crimes or genocide.
Asked at a press conference in March about the anomaly of a member state that commits war crimes presiding over the UN Security Council, UN Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq told reporters: “You’re well aware of the rules of the Security Council, including the alphabetical rotation of the Member States of the Security Council for the Presidency of the Council, which is a policy that is held throughout the lifespan of the Security Council.”
“And we have nothing further to say than that,” he added, just ahead of the ICC announcement.
But in a stunning new development, the ICC in March accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of war crimes and issued a warrant for his arrest, along with a similar arrest warrant for Russia’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova.
The announcement on March 17 specifically charged them for the illegal transfer of children out of war-devastated Ukraine, which was invaded by Russia last year, in violation of the UN charter.
Russia, which is not a signatory for the Rome Statute which created the ICC, dismissed the warrants.
In a statement released in March,, ICC’s Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan, said “on the basis of evidence collected and analyzed by my Office pursuant to its independent investigations, the Pre-Trial Chamber has confirmed that there are reasonable grounds to believe that President Putin and Ms Lvova-Belova bear criminal responsibility for the unlawful deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation, contrary to article 8(2)(a)(vii) and article 8(2)(b)(viii) of the Rome Statute.”
Incidents identified by the ICC office include the deportation of at least hundreds of children taken from orphanages and children’s care homes. “Many of these children, we allege, have since been given for adoption in the Russian Federation. The law was changed in the Russian Federation, through Presidential decrees issued by President Putin, to expedite the conferral of Russian citizenship, making it easier for them to be adopted by Russian families.”
Thomas G. Weiss, Distinguished Fellow, Global Governance, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told IPS the statement by the UN spokesperson is completely accurate.
“There is no precedent for preventing a rotating chair in the Security Council (SC)—yet another and only the most recent indication of the aberrant way that it was constructed.”
That said, the Russian ambassador will perhaps be squirming in his SC chair after the ICC’s embarrassing arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin, he noted.
“While it is extremely unlikely that he will be in The Hague anytime soon, the international pressure will only increase—we should recall the itinerary of Slobodan Milošević.”
Moscow is extremely unhappy with this development, Weiss said, as they were when the General Assembly unceremoniously ejected them from the Human Rights Council last year.
Bouncing Russia off (or Libya in 2011) was an important precedent to build upon for other UN bodies (other than the SC). Moscow detests being isolated, and fought against the decision for that reason, he added.
The biggest “what if?” takes us back to December 1991 when the USSR imploded. That was the moment to have called into question Russia’s automatically assuming the seat of the Soviet Union.
“We have thirty years of state practice, and so, we cannot call that into question (although Ukrainian President Zelensky has); we can only wish that we had raised that question then, instead of heaving a huge sigh of relief that the transition was so smooth,” declared Weiss, who is also Presidential Professor of Political Science, and Director Emeritus, Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, the CUNY Graduate Center.
James Paul, a former Executive Director, Global Policy Forum, told IPS the Russian military campaign in Ukraine has raised many questions about international peace and security. Inevitably the debate has produced heated arguments at the United Nations.
Many Western governments (and liberal “idealists” among their citizenry), he said, would like to punish Russia in various ways through sanctions and isolation, in hopes that this will cause Russia to withdraw its military forces and give up its strategic goals in Ukraine.
“Some have proposed that Russia should not be able to take its monthly rotating seat as President of the UN Security Council in the month of April.”
This is a position that shows weak familiarity with international affairs and the workings of the world’s most powerful state actors, including ignorance of the military history of the Western powers, now so exercised about Russian transgressions, said Paul, author of “Of Foxes and Chickens”—Oligarchy and Global Power in the UN Security Council
If the Security Council, he argued, had even-handedly denied its rotating presidency to members that break international law, invade other countries, forcibly change the boundaries of sovereign states or engineer the overthrow of elected governments, then all permanent members of the Council (not least the Western powers) would lose their presidencies.
Asked for the UN Secretary-General’s reaction to the ICC arrest warrants, UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters March 17: “As we’ve said many times before here, the International Criminal Court is independent of the Secretariat. We do not comment on their actions.”
Asked whether Putin will be permitted to enter the UN premises either in Geneva, Vienna or New York, or meet with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, he said: “I don’t want to answer hypothetical questions because … as you know, issues of travel involve others. We will continue… As a general rule, the Secretary-General will speak to whomever he needs to speak in order to deal with the issues in front of him.”
Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, said the ICC announcement was a big day for the many victims of crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine since 2014.
“With these arrest warrants, the ICC has made Putin a wanted man and taken its first step to end the impunity that has emboldened perpetrators in Russia’s war against Ukraine for far too long.”
The warrants, Jarrah pointed out, send a clear message that giving orders to commit or tolerating serious crimes against civilians may lead to a prison cell in The Hague.
“The court’s warrants are a wakeup call to others committing abuses or covering them up that their day in court may be coming, regardless of their rank or position.”
Elaborating further, Paul said in a world of violent and powerful states, the UN is useful because it can bring warring parties together and promote diplomacy and conflict resolution.
“Those calling for punishment for Russia should realize that the United States would (if even-handed rules were enforced) be subject to regular penalties, since it has violated other states’ sovereignty with military forces on many occasions to pursue its own interests,” he noted.
The Iraq War, he said, typifies the U.S. disregard for UN rules and Security Council decisions. U.S. wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan are further high-profile wars of this type. There are dozens of cases.
“Britain and France, too, have used their powerful militaries in contravention of international law, to carry out bloody wars against decolonization as well as later post-colonial interventions to insure access to mines, oil resources, etc.”
The Suez War, launched against Egypt jointly with Israel, was a classic of this genre. Russia and China have had their share of military operations and interventions as well, including Russia’s intervention in Afghanistan and its many wars in the Caucasus.
China, famous for promoting territorial integrity as a principle, annexed Tibet and fought several wars with its neighbor Vietnam, he said.
“So, the Permanent Members of the Security Council have a very poor record when it comes to setting the standard for international law. Even smaller states (with bigger protectors) have been in the invasion business. Israel, Turkey and Morocco come quickly to mind,” declared Paul.
Asked whether the President of the General Assembly Csaba Kőrösi would be willing to meet with President Putin, his Spokesperson Pauline Kubiak told reporters that “President Kőrösi represents all Member States of the General Assembly, which includes Russia. He has been willing and remains willing to meet with President Putin.”
By Thalif Deen – IPS UN Bureau Report / Globetrotter