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Russian Plane Crash and UN — Why is the World Dragging its Feet?

The Security Council's inadequacies extend to its role in promoting human rights, partly due to the veto power serving as a shield for criminal dictatorships.

5 mins read
Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergey Lavrov

If the United Nations is to survive, those who represent it must bolster it; those who advocate it must submit to it; and those who believe in it must fight for it. ~ Norman Cousins

On 24 January 2024 a Russian military transport plane carrying a total of 74 individuals, among them 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war slated for an exchange, perished when the plane crashed in the snow-covered border region of Belgorod close to Ukraine. Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov reported that all occupants lost their lives in the incident. The exact cause of the crash remains uncertain.  It is important to note that in the latter part of December 2023, a devastating assault on Belgorod resulted in the tragic loss of at least 18 civilians and left over 100 people wounded. Russia called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council. The emergency meeting was prompted by reported assaults on Belgorod. Positioned approximately 40 kilometers to the north of the Ukrainian border, Belgorod is a city with a population exceeding 300,000 residents.

On January 25 2024 VoA News reported that The U.N. Security Council has scheduled an urgent session on for the 25th January following the crash.  Both Russian and Ukrainian authorities are urging a thorough inquiry into the incident.

Russia alleges that Ukraine is responsible for downing the plane. The Russian side claims that the aircraft was deliberately targeted.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov labelled the incident a “terrorist attack” orchestrated by Ukraine. Lavrov asserted that the Ukrainian prisoners of war were en route to the Belgorod region for an agreed-upon swap between Moscow and Kyiv. Instead, he alleges, Ukraine launched an air defense missile from the Kharkiv region, resulting in the plane’s tragic fate. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy insisted on an international investigation during his nightly address on the 24th. Zelenskyy emphasized the need to establish all relevant facts, acknowledging the challenging circumstances given that the crash occurred in Russian territory beyond Ukraine’s control.

Zelenskyy criticized Russia for jeopardizing the lives of Ukrainian prisoners of war and causing distress to their families and the wider society. Although Ukraine’s military did not directly reference the plane crash, it claimed that Russia had conducted attacks linked to Russian military aircraft landing in Belgorod. The statement also indicated that Ukraine would target Russian military planes suspected of carrying missiles for potential future attacks.

The Security Council

The United Nations Security Council derives its legal legitimacy from the Charter of the United Nations.

It is made up of five enduring members: China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Additionally, ten non-permanent members are chosen for two-year durations by the General Assembly (with the concluding year of their term indicated): Algeria (Term concluding in 2025); Ecuador (Term concluding in 2024); Guyana (Term concluding in 2025); Japan (Term concluding in 2024); Malta (Term concluding in 2024); Mozambique (Term concluding in 2024); Republic of Korea (Term concluding in 2025); Sierra Leone (Term concluding in 2025); Slovenia (Term concluding in 2025); Switzerland (Term concluding in 2024).

The UN Charter empowers the Security Council inter alia:  to uphold global peace and security in alignment with the principles and objectives of the United Nations; to examine any disagreement or circumstance that could escalate into international tension; to propose strategies for resolving such disputes or determining the terms of reconciliation; to devise strategies for implementing a framework to oversee weaponry; to ascertain the presence of a threat to peace or an act of aggression and suggest appropriate courses of action; to urge Member States to implement economic sanctions and alternative non-forceful measures to hinder or halt acts of aggression; to deploy military measures against an aggressor.

The United Nations Charter, Chapter VII, deals with actions in response to threats to peace, breaches of peace, and acts of aggression. Article 39 of the Charter empowers the Security Council to determine the existence of any such threats and make recommendations or decide on measures  to uphold or restore international peace and security. Article 40 allows the Security Council, before making recommendations or decisions under Article 39, to urge concerned parties to adhere to provisional measures deemed necessary or desirable to prevent the situation from worsening. These provisional measures should not affect the rights, claims, or positions of the involved parties, and the Security Council must consider non-compliance with such measures. Article 41 grants the Security Council the authority to determine non-military measures to implement its decisions. It can call upon UN Member States to apply these measures, which may involve partial or complete interruption of economic relations, as well as the suspension of various forms of communication and diplomatic ties. Article 42 provides that if the Security Council deems measures outlined in Article 41 insufficient, it can take action using air, sea, or land forces to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may encompass demonstrations, blockades, and other operations by the military forces of UN Member States.

How Effective Has The Security Council Been?

While the Security Council has incontrovertibly played a role in averting direct conflicts among its five permanent members, addressing critical threats to international peace, such as the 2008 anti-piracy resolution and Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990, it raises the question as to  whether these successes overshadow its failures.

The deficiencies in the global justice system create significant room for crimes affecting millions of victims. Despite the Security Council’s involvement in events like wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, Central Africa, and South Sudan, its delayed responses has resulted in the Council’s failure to prevent widespread human rights violations and war crimes, leading to the suffering of millions.

Furthermore, an examination of the past eight decades reveals a pattern wherein wars, military operations, land occupations, and coups were frequently orchestrated by Security Council permanent members or their affiliated entities. A prime contemporary example is the atrocious Russian war against Ukraine.

The Security Council’s inadequacies extend to its role in promoting human rights, partly due to the veto power serving as a shield for criminal dictatorships. Notably, Russia and China have exploited their veto power sixteen times to shield the Assad regime, a dictatorship responsible for numerous war crimes and backed by authoritarian regimes like Russia and Iran. The Assad regime’s actions have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, permanent disabilities for nearly four million individuals, and displacement of almost ten million. Confronted with such atrocities, reconciling the United Nations’ goals with the lack of accountability for nations supporting such regimes becomes challenging.

ABC News has reported that the  Council’s inaction in addressing the conflict in Ukraine, marked by multiple Russian vetoes on proposed resolutions, has reignited criticism of the organization.

The Ukrainian government has voiced strong disapproval of the Security Council’s failure to intervene and halt the war. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, addressing the Security Council, openly challenged the body to take decisive action or consider dissolution. Resolutions denouncing the war in Ukraine, including one advocating the removal of Russia from the Human Rights Council, were successfully passed by the U.N. General Assembly. This underscores the limited backing Russia receives for its military actions and the global censure it faces for alleged war crimes.

In instances where the Security Council encounters obstacles in acting, the U.N. General Assembly has historically stepped in to address the situation.

Conclusion

In a United Nations report on 16 November 2023, in the context of the Annual Debate of the General Assembly, the  President of the Assembly – Dennis Francis – is reported to have said that the UN’s key platform for peace and security requires structural reform for the Council to maintain its effectiveness and credibility. The President highlighted the global proliferation of violence and warfare, attributing the United Nations’ apparent paralysis to significant divisions within the Security Council. Amid rapid global changes, the President is reported to have  expressed concern that the Council is failing to fulfill its role as the primary guardian of international peace and security, warning of a dangerous shortfall. He underscored that, without structural reform, the Council’s performance and legitimacy are destined to suffer, leading to a decline in the credibility and relevance of the UN as a whole.

Why is the world dragging its feet?

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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