Putin is exposing the fatal flaw at the heart of the UN

The Bucha killings have prompted renewed and urgent calls for Vladimir Putin and his cronies to be “held to account”. The problem is, by whom? The various international bodies set up since the Second World war, notably the United Nations and its derivative bodies, were geared to prevent conflict and to punish or sanction aggressors, but they have in myriad cases failed to do so. The UN’s second Secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld, said as far back as 1954 that “The United Nations was designed not to create heaven on earth but to prevent hell”. A modest enough aim but looking at photos and film from Ukraine, you wonder whether even that under ambitious aim has not been forfeited.

The international courts established to try and punish international crimes are all failing to meet the job description of holding the Russian leader to account. The International Court of Justice (ICJ), an organ of the United Nations established in 1946, hears disputes between states but cannot prosecute individuals. It recently ordered Russia to halt its military operations in Ukraine, rejecting Putin’s claim that his invasion was justified to prevent Ukraine’s “genocide” in the Russian-backed enclaves in Luhansk and Donetsk. While ICJ rulings are binding under the UN Charter, and the court order noted they “create international legal obligations”, it has no means of enforcement. Putin has already rejected the ICJ ruling, but it does at least provide an authoritative rejection of his pretext for the invasion.

As for prosecution of individuals suspected of war crimes, many people expected, after the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals ended in 1946, that this would create a precedent for other such trials. But the Cold War dashed any early hopes and it wasn’t until the 1990s, when the UN Security Council set up ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda that something was done to prosecute individuals. The relative success of  these two bodies in prosecuting war criminals led to the  establishment in 2002 of the International Criminal Court (ICC), but this has to date largely been a failure, not least because of its lack of universality. 

Three of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, Russia and the US) don’t support the court. Forty-one states (including India) have declined to sign up. Thus four of the most important and populous states in the world decline to accept its authority. Even if the ICC were to nonetheless prosecute Russian officials for war crimes, a Russian (and possibly Chinese) veto at the Security Council would kill stone dead any ability to enforce a judgement. 

And so we come back to the fatal flaw at the heart of the UN. The Security Council, set up at the founding of the UN in 1945, is charged with ensuring international peace and security but in countless cases has conspicuously failed to do so. Its enforcement measures include economic sanctions, blockades and collective military action. Yet any such action can be stymied by a veto of any of the so-called P5: US, UK, Russia, China and France. 

Russia is exposing this weakness in the system now by sheltering behind its veto as it attempts brazenly to deny war crimes. Any attempt to reform the UN or any of its organs runs into the same problem. And any suggestion that as necessary a group of countries could sidestep or ignore this elephant in the room would need to cater for the fact that whatever its imperfections, the United Nations is universal. No country wishing to become independent has thought of doing so outside the United Nations. Kosovo for instance wishes to become a member but this too has been vetoed by Russia and China. 

Every country that joins signs up to the UN Charter complete with veto powers for the P5. A perfect paradigm of a broken system which cannot be repaired. 


Sir Ivor Roberts, a former British ambassador to Yugoslavia, Ireland and Italy, and former president of Trinity College Oxford

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