U.N. Chief Heads to Odesa, Facing Limits of Influence Over War in Ukraine

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Some of the most effective efforts to punish Russia have come in the form of tough economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union, but those came outside the Security Council, the structure within the U.N. that has the power to impose sanctions.

While the war has laid bare the limits of the U.N.’s ability to resolve global conflicts, it has also showcased the organization’s vital humanitarian role, providing aid, food and health care to millions of Ukrainian refugees. Mr. Guterres himself served as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees from June 2005 to December 2015, taking up the role of secretary general in 2017.

The Ukraine conflict has unleashed a devastating humanitarian toll. Uncounted thousands of civilians have been killed, millions are internally displaced and more than six million are now living outside of the country, in what the U.N. has called the fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II. Russia’s targeting of civilians and treatment of captured enemy fighters has also led to accusations of war crimes.

But Russia holds veto power on the Security Council, robbing it of the ability to pass legally binding resolutions holding Moscow accountable. And Russia has a powerful ally, with its own veto, on the council: China.

The Ukraine war is hardly the first conflict in which the Security Council has been rendered impotent by the competing aims of its five permanent, veto-wielding members: Russia, China, the United States, Britain and France.

Among the council’s most striking recent failures is the yearslong civil war in Syria, in which Russia blocked definitive action. China’s and Russia’s alliances kept the Security Council from moving aggressively to counter atrocities against the Rohingya ethnic group in Myanmar. North Korea, which China also protects, has repeatedly ignored U.N. prohibitions against conducting nuclear tests.

Cases where the council was able to act include imposing painful sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. The council also authorized military intervention in support of Libyan rebels in 2011, despite Russia’s reluctance — but the assassination of the Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, reinforced Russian suspicion of the organization.

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