This article is authored by Colombe Cahen-Salvador and was originally published in POLITICO Europe. Click here to read the original piece.
Can a war criminal head the United Nations Security Council?
On March 17, 2023, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin for the “unlawful deportation” of Ukrainian children — a war crime allegation. And yet, on April 1, Putin’s Russia is set to take up the presidency of the most powerful international body.
Although this sounds like a cruel joke on April Fool’s Day, it is not. And for 30 days — the duration of the rotating U.N. Security Council presidency — the world will be collectively shamed as it allows Putin’s imperialistic Russia to take this leadership role. Unless, that is, we do something to stop it, to signal that this cannot be business as usual.
We are taught to look at history in a very binary manner — some resisted and some collaborated; or some did good and some did bad. But the truth is most of us are passive, either looking away or simply waiting while making polite dinner conversation about how abhorrent current events are. We have all been guilty of this — but not this time. This time, surely, we cannot look the other way.
But while stopping Russia may seem like an impossible task, there’s proof that citizen-led campaigns can impact the workings of international organizations. And while the U.N.’s processes need deep reform, there’s a way of standing up for democracy within these halls of power.
Atlas, the global grassroots movement that I chair, did this in 2021, running stunt global primaries to shake up the opacity of the selection process of the U.N. Secretary-General. And thanks to the concerted effort of thousands across the planet, we pushed the General Assembly to take notice of our candidate for U.N. Secretary-General.
Likewise, now, while scholars are exploring and pushing the argument that an “aggressor” cannot take up the position of the presidency, the world can still block Russia from getting anything done in its one month in a similar fashion — before, of course, working to change this system that enables such absurd situations to arise in the first place.
Just think if Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Augusto Pinochet’s Chile were to take up the Security Council’s leadership — it would have been unbelievable. “I would be sickened with rage,” my father said, having seen his own father deported to the camps during World War II. And when I asked if he thought such a thing would have been possible, he answered: “People would never have let it happen.” I then told him about Russia . . .
The Security Council isn’t just a renowned body that has the power of the “bully pulpit”; it “has primary responsibility, under the United Nations Charter, for the maintenance of international peace and security.” However, the body has fallen victim to gridlock for a long time now, and its flaws have never been more apparent. As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated, “Where is the security that the Security Council must guarantee? There is no security.”
So, Russia must be prevented from occupying Ukraine, and from dismantling what’s left of the international order — starting with next month’s presidency.
And along these lines, Atlas started the “UN Boycott Russia” campaign, pushing for at least seven of the 15 Security Council member countries to boycott the body throughout April, thus blocking Russia from getting anything passed. Permanent members of the body can always veto substantive matters, but this isn’t the case for procedural ones, which only require “an affirmative vote of nine members” as per the provisional rules of procedure and related procedural developments.
Given their past support for suspending Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council, countries more likely to support these efforts include the three permanent members of the United States, the United Kingdom and France, as well as five rotating ones — Albania, Ecuador, Japan, Malta and Switzerland. And getting seven of these eight countries to not show up at any of the sessions would mean Russia’s presidency would be rendered utterly pointless.
It would also paint a powerful image.
Images can embody the spirit of an era, of defiance. From photos of those climbing over the Berlin Wall to that of Saudi Arabia’s launch of its 13-men-strong “girls’ council,” moments captured in time exemplify the constant struggle between light and dark, freedom and coercion. At this moment in time, we have the power to show that democratic nations took a stance, and a picture of an empty Security Council room can be our testimony to history.
This would, however, only constitute a short-term solution.
Come November 2023, the People’s Republic of China is set to take on the presidency — which means another country found guilty by the U.N. itself of abuses that might amount to crimes against humanity will be leading it. And while this technique can be attempted as often as needed, more must be done.
The U.N.’s lack of democratic procedures, its refusal to include citizens and its incapacity to make binding decisions on many pressing issues — including responses to authoritarian leaders committing crimes worldwide — must be dealt with.
Incredible support has been shown toward Ukrainians amid Russia’s constant aggressions and war so far. And we must ensure that while Russia still has a seat at the table, it sits there alone with its partner in crime, China. We owe it to the people of Ukraine, Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang and all those tortured by authoritarianism.
We cannot stand passively or idly by. This time, let’s prove my father right.