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The Security Council and the War Criminal

For the whole of April 2023, the presidency of the United Nations Security Council will be held by Russia. 

Last time Russia held the presidency, in February 2022, Russian armed forces illegally invaded Ukraine, a UN member state. Since then, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has put out an international arrest warrant for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. This means the Security Council is being led by a country whose president is wanted for war crimes. 

London-based charity Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) stands with the civilians harmed by Russian military aggressions, past and present. Since 2011, our data has shown the devastating discrepancy between the Security Council’s mission – namely, the protection of civilians and prevention of armed conflict – and the ways in which Russia has projected its military power abroad. 

What is the UN Security Council?

Since its founding in 1946, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has borne the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. Its five permanent members (the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China), alongside 10 non-permanent members, take the lead in determining the existence of a threat to peace or of an act of aggression, imposing sanctions, authorising the use of force, and calling for settlement or negotiations. Each member has one vote, and each permanent member (P5) has veto power. 

The members of the P5 have exercised this veto power to varying degrees, but Russia has by far outdone the others. Counting the years when the Soviet Union held its seat, as of February 2023 Russia has blocked 152 resolutions since the Security Council’s founding, making it the most frequent user of the veto. 

In a 2016 interview, Kofi Annan, Nobel Peace Prize winner and former UN Secretary-General, said: 

“The Security Council should be seen as the executive committee of the global security system set up after World War II. Its members, and especially the Permanent 5 (P5), have a special responsibility for international peace and security.”

In 2014, Russia illegally invaded Crimea. In 2015, Russia began its military engagement in Syria. In 2022, Russia illegally invaded Ukraine. Russia was also glaringly absent from the November 2022 signing of the Political Declaration on Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas, held in Dublin. 

Russia’s track record for international acts of aggression and civilian harm, notably across Syria and Ukraine, shamelessly flies in the face of Kofi Annan’s vision for the Security Council. 

Russian explosive violence

In total, AOAV has recorded 302,756 civilians killed and injured by explosive weapons worldwide since 2010, across 43,363 incidents. 

In that time, Russian and Russian-sponsored explosive weapons caused a reported 15,243 civilian casualties across 2,776 incidents, and across three countries: Libya (11 civilian casualties), Syria (4,182), and Ukraine (11,050). 

This makes Russia the second most injurious state user of explosive weapons after Syria (25,386 civilian casualties), and the worst state perpetrator of civilian harm from explosive violence outside of its own borders. 

Overall, civilians account for 82% of all 18,615 recorded casualties of Russian explosive weapon use. 86% (2,394) of incidents of Russian explosive attacks were recorded in locations reported as populated – areas where 98% (14,184) of casualties of Russian explosive violence were civilians. 

The locations most frequently targeted by Russian explosive weapons are recorded as urban residential: such locations, referring to residential neighbourhoods in towns and cities or strikes on people’s homes, account for 41% (1,142) of incidents of Russian explosive violence. However, Russian attacks which are reported as striking multiple urban locations at once were the most injurious, accounting for 35% (5,300) of civilians killed and injured by Russian explosive weapons across just 652 recorded incidents. Such attacks consequently killed and injured 8.1 civilians per incident.

Dr Iain Overton, CEO of AOAV, said “The UN Security Council, whose mission is to protect civilians and prevent armed conflict, is now being led by a country whose president is wanted for war crimes. Russia’s presidency in the Security Council is more, then, than a cause for concern. Given its track record for international acts of aggression and civilian harm, notably across Syria and Ukraine, its position in the Security Council challenges the fundamental ethos of the United Nations and what it was set up to achieve.” 

“AOAV stands with the civilians harmed by Russian military aggressions, past and present, and calls for increased accountability and reforms to the Security Council. It is time for the UN to live up to its mission for international peace and security and come together to make this message clear.”

The war-criminal president?

On 17 March 2023, the ICC released a statement declaring that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova are alleged to have committed the war crimes of “unlawful deportation of population (children) and that of unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation,” and issued an arrest warrant for both of them.

Putin is the first leader of a P5 member country to be indicted by the ICC, and just the third head of state to be indicted while still in power – a decision which has the potential to resonate far beyond Russia, and could send a strong signal to perpetrators everywhere that no one is immune from prosecution. 

The international warrant obliges member states to detain and transfer Putin if he enters their territory. It has already begun to make its mark on Putin’s diplomatic and political isolation, limiting possibilities for international travel and for meeting with other world leaders. For example, countries have been urging South Africa to uphold its obligation to the statute and arrest Putin if he travels to the country for the BRICS summit in August 2023. Furthermore, the warrant lends legitimacy to Ukrainian-led accountability efforts. 

What it does not lend legitimacy to is Russia’s presidency of the Security Council. The presidency has been referred to as a “bad joke” by Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, and an “April Fool’s joke” by the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.  Mrs Thomas-Greenfield has also said she has no plans to meet the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, during his visit to New York to head a ministerial-level open debate on “effective multilateralism through defence of the principles of the UN Charter.” Overall, the U.S., Britain, France and their supporters on the council are likely to show their disapproval by downgrading their level of representation at Russian-hosted events over the course of the month.

The afore-mentioned Maria Lvova-Belova herself is scheduled to brief an informal meeting on the evacuation of children from conflict zones – a meeting planned before the ICC’s announcement. Britain has blocked the UN webcast of this meeting, stating: “She should not be afforded a UN platform to spread disinformation. If she wants to give an account of her actions, she can do so in The Hague.” 

Rightly or wrongly, it is difficult to see how the UNSC can move forward this month while its own members limit their engagement.

Beyond the hypocrisy that a country in the midst of an illegal invasion is presiding over the council that was designed to prevent such occurrences, the UNSC’s paralysis over Ukraine has highlighted the systemic and structural issues at the core of an institution established – and monopolised by – the victors in the wake of the Second World War. However, few expect it to bring any long-awaited reform. Sergyi Kyslytsya, the Ukrainian permanent representative to the UN, acknowledged that, most likely, “everybody will get accustomed to this new level of global hypocrisy.”

What could be done?

Back in November 2022, UN Member States were already broadly agreed on the need to modernise the UNSC in order to better enable it to address current global challenges and instances of mass atrocities, with the main point of divergence being the use of the Council’s veto authority. Speakers suggested the veto power should be governed by more regulations, and membership to both the permanent and non-permanent categories expanded. 

Russia’s privileges as a member of the P5 allowed it to immediately and unilaterally veto a resolution, which 81 of the UN’s 193 member-states cosponsored, denouncing the invasion of Ukraine. While decrying the ability of a country to veto resolutions on a conflict in which it is actively involved, it is sadly unlikely that other permanent members will take actions which ultimately undermine their own advantages in the Council. 

However, it is clear that increased regulation of the veto power could prevent the deadlocks for which the UNSC, in its current form, seems to be designed. Limiting the power of P5 members to veto resolutions which relate to acts of aggression in which they are active actors could be a productive place to start.

The UN Charter does require members of the Security Council to abstain from voting when the Council is dealing with a dispute to which they are a party. This duty, however, is limited to Chapter VI of the Charter, dealing with the pacific settlement of disputes. Actions relating to international peace and security, under Chapter VII, are not subject to this requirement – hence expanding this requirement could limit the power of P5 members to block resolutions pertaining to conflicts to which they are active parties. 

There is also the strong sense of a total lack of accountability for P5 members, who seem to condemn acts of aggression only when these don’t support their own interests. There was little accountability for the US and UK following the illegal invasion of Iraq, itself a UN member state. While it is also unlikely that P5 members will support reforms to make member states who violate international law answerable for it, it seems clear that a member state, especially a P5 member, who violates the UN charter should be subject to accountability measures, whether these be reduced agenda-setting powers, reduced veto powers, or other sanctions. In this way, an uneasy balance could be reached, where violating international law would actively reduce a state’s ability to wield influence on an international level.