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New York: It took less than two minutes for sparks to fly.
No sooner had the UN Security Council begun a special session into the war in Ukraine, Russia angrily objected – aggrieved by the fact that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky had been invited to speak ahead of member countries.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the Security Council.Credit: AP
Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, insisted this went against the rules – much to the chagrin of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who had the job of presiding over the meeting.
“I must say, coming from you, this lecture about violating the rules in this building is quite an impressive shoot,” Rama fired back.
“But there is a solution to this. If you agree to stop the war, President Zelensky will not take the floor.”
It was a tense start for what was only Zelensky’s second in-person appearance at the UN, and a rare New York encounter with an aggressor that Ukraine has been at war with for 19 months.
Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya listens as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a Security Council meeting.Credit: AP
On one side of the table was the Ukraine leader, dressed in his trademark olive-green military shirt, declaring that Russia’s invasion violated UN principles and ought to be stripped of its veto powers on the Council.
On the other side were his Russian adversaries, including Nebenzya, who scrolled through his phone and stared into the distance as Zelensky addressed the council and reminded them that it had been “574 days of pain, losses and struggle” since Vladimir Putin’s bloody invasion.
Notably missing, however, was Putin’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who only arrived at the meeting once Zelensky had left, avoiding a highly anticipated showdown between the two men.
Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya during the meeting.Credit: AP
But even in his absence, Zelensky was scathing – not only of Russia’s aggression but also of the UN’s inability to act against it.
“Humankind no longer pins hopes on the UN when it comes to the defence of the sovereign borders of nations,” he said.
“The problems that are met here within these walls are met with rhetoric, rather than real solutions; with aspirations to compromise with killers rather than to protect lives… We should recognise that the UN itself is in a deadlock on the matters of aggression.”
The Security Council debate was Zelensky’s second in-person appearance at the UN’s High-level week following his speech to the General Assembly on Tuesday where he called for global unity against Russia’s aggression amid fears that public support is waning.
But the Ukraine leader’s comments also highlighted a longstanding problem with the UN’s structure, renewing calls to reform its 15-member Security Council.
While the group has met dozens of times to discuss Ukraine, it has been unable to take any meaningful action because Russia is one of the “P5” permanent veto-wielding members, along with the US, France, Britain and China.
Indeed, one of the most notable examples of the Council’s impotence took place on February 24 last year, when Putin appeared on national TV at 6am in the shadow of darkness in Moscow, announcing he would be launching an invasion of Ukraine – at the same time council members had convened a special meeting urging the Russian strongman not to attack.
It is unlikely the veto provision would be removed, as none of the permanent members favour doing so. And this year, only one of the five members – US President Joe Biden – even bothered to show up, prompting renewed questions about the body’s overall influence.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov only emerged after Zelensky had finished speaking. Credit: AP
Asked about the need for UN reform on Wednesday, Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong, who is in New York for the latest UN General Assembly meeting, acknowledged that the current structure “doesn’t reflect the economic and geopolitical configuration that we see in the world today”.
When pressed about what UN reform should look like, she added: “I think Australia is up for discussion about how we might look to ensure that the United Nations better responds to the needs of the international community and the reality of today.
“We’ve already said we think the [Security Council] should be expanded… And so it would benefit from reform, but that’s a discussion that countries of the world will need to have together.”
Australia is one of several countries pushing for reform of the council, seeking its own seat as it lobbies for “small and medium-sized” countries from Africa, Latin America and Asia to also have a greater say.
Biden has also argued for change, suggesting that the veto power the UN holds should only be used in exceptional circumstances”.
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