The United Nations can use its blue helmets to save lives in Ukraine

This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail.

The war in Ukraine has renewed calls to reform the United Nations – in particular, the dysfunctional Security Council.

The legitimacy and effectiveness of the council has been in question for decades, as its composition reflects the world of 1945. Although the UN Charter makes the council the most powerful organ of the institution (on paper), rivalries among its five permanent, veto-wielding members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, or the P5) too often produce paralysis.

The result? A body empowered to maintain and restore international peace and security is simply not fit for its purpose. The fatal flaws in the council’s makeup have never been more painfully evident than today, as one of the P5 blatantly flouts the international laws the council was created to enforce.

Russia’s veto guarantees that the council will never condemn the country’s lawlessness, nor act effectively to respond to President Vladimir Putin’s reckless war. Perhaps this absurd spectacle will spur UN member states, once and for all, to support real reform for the council, which has been rendered an impotent and sputtering bystander to the greatest threat to world peace in at least 60 years.

Until that happens, and until a ceasefire or an enduring peace can be negotiated in Ukraine, Canada and other UN member states must make creative use of the tools that remain, especially in meeting one of the UN’s most pressing imperatives: The protection of civilians in wartime.

For that, they must turn to the United Nations General Assembly as the only remaining source of legitimate action in response to Mr. Putin’s war. The UNGA is the world’s foremost deliberative, policy-making body. It lacks the council’s unique powers to authorize coercive action in response to threats to international peace and security, but as UN scholar Rebecca Barber points out, the UNGA has significant powers that are often underestimated.

In a recent report, Ms. Barber notes that under the UN Charter, the UNGA can make recommendations on “any matters within the scope” of the Charter, and it can make these recommendations to states and/or to the council. It is explicitly empowered to make recommendations to assist “in the realization of human rights” and on matters of international peace and security.

The UNGA’s recent resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine garnered 141 supporting votes, with 35 member states shamefully abstaining and only five opposed. That overwhelming indictment from the international community reflects the world’s outrage at Mr. Putin’s unlawful aggression.

But how can that sentiment be channelled to produce meaningful measures that might protect Ukrainians and diminish the human cost of this outrageous and illegal war?

The answer to that question may lie in plain sight. As Ms. Barber reminds us, the UNGA is empowered to mandate peacekeeping operations at the request or with the consent of the host state, pursuant to its power to establish subsidiary bodies and its general recommendary powers described by the UN Charter.

Ms. Barber points out that on several occasions in its early years, when the council was paralyzed by a lack of unanimity amongst the P5, the UNGA intervened to either establish peacekeeping or military observer missions, or to reinforce the mandate of a mission already established by the council.

Given Russia’s repeated attacks on civilians fleeing the conflict, the UNGA can establish a mandate for a UN presence on the ground to ensure that humanitarian corridors are respected. With Ukraine’s consent, a UNGA-authorized force wearing blue helmets can be put in place to allow civilians to move to safety, and to permit humanitarian and medical aid to flow to areas of Ukraine that need them desperately.

Those guarding the corridors can and should be drawn from around the world, as proof to Mr. Putin that this is not a U.S.-led plot to engage him militarily, but a truly global presence seeking to provide protection and assistance to the civilian population until a lasting peace agreement can be negotiated.

Apart from saving lives, such an initiative would also demonstrate the importance of multilateral engagement and perhaps set the stage for a UN “reboot.”

And if Mr. Putin’s military fires on UN forces, he will be attacking not NATO, or “the West,” but the international community at large, conferred with the legitimacy of a UNGA mandate. Even Mr. Putin might hesitate before taking such a foolhardy step.

Canada has always been a staunch supporter of the UN and multilateralism. Here’s an opportunity for us to lead an effort that can demonstrate the value of a co-ordinated international response to a crisis, while protecting the lives of civilians at grave risk.

Image: Shutterstock/Anjo ten Kate


  • Lloyd Axworthy

    The Honourable Lloyd Axworthy is the chair of the World Refugee & Migration Council and one of Canada’s leading voices on global migration and refugee protection. After a 27-year political career, where he served as Canada’s minister of Foreign Affairs and minister of Employment and Immigration, among other postings, Mr. Axworthy has continued to work extensively on human security, refugee protection and human rights in Canada and abroad. He was presented with the Pearson Peace Medal by the Governor General of Canada in May 2017 and is a Companion of the Order of Canada. In his term as president and vice-chancellor of the University of Winnipeg, Mr. Axworthy initiated innovative programs for migrant and aboriginal youth communities, and has also done a great deal of work on refugee reform as a Richard von Weizsäcker fellow at Germany’s Robert Bosch Academy.

  • Allan Rock

    Allan Rock is the president emeritus and was until 2022 a professor of law at the University of Ottawa. A former trial lawyer, he entered politics in 1993 and spent 10 years as a federal cabinet minister in the Justice, Health, Industry and Infrastructure portfolios. Allan was Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations between 2003 and 2006 and the president of the University of Ottawa from 2008 to 2016.