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Zelenskyy calls on United Nations to strip Russia of Security Council veto power

Tensions erupted even before Zelenskyy spoke, with the Russian side questioning the decision to allow him to go first.

LAST UPDATE | Sep 20th 2023, 6:00 PM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR Zelenskyy confronted Russia directly at the UN Security Council today, denouncing the Kremlin’s invasion of his country as “criminal” and urging that Moscow be stripped of its UN veto power.

Clad in his trademark military fatigues, Zelensky for the first time since the February 2022 invasion sat in the same room as a Russian official, who responded by scrolling through his smartphone with a look of conspicuous disinterest.

“Most of the world recognizes the truth about this war,” Zelenskyy said. “It is a criminal and unprovoked aggression by Russia against our nation aimed at seizing Ukraine’s territory and resources.”

Zelenskyy called on the United Nations to strip Russia of its Security Council veto power, describing it as a vital reform that would simultaneously promote greater representation at the UN for the developing world – where support for Ukraine has been lukewarm.

“Veto power in the hands of the aggressor is what has pushed the UN into a deadlock,” Zelenskyy said.

“It is impossible to stop the war because all efforts are vetoed by the aggressor or those who condone the aggressor,” he said.

Zelenskyy repeated the Ukrainian stance that the veto power belonged to the former Soviet Union – one of the victors of World War II after which the United Nations was created – and not to President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

“Unfortunately, this seat in the Security Council, which Russia occupies illegally through backstage manipulations following the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been taken by liars whose job it is to whitewash the aggression and the genocide,” Zelenskyy said.

Russia scoffs 

Taking away Russia’s veto power would be exceedingly difficult.

There is, however, precedent: the UN General Assembly in 1971 stripped Taiwan of the veto power it held as the representative of China, handing it instead to the communist government of the mainland.

Tensions erupted even before Zelenskyy spoke, with the Russian side questioning the decision by current Security Council president Albania, represented by  Prime Minister Edi Rama, to allow the Ukrainian to go first.

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, repeatedly asking to speak, told Rama that letting Zelenskyy, a former comedian, appear first risked “undermining the authority of the Security Council” and turning it into “a one-man stand-up show.”

Rama responded calmly but with growing annoyance, telling the Russian envoy, “There is a solution here – you stop the war, and President Zelenskyy will not take the floor.”

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke before Zelenskyy and also strongly criticized Russia.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in clear violation of the United Nations Charter and international law, is aggravating geopolitical tensions and divisions, threatening regional stability, increasing the nuclear threat and creating deep fissures in our increasingly multipolar world,” Guterres said.

Albania allowed a list of 63 speakers for the session. Others also scheduled to attend included Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Lavrov, himself a former UN ambassador known for his sharp-tongued remarks, arrived in New York late yesterday, with official Russian media saying he flew a circuitous route to avoid European airspace.

Putin, who rarely travels to the United Nations, did not come this year. He has skipped other high-profile diplomatic gatherings as Western nations seek to isolate him and as he faces an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court.

Courting world opinion

Addressing the General Assembly yesterday, Zelenskyy said that Russia’s deportations of Ukrainian children – which triggered the warrant for Putin – constituted “genocide.”

Zelenskyy cast support for Ukraine as in the world’s interest, saying that Russia was “weaponising” both food and energy, including by halting a UN-backed arrangement that let Ukraine ship grain safely through the Black Sea.

“For the first time in modern history, we have the chance to end the aggression on the terms of the nation which was attacked,” Zelenskyy said in a speech met with applause led by Western nations but many empty seats elsewhere.

Some developing nations have been critical of the attention granted to Ukraine, which has received some $43 billion in military aid from the United States alone.

“It is a grave indictment of this international community that we can spend so much on war, but we cannot support action that needs to be taken to meet the most basic needs of billions of people,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said Tuesday.

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