A street in Kiev following Russian missile strikes on 10 October 2022. CC BY 4.0
A street in Kiev following Russian missile strikes on 10 October 2022. CC BY 4.0

By Sergio Duarte

The writer is a former UN High Representative for Disarmament.

NEW YORK, 9 May 2023 (IDN) — Under the inspiration of the five powers that won World War II, the United Nations Charter was adopted in 1945 with the objective of regulating international relations and preventing war. Its Preamble expresses “the determination of the peoples of the United Nations to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”.

To this end, all members of the world organization pledged to settle their disputes by peaceful means and to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or the political Independence of any state.

Unfortunately, it has not been possible for the United Nations to prevent bloody armed clashes in several parts of the world. International disputes have not always been solved by peaceful means, and the might of arms has been used many times against the territorial integrity and political independence of states.

Up to February 2022 the European continent had been spared from the scourge of war throughout the more than 75 years of the United Nations’ existence. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia broke this long period of peace and is a flagrant violation of the Purposes and Principles enshrined in the Charter.

Since the attack by the United States against the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the destructive power of atomic weapons has not been directly used in new wars, but the mere existence of these arms changed the world by dividing it into the nuclear-armed states and all others.

The indefinite duration of this situation was confirmed by the veto power given to five countries at the UN Security Council and their exclusive recognition as “nuclear weapon states” by the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)[1], which has no clear and legally binding provisions for the elimination of such weapons.

Throughout the decades since the adoption of the Charter, the nuclear weapon states have ascribed the absence of armed conflicts in Europe to the supposed deterrent virtues of those arms.  The invasion of Ukraine by nuclear armed Russia and the involvement of countries belonging to NATO—a nuclear alliance—shows the fallacy of that notion.

Nuclear capability did not prevent the outbreak of a confrontation between nuclear weapon powers in a war about their own opposing political and strategic interests.  Far from being a factor of the maintenance of peace, the existence of such weapons seems to have stimulated the ambitions and fears of the parties in the conflict.  The problem with nuclear deterrence is that it seems to work—until it fails.

The continuous increase of new destructive capabilities to their arsenals by the nuclear weapon states is also an extremely serious development, as well as their willingness, stated more or less stridently, to use them in the circumstances they deem necessary, without considering the catastrophic and potentially irreversible effects on the planet and its population.

The fear of the use of nuclear weapons afflicts not only the populations of the countries involved in the war but many others as well. The lack of workable solutions for the conflict, which seems to have reached a deadlock, is a matter of serious concern for the part of the international community that has so far kept its distance.

The situation is obviously very complex, with historic, cultural and geopolitical roots that go much beyond the actual reality in the battlefield. Recently, some world leaders expressed consent about adverse consequences for the world economy and security.

These manifestations recognize the difficulty of finding acceptable solutions for the parties in the dispute. Reliance on nuclear weapons as guarantors of security increases the difficulty, but also makes the search for a lasting solution more pressing.

The United Nations Security Council, primarily responsible for the maintenance of peace and security, has been unable to act effectively on this question. The mechanisms provided for in the Charter to deal with situations of breach of the peace have not been set into motion to settle the dispute due to its rules on decision-making.

The General Assembly, whose decisions are non-mandatory recommendations, condemned the aggression (albeit with some negative votes and several abstentions). The means at the disposal of the United Nations to maintain or restore peace, set forth in Chapters VI and VII of the Charter, have been successfully used over the decades in situations that do not directly contradict the interests of the five states possessing veto power. 

Thus, these countries remain outside the coercive action of the world organization. For the Council to discharge its functions thoroughly, it is necessary to improve this system.   

As matters stand, a solution to the conflict must come from the belligerents. However, there is no indication that the situation may evolve, at least in the short term, in the direction of a cease-fire that allows for the start of negotiations for a durable peace. Hostilities continue unabated, and it is not possible to foresee a decisive military outcome.

At present both parties seem to be preparing offensive actions aiming at consolidating or reversing territorial gains. According to the majority of analysts, the war will probably go on for an indefinite period, increasing the suffering and the destruction of Ukraine and also bringing large human and material losses to Russia.

Apparently, none of those involved in the conflict would accept any solution that cannot be seen as “victory”. For Kiev and the alliance supporting it, the surrender of all territories occupied by Russia, including Crimea, is essential. Moscow, for its part, rejects this possibility outright and believes that the expansion of NATO to the East is in fact only part of a wider geopolitical design aiming at restricting Russsia’s ability to act in the world. “Victory” for Russia means much more than merely preventing Ukraine to join the Atlantic alliance.

For one side or the other, to accept the adversary’s terms implies the abandonment of deeply held beliefs that involve considerations of strategic balance, sovereignty, and national pride, as well as the interests of populations with opposing perceptions of their cultural roots and political allegiance. There is no magic formula to deal with such questions.

Very recently, generic and exploratory suggestions have been made about the possibility of political articulation by some states not involved in the war to search for solutions have been made. Indeed, many aspects of the conflict go beyond a bilateral dispute. Any proposal with a minimal chance of success will have to be acceptable not only to Russia and Ukraine. So far, directly interested parties have not been receptive. 

As the human and material costs of the war increase and affect larger areas of the world, it is reasonable to suppose that pressure for a negotiated solution would also increase. If the two sides see more gains than losses in a possible agreement, they could find it appealing to examine suggestions coming from countries or personalities alien to the conflict, from which specific progress can ensue.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations could play a crucial part in this process, for which an immediate cease-fire is an essential condition. At a later stage, wider understandings could envisage the establishment of solid bases for a new security architecture in Europe.

There are many obstacles in the path toward peace, and none of them can be overcome easily or quickly. They can, however, be identified and offset if there is enough common sense to understand that the continuation and exacerbation of the hostilities represent the most serious existential risk for all humanity in the nuclear age. Understanding the true dimension of the danger is a vital element to generate the necessary momentum and political will to avert it.

Unfortunately, history shows that reason and common sense do not always govern the actions of individuals, including leaders and political rulers. It is extremely important to redouble efforts to revert the dangerous course of humankind toward its own extinction. Humanity cannot remain hostage to the unpredictable relationship between countries armed with the most powerful and indiscriminate means of destruction ever invented.

In his dissident opinion on the legal action by the Marshall Islands against the nuclear weapon states at the International Court of Justice in 2016, Judge Antonio Augusto Cançado Trindade wrote: “A world with arsenals of nuclear weapons, like ours, is bound to destroy its past, dangerously threatens the present, and has no future at all. Nuclear weapons pave the way into nothingness.”

These words deserve to be seriously pondered. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: A street in Kiev following Russian missile strikes on 10 October 2022. CC BY 4.0

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[1] In 1963 Brazilian Ambassador João Augusto de Araújo Castro described this situation as “the freezing of world power”.