The Global South and the Ukraine War at the UN
The Global South and the Ukraine War at the UN
Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi addresses a high level meeting of the United Nations General Assembly to mark one year since Russia invaded Ukraine at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., February 23 2023. REUTERS / Mike Segar
Commentary / Global 8 minutes

The Global South and the Ukraine War at the UN

In UN debates over Russia’s war in Ukraine, Western countries are still pledging to back Kyiv militarily, while non-Western states are more inclined to call for a negotiated peace. Thus far, however, the latter’s proposals for reaching that goal have been short on detail.

On 23 February, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling for “a comprehensive, just and lasting peace” between Russia and Ukraine. While 141 of the Assembly’s 193 members voted in favour of the text – which was timed to mark the first anniversary of Moscow’s all-out assault – their statements before and after the vote pointed to significant differences over how to achieve the outcome it envisions. Those who abstained on or voted against the resolution had, not surprisingly, even more divergent views.

This divergence was largely a divide between Western delegations and those from other member states. Kyiv’s Western allies were mostly united in condemning Moscow, promising to support Ukraine for as long as necessary and calling for Russia to be held accountable for its crimes. They had no new diplomatic initiative to reveal. By contrast, speakers representing non-Western member states were typically more inclined to call for an early, negotiated end to the war. Some made tentative proposals for mechanisms to reach that goal, though with little actionable detail. At times, their comments indicated their frustration with the West’s strong line against Russia. The General Assembly debate, and a ministerial-level meeting of the Security Council in the same week, thus offered a useful snapshot of how countries from what is often called the Global South see the war’s trajectory.

Over the last year, Western commentators have speculated as to whether non-Western powers might have a role in shaping an end to the conflict. But after listening to African, Asian and Latin American leaders address the General Assembly’s high-level session in September 2022, Crisis Group noted that many avoided mentioning the war at all. Most of those who did made brief references to the need for a ceasefire or negotiations. At around that time, Mexico made a more detailed proposal – that the Pope link up with the UN secretary-general and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to mediate a peace deal – but this notion fell flat.

Non-Western states are taking a closer interest in peacemaking options.

There have, however, been signs in recent months that non-Western states are taking a closer interest in peacemaking options. The most vocal has been Brazil, where the new left-wing administration led by President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva has been talking about the need to form a contact group – reportedly including players like China, India and Indonesia – to help find a solution. South African diplomats have informally floated similar ideas for a negotiating format, possibly involving senior political figures from a group of non-Western powers.

Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi also created a ripple of excitement in advance of February’s UN debates by promising a position paper on how to end the war. When Beijing released this document on 24 February, it proved to be largely a restatement of previous Chinese positions, balancing elements favourable to Ukraine – such as a clear statement of its right to sovereignty – with others aligned with Russia’s interests, including not-very-coded criticisms of NATO enlargement and Western sanctions. In contrast to Brazil’s advocacy for a contact group, China has offered no ideas about how to get the parties to the table. Chinese officials have made no effort as yet to gain UN endorsement for the 24 February document. Brazil has also not yet asked for formal UN backing for its ideas about a contact group.

Listening to February’s General Assembly and Security Council debates on Ukraine, Crisis Group also heard little sign that a unified Global South stance on ending the war is emerging (a full transcript of Council debate is available here, while the online recording of General Assembly speeches is here). Many non-Western countries made no substantive contribution at all. Whereas European ministers travelled in droves from capitals to Turtle Bay to speak on Ukraine’s behalf, almost all their counterparts from other regions stayed away, leaving it to the permanent representatives in New York to comment. Many did not speak at all. Only twelve members of the 54-strong African group, and fourteen of the 55 Asian countries, offered statements about Ukraine in either the General Assembly or the Security Council. The Latin American and Caribbean group was more outspoken – with twelve of its 33 members speaking – but as in September, a good part of the UN membership preferred to keep a low profile over the war.

Even many of the non-Western member state emissaries who did speak confined themselves to general statements about the need for “dialogue and diplomacy” to end the fighting. Only a handful (including Argentina, Ecuador, Ghana, Liberia and Singapore, in addition to U.S. allies Japan and South Korea) expressly called on Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukrainian territory, even though General Assembly resolutions have made this demand since March 2022. Few members explicitly called for an immediate ceasefire by both sides, possibly reflecting Ukraine’s repeated warnings that Russia would simply use such a pause in hostilities to consolidate its control of Ukrainian lands and prepare for new offensives. (One state that did make this call was Hungary, which is an outlier among NATO and European Union members in debates about Ukraine.)

There was ... a good deal of diplomatic wordplay over how to call for an end to combat at the UN.

There was nonetheless a good deal of diplomatic wordplay over how to call for an end to combat at the UN. China called in its paper for Russian-Ukrainian dialogue to “gradually de-escalate the situation and ultimately reach a comprehensive ceasefire”. Rather than enjoining the parties to cease fire, Brazil boasted that it had persuaded Ukraine and its allies to refer to the need for a “cessation of hostilities” in the 23 February resolution. This phrase is usefully open to a variety of interpretations, however. Speaking in the General Assembly, the Brazilian permanent representative framed it as an appeal “to halt violence without preconditions”. For their part, European diplomats say they can live with his formulation because a cessation of hostilities – while falling short of a political settlement – is something stronger than a mere ceasefire, as it implies that Russia must desist from its war permanently rather than rearm and fight again. A brief survey of peacemaking and mediation literature suggests that the ceasefire/cessation distinction is not so clear-cut, but Ukraine itself is content to use the latter term in its proposals. Such semantics may mean little to those at the front in eastern Ukraine, but they have reduced diplomatic friction in New York.  

Non-Western UN members also offered differing visions of how negotiations between Russia and Ukraine might work. Some, such as Indonesia, explicitly called for “direct peace negotiations” between the two sides. Others followed the logic of Brazil’s argument for a contact group and suggested, in Egypt’s words, creating a diplomatic “mechanism to resolve the crisis”. Few, however, explored what such a mechanism would look like, with the exception of Sri Lanka, which described the need for neutral mediators to craft a “solution whereby both parties feel they have won something”. Sri Lanka also singled out the importance of including women and civil society figures in talks. Venezuela – speaking on behalf of a coalition of diehard Kremlin friends such as North Korea and Zimbabwe – called for UN-facilitated talks between Russia and NATO to stop the conflict.

Few other non-Western countries explicitly asked UN Secretary-General António Guterres or the UN Secretariat to act as a mediator, though Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay all flagged this possibility. The reason the idea had such modest backing may be that Guterres, while heavily involved in efforts to mitigate the war’s effects such as the Black Sea grain initiative, has consistently argued that the time is not ripe for him to step up as a peacemaker. African and Asian countries in both the General Assembly and the Security Council did endorse the idea that “small moves” like the Black Sea initiative and prisoner exchanges could gradually open space for more extensive engagement between Russia and Ukraine. For now, however, the UN’s first priority is simply to keep the grain deal alive. Russia has indicated that it may stop honouring the agreement, claiming that Western countries have broken their promises to facilitate Russian fertiliser exports in exchange for Ukraine safely shipping its grain to market via the Bosphorus.

If there was no one Global South view on how to negotiate peace in Ukraine, there was also no agreement about the substance of a peace agreement.

If there was no one Global South view on how to negotiate peace in Ukraine, there was also no agreement about the substance of a peace agreement. Given how far the parties seem to be from talking terms, many non-Western countries were understandably silent on this point. None talked about the specifics of a possible territorial deal. Most also stayed away from addressing the broader problem of Russia’s future relations with the West. Few referred to Ukraine’s relationship with NATO and the European Union or visions for the European security architecture, although in the Security Council Ghana’s deputy foreign minister called for a “broad dialogue” about European structures to avoid reinforcing “opposing alliances”.

An apparent point of contention in negotiations on the General Assembly resolution was whether to refer to the need to hold Russia accountable for its actions in Ukraine. In late 2022 and January 2023, Kyiv had pushed to table an Assembly resolution endorsing the idea of a special tribunal that could try President Vladimir Putin for the crime of aggression. While the U.S. and UK appear to have discouraged this move, in part because they believed it would secure limited support in the General Assembly, the 23 February resolution did include a vaguer paragraph about the need for accountability for the war (whether for the full-scale invasion itself, or for atrocities in the course thereof, it did not specify). Even this language went down badly with some non-Western powers, which argued that it could complicate future diplomacy: Angola cited it as a potential reason not to back the text, and Nigeria publicly expressed reservations about it, although the latter voted for the resolution in the end. Ukraine hopes to table another resolution on the aggression tribunal, but many of its friends emerged from February’s negotiations convinced that this venture would fare badly in the Assembly.

Reviewing February’s UN debates as a whole, it is evident that non-Western UN member states hold a wide diversity of views about how to achieve peace in Ukraine. Few seem committed to full-throated backing of Ukraine to achieve victory on its own terms. Many avoid more than general calls for negotiations. Those that have tabled slightly more specific ideas about achieving peace still frame them in quite broad terms – even those who see openings for a “mechanism” or contact group to mediate tread lightly in terms of details. It is possible that, depending on the course of the war, non-Western countries could move beyond broad statements and trial balloons to flesh out their ideas and unify behind a proposal. For now, however, events on the battlefield continue to shape the course of the war, largely impervious to UN papers and speeches. If the countries of the Global South did not offer up convincing peace proposals for Russia and Ukraine at the UN, it may sadly be because the conditions for credible peacemaking efforts are not yet present.

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