UN reflects unvarnished picture of our world – interview with Ukraine’s UN envoy
The Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the UN Serhiy Kyslytsya (Photo:REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)
NEW YORK, USA – The New Voice met with the Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the UN Serhiy Kyslytsya at the headquarters of the Ukrainian diplomatic mission in Manhattan on Oct. 8. Two days before the resumption of the 11th Extraordinary Special Session of the UN General Assembly, where countries gathered to vote on a draft resolution condemning the illegal pseudo-referendums Russia held in the occupied areas of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts of Ukraine, and their subsequent attempted illegal annexation in September.
Ukraine and more than 40 of its international partners submitted the draft resolution several days after Russia vetoed a similar resolution in the UN Security Council. It then sent a letter to the UN member states, demanding to hold a secret ballot vote on the territorial integrity of Ukraine in the General Assembly – for the first time in the history of the emergency session, suggesting that some countries would not express their true position in an open vote.
On the first day of the Extraordinary Session on Ukraine on October 10, Russia demanded a procedural decision regarding the secret ballot, and received the support of only 15 other countries. When the plan to hold a secret ballot vote failed, the Russian delegation left the chamber.
The 77th annual UN General Assembly is being held at a time when more and more people are criticizing the organization for its apparent inaction on Ukraine and its failure to reform the Security Council.
After all, Russia remains a permanent member of the Security Council, constantly violating the UN charter, conducting a full-scale invasion and killing hundreds of Ukrainians, while still using its veto powers to block any attempts to resolve the conflict.
The UN admits that Russia's war against Ukraine undermined the key foundations of the organization and jeopardized the work of one of its key bodies – the Security Council.
Quoting the speech of the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyi in New York last year, Ukraine’s Permanent Representative at the UN, Serhiy Kyslytsya urges everyone remember that the organization is not just a shiny skyscraper on First Avenue, but rather a genuine, unvarnished representation of the modern world. After all, its 193 member states are all responsible for decision-making at the UN.
"So by criticizing the UN, we are criticizing ourselves," Kyslytsia said.
In an exclusive interview, Ukraine’s permanent representative patiently explained how the UN operates, talked about the hype around the Security Council and the daily struggle on the diplomatic front, where it takes about a year just to meet and have a conversation in-person with all the members of the UN.
Not everything is so simple with the UN
Trying to explain all the nuances of working at the UN now, Kyslytsya started with history. According to him, modern Ukrainian diplomacy was actually formed while working in UN diplomatic missions across various countries in the 1990s-2000s. Later, Ukrainian embassies were established, and attention shifted from multilateral to bilateral diplomacy.
"A cadre of very intelligent people with real experience has formed in the government system. But they may sincerely not understand what is happening in New York. They did not have the opportunity to see the processes happening here," Kyslytsya said.
That is why it was very important to him that during the High-Level Week debates held at the UN in September, Ukraine’s PM Denys Shmyhal was in New York.
"He saw that people knew him. He was warmly welcomed. And then Ukraine is on everyone's mind," Kyslytsya said. "We can dislike the UN, criticize it. But more than a hundred presidents and prime ministers come here at least once a year. If they all come from all over the world, it means something happening here that is worth paying attention to."
Kyslytsya said the UN member states that are the main players that are involved in the decision-making process. And it is not fair to criticize the employees of the UN Secretariat who are actually hired by the member states.
According to the Ukrainian ambassador to UN, the role of the UN Secretary-General is also misunderstood by the general public. For most Ukrainians, the title "Secretary General" is associated with power and resonates with the Secretary General of the Communist Party. While the Secretary General of the UN is still more of a secretary, limited in his powers by the UN charter, despite the apparent aura of importance.
Historically, none of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council wanted the Secretary General to play a leading political role.
"Because the permanent members believed that if there is something important and serious in this organization, it should actually be decided in the Security Council and exclusively by its permanent members," Kyslytsya said.
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council under the UN Charter are the United States, France, the UK, the Soviet Union, and China. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, its place was simply taken by Russia. The other ten members are elected by the General Assembly every two years. It is these fifteen members and their decisions at the Security Council that are often the cause of public criticism and calls for reform.
Some ambassadors at the UN, such as the U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, call on the permanent members of the council to refrain from using their veto powers, save for extreme cases.
Some African countries call for abolishing the veto altogether, switching to majority voting instead – similarly to how the General Assembly operates.
"In fact, every meeting of the Security Council on Ukraine is to some extent hype, which often ends with the Security Council, once again proving its inability to make a decision. And this is exactly what the audience sees most often," Kyslytsya claims.
Therefore, the public perceives the UN precisely through the prism of the Security Council, the ambassador added. While in fact the UN is much more. It is also the General Assembly and dozens of other UN bodies and specialized institutions that deal with real issues.
"There is an incredible number of specific, highly technical institutions that influence your life, and you don't even feel it. Let's say, telecommunications standards or other things are decided in these specialized UN institutions," Kyslytsya said.
And most importantly, the UN General Assembly is 193 countries, a collective photo of the modern world as it is today. "And you can't just photoshop this photo until you like the result," he added.
Everything goes back to Security Council
While activists from different countries are calling for Russia to be expelled from the UN Security Council for violating the charter, and to reform the entire organization, some even call for the organization to either be dissolved (as UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations was), or simply for members to withdraw from the UN in protest.
"And this literally means turning our backs on the world," says Kyslytsya. "And our task is to work with every member of the UN, even if we don't like them. We must deliver the information about Ukraine to each member, and combat misinformation spread by our opponents."
Every foreign diplomat in the UN serves only his or her government. At the same time, the main task of UN officials is to strictly fulfill the instructions of the member states of the Security Council and the UN charter. The Security Council is the main body of the UN that makes substantive decisions. In the conversation, Kyslytsya cites Article 108 of the UN charter, which states that any reforms are possible only after a positive recommendation by the Security Council and – crucially – the consent of its permanent members.
"Security Council’s decision is at the root of everything. And the decision is impossible if the countries that have – or claim to have – veto powers oppose it. Why do I say claim? Because the Russian Federation, which illegally took the place of the Soviet Union in the Security Council, uses the right of veto illegally and with the tacit approval of other permanent members," Kyslytsya said.
At one point, the U.S. Congress did not ratify U.S. membership in the League of Nations –precisely because the United States would not have the opportunity to control decision-making related to their national interests. Therefore, when the victorious nations created the League's successor – the UN – after World War II, they agreed that they would have full control over decision-making.
"Let's talk cynically. There were three countries, and later five countries, that came together and said that we must prevent future wars, together. And we also have to preserve the opportunity to continue to bear responsibility for security, but also to control the situation in the post-war world, where more independent and potentially problematic countries could appear on the political map of – as a result of decolonization," Kyslytsya said.
According to him, there was no democracy in the creation of the key UN body. There was rather institutionalized segregation. And the method of control was the veto power.
"Now everyone is rightfully criticizing the veto power. The absolute champion in its application was the Soviet Union, and then Russia. But there were also many cases when the veto was used for good causes, by other democratic countries," Kyslytsya said.
He compares the veto power to a gun, which in itself can be both a weapon of self-defense, and a tool that Russians use as a weapon for criminal purposes.
But let's imagine that the veto problem has been solved. The Permanent Representative of Ukraine believes that even if the Security Council had passed a decision ordering Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin would not obey it.
"The issue is not the veto, but the fact that today we are dealing with a country that has nothing to do with law and order. With or without a veto, they still would not care to follow the rules. And the only thing that stops the whole world from kicking Russia out of the Security Council is, in my opinion, Russia’s nuclear weapons," Kyslytsya added.
The Ukrainian Ambassador to the UN claimed that regardless of the veto power or the fact that some countries are constantly abstaining while voting on Ukraine-related issues, Russia is isolated in the Security Council. After all, despite the direct economic dependence of some Security Council members from Russia, no country has said it supports Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Nevertheless, Kyslytsya believes that only those countries that are not afraid to express a clear position should be elected to the Security Council. And their position should be to defend the UN Charter, which Russia constantly violates.
"This is what neutrality or political independence is about, which some countries often talk about," he said.
"You have to be brave enough to say no to your colleagues in the Security Council or other influential players outside of it. And no matter what kind of relationship you have with country that illegally occupies someone’s land, you should say you condemn such illegal occupation."
It has already happened once in the General Assembly, when in March 141 countries voted for a resolution condemning Russia's aggression against Ukraine. For many of them, Russia is an important bilateral partner. But they still found the courage to condemn Moscow’s actions.
On October 12, after Russia's failed attempts to introduce secret voting, which was previously used in the UN only to decide election procedures, the countries will gather again to vote on Ukraine. According to Kyslytsya, more than 70 countries have already volunteered to join the circle of co-sponsors of the Ukrainian resolution condemning pseudo-referendums in the occupied territories.
The Ukrainian Ambassador to the UN is sure that the vote will not be about Ukraine, but about the integrity of the principles of the UN Charter, instead.
"Because it's actually about whether territorial integrity still means something in this world or not," Kyslytsya said.
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