The UN and the war: New York is paralyzed; Geneva is overwhelmed

On February 24, faced with the threat of an imminent attack on Ukraine, the Security Council convened an emergency meeting, hoping to stop Russia from starting a war in Europe. But as speeches were being made, the first Russian bombs were dropped on Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin warned that any intervention by another government would lead to “consequences greater than any seen before.”

For US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield, by choosing to attack Ukraine during the Security Council meeting, Putin revealed his disdain for the UN; the body suddenly witness to its own impotence. “It was as if the bombs were drowning out the speeches that were being made,” a diplomat present in the Council chamber recounted to The G|O.

The West and its allies moved the debate to the General Assembly. In a now-famous vote, 141 countries voted in favor of a resolution that condemned the Russian attack, a clear violation of the UN Charter and International law.

Today the war rages on, and military experts see no signs that Vladimir Putin might put an end to it. If anything, the violence may escalate as the Russian army regroups, after having retreated from Kyiv, and is consolidating its military positions in Eastern Ukraine.

Antonio Guterres’ appeals over the last month have remained completely unheard. Past Secretary-Generals know what speaking truth to great power may mean in the “most difficult job” in the world: Boutros-Boutros Ghali had a second term vetoed by the US government for questioning White House foreign policy. Kofi Annan denounced the “illegal war” in Iraq, and in response, George W. Bush raised suspicions of corruption at the UN to discredit him. Guterres’ lack of outspokenness is, for many observers, disappointing for a Secretary-General in his second term.

If New York is in paralysis, the UN agencies in Geneva are overwhelmed. They don’t publicly acknowledge this, as duty comes first, but insiders at WHO tell us that the fatigue from two years of fighting the pandemic and twenty years of underfunding is taking a massive toll on staff, and on its ability to respond to the crisis. All around Geneva, the message is the same: Everybody wonders how they’ll be able to continue to work and respond to the crisis should the war go on indefinitely.


Then there is the money issue. According to high-ranking UNHCR officials, all projections of refugees and displaced persons have been exceeded. Donors were initially asked for $1.1 billion to help rescue victims of the war. By late March, however, the agencies were forced to revise their needs upwards, requesting an additional $600 million. Today, the UN has just 57% of the required resources it needs.

Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, made it clear at the Security Council meeting that the overstretch is real, sharing some staggering figures from the humanitarian response so far: “The World Food Programme has reached more than 1.3 million people with cash and food assistance and plans to reach around 2.5 million people in this month,” he explained. “Health partners report that more than 180 tons of medical supplies were delivered in Ukraine, with another 470 tons on the way. This will address the health needs of around six million people in the months ahead.”

Griffiths has made visits to Moscow and Kyiv to plead for the creation of humanitarian corridors, but he cannot be sure the UN will be able to fully deliver. “Thanks to generous donor contributions, many from governments in this chamber, the humanitarian response since February has been scaled up, allowing us to meet the needs of one and [a] half million people,” he said. However, he cautioned that “We will need sustained financial support for needs in Ukraine,” adding that “funding must not be diverted from other crises.”

According to Griffiths, conflict, climate change, and COVID-19, now compounded by soaring food and fuel costs, could push another 47 million people globally into severe food insecurity. “The world cannot afford this war. And neither can the people of Ukraine,” Griffiths concluded.

For many, however, the cost is already there. “Every second, the war forces a person to flee across Ukraine’s borders, and countless are displaced within the country. This is the fastest-growing displacement crisis I have witnessed in my 35 years as a humanitarian worker, and [there is an urgent need] to get assistance quickly into the worst affected areas,” said Jan Egeland, Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

“We appeal to donors to dig deep into their pockets to find new funding for people affected by the armed conflict in Ukraine, but not take resources from other crises. Human suffering is at unprecedented levels across the world—from Afghanistan to Central Sahel—and Ukraine is the latest in a long list of crises with record humanitarian needs,” said Egeland.