Situation on the Ground
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, has led to widespread devastation and the displacement of more than 18 million Ukrainians. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) verified more than 8,200 civilian deaths and 14,000 injured as of March 12, 2023, warning that real numbers could be higher.
Russia’s illegal and brutal war has put significant stress on the international security order, revived fears of nuclear conflict, and exacerbated a global food security crisis that has left tens of millions of people hungry.
The UN system has responded forcefully to the war and its fallout. On March 2, 2022, the UN General Assembly met in emergency session and voted 141-5 to adopt a U.S.-supported resolution denouncing Russia and calling on it to “immediately, completely, and unconditionally withdraw” all of its military forces from Ukraine. Since then, UN humanitarian agencies have been on the front lines delivering lifesaving aid to the Ukrainian people. The UN General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council have acted to isolate Russia diplomatically and begin the process of investigating and ensuring accountability for war crimes. The International Atomic Energy Agency is working to help avert potential disaster at Ukraine’s nuclear power plants. And the UN has helped negotiate an international agreement that ended a Russian blockade and allowed Ukraine to export agricultural products to global markets. Without these and other activities, the situation for people inside Ukraine and for millions more around the world would be far worse.
Holding Russia Accountable
In a vote in April 2022, the General Assembly suspended Russia’s membership on the UN Human Rights Council, marking the first time a permanent member of the Security Council had its membership in a UN body revoked. In October, the Assembly voted 143-5 to condemn Russia’s attempted annexation of four Ukrainian regions, and in November, it adopted a resolution calling on Russia to pay reparations to Ukraine.
The UNHRC has also been a key forum for international action against Russia. Within days of the start of the war, the Council met in emergency session and overwhelmingly adopted a U.S.-supported resolution establishing an independent Commission of Inquiry (COI) to investigate war crimes committed during the conflict and preserve evidence “for future legal proceedings.” After the vote, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva warned that, “Those from Russia directing and committing violations against my people should be paying attention. The evidence is going to be collected; you are going to be identified, and you are going to be held to account.”
In September 2022, the COI presented the Council with its most extensive evidence of war crimes to date, detailing indiscriminate attacks on civilians, executions, torture, gender-based violence, and other acts committed by Russian forces in the Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Kyiv, and Sumy regions. The COI’s work could ultimately aid efforts by the International Criminal Court and other judicial bodies to prosecute those who have perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity during the conflict.
Protecting Global Food Security
Prior to the war, Ukraine was one of the world’s breadbaskets, producing enough food to feed 400 million people annually. Together, Ukraine and Russia accounted for nearly one-third of the world’s wheat exports, and in 2019, Ukraine provided 16% of the world’s corn and 42% of its sunflower oil. At the beginning of the invasion, however, when the Russian navy blockaded Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, the country’s ability to ship its agricultural products to world markets dropped precipitously. This worsened a global food security crisis already underway due to the pandemic, climate change, and armed conflict, leading to price inflation and shortages that threatened the lives of people in countries that were most dependent on Ukrainian agricultural exports.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Turkey led negotiations between Ukraine and Russia to establish the Black Sea Grain Initiative, an agreement that ended the blockade and allowed for the safe passage of commercial ships carrying agricultural exports from Odesa and two other Ukrainian ports. Since the announcement of the deal and the beginning of the first shipments in August, more than 17.8 million tons of grain and other agricultural products have been able to leave Ukraine, helping to drive down global food prices by 15% since their peak in March and injecting much-needed revenue into the Ukrainian economy.
Preventing Nuclear Disaster
Ukraine is heavily dependent on nuclear energy. Prior to the Russian invasion, 16 reactors across four nuclear power plants produced more than half of the country’s electricity. The war increased the risks that these facilities will be caught up in the fighting, potentially precipitating a nuclear accident. As such, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is playing a central role in efforts to ensure the safety of these facilities.
In September 2022, the agency dispatched inspectors to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is in Russian-occupied territory close to the front lines and has been subjected to repeated episodes of shelling. Two IAEA officials remain at the facility as part of a continuous international presence there, and the IAEA continues to negotiate with both sides for a demilitarized “protection zone” around the plant to prevent future incidents of shelling. In December, the agency announced that it would install permanent teams of safety and security experts at all other nuclear stations across Ukraine, including the defunct Chernobyl plant.