As we enter the 26th day of the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine, States are increasingly grasping at new tools to further punish and condemn Russia. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called on Russia’s right to vote in the UN Security Council to be discounted. Other politicians and commentators have called for a multilateral effort to expel Russia from international organizations, not just the UN Security Council, but also the UN Human Rights Council and the World Trade Organization, among others. The Council of Europe suspended Russia’s rights of representation in the Committee of Ministers and in the Parliamentary Assembly, and Russia has now left the Council of Europe. In addition, in 2014, States mobilized to suspend indefinitely Russia’s membership in the G8 following its unlawful attempt to annex Crimea (three years later, Russia subsequently announced its permanent withdrawal). At the same time, the United Nations, and the Secretary-General have continued to stress the necessity of using multilateral processes to find ways to de-escalate the conflict and find specific pathways to address the humanitarian and other immediate crises triggered by war.
There is undoubtedly a need to unequivocally condemn the Russian Federation for its blatant aggression against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. The collective outrage that has followed from serious violations of international law – including the jus cogens norm against aggression and the most basic customary international law principles under humanitarian and human rights law — is warranted. The world has watched in horror as Russia has allegedly targeted civilians and civilian objects, including hospitals, schools, and cultural heritage sites, and as the number of civilian casualties has risen every day, with at least 516 people killed as of March 8th, including 60 women and over 90 children. Just as the world abhorred the attack on a maternity hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan in May 2021, less than two years ago, it is again abhorring the attack on the maternity hospital in Mariupol. It remains critical to invoke without equivocation the full range of fact-finding and accountability measures possible, from the International Criminal Court to the International Court of Justice to a Commission of Inquiry under the Human Rights Council.
However, as the United Nations calls for an immediate halt to all hostilities, it has also emphasized that it calls for and stands ready to support all parties to come to the table in good faith. It is in times such as these that we truly discover the unsettling necessity of continued dialogue. Accountability does not require total ostracization. Moreover, the intent and purpose of the United Nations Charter might in fact compel the international community to consider resisting such impulses. The expulsion and complete isolation of Russia from the international system presents a more than worrying prospect – at the very moment that we desperately need to exhaust every diplomatic avenue possible for a resolution of this deteriorating conflict. Putting aside the complex, historical challenges and procedural hurdles to removing Russia as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, as well as potential legal challenges, there are significant consequences of exclusion from international organizations.
While one may be fully supportive of expansive reform of the Security Council’s Working Methods, such as removal of veto power, there are also reasons to be deeply wary of the entrenchment and mobilization of great powers fighting in multilateral spaces. The solidarity across the world with the Ukrainian people and all those in Ukraine suffering the shocking effects of war is an inspiring testament to the principles and values that first led the world to invest in the United Nations. Yet the politics of war and peace are never a pure outlet for our humanity. And the failure to differentiate these two things has the potential to weaken our multilateral spaces when we need them most.
The current moment demands united calls for an immediate end to the hostilities in Ukraine, paired with good faith diplomacy as called for by the UN Department of Peacebuilding and Political Affairs. It also requires States to resist the temptation to engage in the politics of ostracization, which provide no demonstrated evidence of success in solving complex political challenges over the long-term. Extreme isolation has not improved the security or human rights situation with North Korea. Cutting diplomatic ties has not helped the United States achieve its policy goals vis-à-vis Iran or, for many decades, Cuba. It would be even more costly to ostracize a major nuclear power in a way that could lead to many years of hostile confrontation with few avenues for diffusion.
It is precisely at these most difficult political moments, when the stressors on the international legal order are at their zenith, that holding States within multilateral spaces matters the most. Calls to exclusion are rhetorically powerful and emotionally charged but politically and practically short-sighted. This moment demands engaging the Russian Federation within multilateral spaces, not pushing them outside.