Strip 'criminal' Russia of veto power, Zelenskyy says in UN showdown

Thursday September 21 2023

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the UN Security Council during the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, US on September 20, 2023. PHOTO | AFP


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Wednesday confronted Russia directly at the UN Security Council, denouncing the Kremlin's invasion of his country as "criminal" and urging the United Nations to strip Moscow of its veto power.

Clad in his trademark military fatigues, Zelenskyy for the first time since the February 2022 invasion sat in the same room as a Russian official, who responded by scrolling through his smartphone with a look of conspicuous disinterest.

"Most of the world recognises the truth about this war," Zelenskyy said.

"It is a criminal and unprovoked aggression by Russia against our nation aimed at seizing Ukraine's territory and resources."

Zelenskyy called on the United Nations to vote to end Russia's veto power on the Security Council.

Read: At UN, Zelensky set for first in-person Russia showdown of war


He said the move could be among wide-ranging reforms at the Security Council that would include permanent representation for developing nations -- where support for Ukraine has been lukewarm.

"Veto power in the hands of the aggressor is what has pushed the UN into a deadlock," Zelenskyy said.

"It is impossible to stop the war because all efforts are vetoed by the aggressor or those who condone the aggressor," he said.

Zelenskyy repeated the Ukrainian stance that the veto power belonged to the former Soviet Union -- one of the victors of World War II after which the United Nations was created -- and not to President Vladimir Putin's Russia.

"Unfortunately, this seat in the Security Council, which Russia occupies illegally through backstage manipulations following the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been taken by liars whose job it is to whitewash the aggression and the genocide," Zelenskyy said.

Taking away Russia's veto power would be exceedingly difficult, with Zelenskyy acknowledging that Moscow will not "give up this stolen privilege voluntarily".

Read: Putin visits Ukraine frontline regions

There is, however, precedent: the General Assembly in 1971 transferred China's veto-wielding seat from Taiwan, then considered the country's representative, to the communist government on the mainland.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, showing up at the Security Council after Zelensky left, scoffed at the idea of ending Russia's veto and described it as a way to check Western power.

"The use of the veto is an absolutely legitimate tool laid out in the (UN) Charter," Lavrov said.

Lavrov denounced Zelenskyy, who is seeking to win back all territory occupied by Russia, for not negotiating and sought intervention by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken -- who looked at Lavrov as he spoke.

Addressing Blinken, Lavrov said, "I don't think it would be very difficult to give a command for Zelensky to lift the decree against negotiations."

Blinken, who had met Lavrov before the war to warn against an invasion, has largely avoided meeting him since the war and no talks were planned in New York.

In his own remarks as Lavrov entered the room, Blinken recalled a recent visit to Ukraine where he visited a town where bodies of Ukrainian civilians were stacked among the living in a school basement.

Read: Ukraine remembers Bucha victims

"Russia is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine on an almost daily basis," Blinken said.

Tensions erupted even before Zelenskyy spoke, with the Russian side questioning the decision by current Security Council president Albania, represented by Prime Minister Edi Rama, to allow the Ukrainian to go first.

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, repeatedly asking to speak, told Rama that letting Zelenskyy, a former comedian, appear first risked "undermining the authority of the Security Council" and turning it into "a one-man stand-up show".

Rama responded calmly but with growing annoyance, telling the Russian envoy, "There is a solution here -- you stop the war, and President Zelenskyy will not take the floor."

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke before Zelenskyy and also strongly criticized Russia for its "clear violation of the United Nations Charter" in invading another nation.

Putin, who rarely travels to the United Nations, did not come this year. He has skipped other high-profile diplomatic gatherings as Western nations seek to isolate him and as he faces an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Addressing the General Assembly on Tuesday, Zelenskyy cast support for Ukraine as in the world's interest, saying that Russia was "weaponising" both food and energy, including by halting a UN-backed arrangement that let Ukraine ship grain safely through the Black Sea.

Some developing nations have been critical of the attention granted to Ukraine, which has received some $43 billion in military aid from the United States alone.