The U.N. General Assembly began a lengthy debate Wednesday over two draft resolutions that seek to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, where millions wait for food, water and medical supplies or the chance to escape their besieged country safely.
“Thousands of Ukrainians have lost their lives over this month: young and old, women and men, civilians and military,” Ukraine’s U.N. Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya said of Russia’s war, which began in the early hours of February 24. “They died because Russia decided to attack — attack Ukraine, attack peace, attack all of us. Every day of the Russian war against Ukraine aggravates the humanitarian situation further and further.”
The numbers are staggering. In barely one month, the United Nations says, 3.5 million people have fled to neighboring countries, and 6.5 million are displaced within Ukraine. The U.N. estimates that 12 million people in the country need humanitarian assistance. The situation deteriorates daily.
U.N. member states have before them two resolutions. Both call for an immediate cease-fire and protection of civilians, critical civilian infrastructure, aid workers and medical personnel.
But there is one glaring difference: One text names Russia as the aggressor and calls on it to cease its actions against Ukraine, while the second text names no aggressor and essentially puts Ukraine — which was attacked — on the same level as its attacker.
Mexico and France, along with Ukraine, were among the 25 countries that drafted the text that names Russia, and their resolution has more than 80 co-sponsors in the General Assembly.
South Africa is the author of the second text.
“South Africa believes that the political and strategic issues pertaining to the conflict in Ukraine should be discussed but not in the context of a resolution addressing the humanitarian situation,” Ambassador Mathu Joyini told the assembly. She said her government’s draft resolution attempts to do that.
Wednesday’s debate saw more than 60 delegations take the floor. The discussion will continue Thursday morning, and a vote is expected to follow.
Any result would not have a legally binding effect on Russia, but with strong international backing, it would express the will of the world that the hostilities should stop and people should be helped.
An overwhelming number of speakers expressed support for the Western draft, underscoring Russia’s destruction of Ukraine, including its siege on the southern port city of Mariupol, and the indiscriminate shelling and bombing of civilians and critical infrastructure.
“In light of the tragedy that is unfolding, the General Assembly has to take its responsibility to address this humanitarian catastrophe and urgently call on Russia to respect the basic principles of international humanitarian law that applies to everyone,” European Union Ambassador Olof Skoog said on behalf of the 27-member bloc.
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield pointed to the humanitarian impact of the war, which is disrupting global supplies of critical items such as wheat and fuel, which was also addressed in the resolution under consideration.
“The accelerating spike of food prices, food shortages and corresponding insecurity threatens to further destabilize fragile societies, increase hunger and drive migration,” she said. “And this comes at a time when the global humanitarian system was already stretched more than ever before — a time when the World Food Program is feeding more than 138 million people in over 80 countries.”
Only Syria took the floor to support Russia. Moscow has provided military backing to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad since 2015 in its brutal war against its population. Even Belarus, which hosts Russian troops on its territory and is believed to be considering involving its own military in Ukraine to support Russia, did not address the General Assembly.
Also absent from the debate were Eritrea and North Korea, which round out the countries that have publicly supported Moscow at the United Nations.
Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia dismissed the Western text as having “blatantly anti-Russian elements.”
“Let me be clear: This scenario will make a resolution to the situation in Ukraine more difficult,” Nebenzia said. “Because more likely, it will embolden Ukrainian negotiators and would nudge them to maintaining the current unrealistic position, which is not related to the situation on the ground nor to the need to tackle the root causes, which meant that Russia had to start, almost a month ago, its special military operation in Ukraine.”
Nebenzia said if countries want to help the humanitarian situation in Ukraine, they should vote for Moscow’s draft resolution in the U.N. Security Council.
That draft went for a vote late Wednesday. Non-council members Belarus, Syria and North Korea were the co-sponsors.
Of the 15 council members, only Russia and China supported the text (China was not a co-sponsor, though). In a rare occurrence, 13 council members abstained from voting. Without nine positive votes and no vetoes, the measure failed.
Several council members pointed out that the resolution did not call for an immediate and unconditional end to the hostilities or name the cause of the humanitarian crisis — Russia’s invasion.
On Wednesday, former U.S. Secretary of State and onetime U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright died. Council members stood for a moment of silence in tribute to her. Thomas-Greenfield cited her ahead of the vote.
“Secretary Albright once warned, ‘Take it from someone who fled the Iron Curtain, I know what happens when you give the Russians a green light.’ And that is what we will do today if we pass this resolution.” Thomas-Greenfield warned.
Meanwhile, humanitarians continue, without strong guarantees for their safety, to try to bring livesaving aid to millions of Ukrainian civilians, many of whom are stranded in areas with active hostilities.