On 1 April, leading foreign and security policy experts and diplomats as well as several foreign ministers gathered in Tallinn to discuss the impact on the UN of the war in Ukraine, the possible ways to support Ukraine in the UN, and the influence and opportunities of small countries in the UN Security Council, where Russia has veto power.
The conference “Small States in the UN Security Council: Work for Peace to Overcome the Scourge of War”, organised by the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute at the ICDS and the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also summarised Estonia’s elected membership in the UN Security Council for 2020–2021.
The event took place on the 37th day of the war in Ukraine, a stark reminder of the importance of order and the rule of law in the international system. “We are all in this war, and if we understand that this is a defining moment, the greatest threat to the existence of the organisation, then we should remember the speech by [Winston] Churchill, where he promised his nation blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” Sven Jürgenson, Permanent Representative of Estonia to the United Nations said.
Estonian President Alar Karis noted in his opening remarks that “Peace is not an accident, peace is not a gift. Peace is something we must work for all day, every day”, while Antonio Guterres expressed the need for reform in the global system.
The need for reform and to uphold the rule of law became a dominant theme at the conference, fitting for one focusing on the role of small states in the United Nations. As Simon Coveney noted, smaller states are often present in the Security Council precisely because they are small, as it is in the interest of the many to uphold international law, and small states are the ones that best represent this common interest for a rules-based international order.
The question of the future of the United Nations, and especially the Security Council, was a reoccurring theme in most of the panels at the conference. One repeating theme was the call to reform the right to veto held by the permanent members, as Estonian Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets expressed that the Security Council has effectively stopped operating, as one of the P5, Russia, is waging an illegal war. Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs noted: “There is no alternative to the UN, to the whole UN. But then we have a problem: the core mission of the UN, keeping international peace, is not being fulfilled properly”.
At the same time, none of the speakers expected the reforms to be easy or quick, with Richard Gowan noting that even if all the members of the UN, including the P5, were to agree to a reform tomorrow, it would still take a decade to implement as all the member states would need to ratify any such changes.
In addition, some panellists argued that the UN’s response has been surprisingly strong, given past resolutions on similar issues such as Crimea in 2014, Myanmar, or Belarus. Karin Landgren also noted that the response by the UNSC has been exactly what it was designed to be, as the dysfunctionality within the Council is there by design. As such, while most agreed that reforms within the UN should take place, none of our guests expected them to take place in the near future, while the response of the UN to the crisis has, in many ways, been stronger than anticipated. To quote Gowan; “the UN is responding as best as it can when it has a hole in its heart.”
Ukraine and Russia
Understandably, the events currently unfolding in Ukraine became another central point during most panels. Jean-Yives Le Drian pointed out that the EU has mischaracterised Russia, which has led to mistakes time and time again, from Chechnya to Crimea and today the whole of Ukraine. Ihor Zhovka also emphasised this mischaracterisation, stating that the west’s poor reaction to 2014 and subsequent lack of sanctions have led to today, and warned that “The world is already at the threshold of WWIII. For this crime, Russia should be brought to justice, and punished.” At the same time, Felix Hoxha stated that the international coalition has managed to impose unprecedented sanctions on Russia, with many speakers agreeing that the world needs to do more, both in terms of sanctions but also weaponry, to help Ukraine.
The future of the region also came under discussion, with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya stating that the futures of Belarus and Ukraine are interconnected, with the end of the war also creating a new opportunity for regime change in Belarus. She also called out Lukashenko, saying that the leader of Belarus also needs to bear responsibility for the atrocities in Ukraine. In addition, many panellists raised the question of food security in the near future, as 30–40% of food is coming from Ukraine or Russia.
Another issue covered at the conference was the role of women and girls in armed conflicts. One of the key issues noted was the violence girls and women face in conflict, with Kersti Kaljulaid noting that the conflict in Ukraine is causing an increase in human trafficking and rape. Åsa Regnér pointed out that the treatment of women in society is a good reflection of how powerful the democracy within a state is, with countries that limit women’s rights such as through abortion laws often also lag in democratic standards. Finally, the panellists brought out some fields that need improvement, such as changes in school curricula, as stated by Kaljulaid, “the rights of women start at the grassroots. It is up to us to train the young generation.”
Climate change also came up in one of the panels, with Marina Kaljurand noting that the issue is high on the agenda for the global south, but industrial countries are not inclined to do as much to prevent it. Many panellists, including Martin Kimani called for African leaders to be put at the centre of dealing with the issue, as it disproportionately affects African countries. Henrik Urdal stated that armed conflicts are one of the driving forces behind vulnerabilities to climate change, with conflicts such as the war in Ukraine driving up the climate crisis. Finally, all panellists agreed that science needs to be at the centre of tackling climate change, and so debate around the issue must also be rooted in science.
The last major topic covered at the conference on the role of small states at the UN was that of cybersecurity. Here, most of the debate was focused on the role of technology in conflicts. The panellists argued that cyber security has both a divisive and a uniting character, with Motohiro Tsuchiya noting that for the first time in history, smart phones are being used as weapons in the invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, he called for a connection to be maintained with the Russian people through the internet.