Russia's invasion of Ukraine violates the United Nations Charter and infringes on a U.N. member state's sovereignty. In normal cases, the U.N. should act to demand the Russian military immediately withdraw.
But it has been slow. Amid growing regional tensions in January, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres indicated in a press conference that it would monitor the situation. The U.N. subsequently showed no signs of moving toward mediation.
It was not until February that Guterres held separate online discussions with the foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine. When Russia recognized rebel-held regions in eastern Ukraine as "independent," he condemned it but did not visit Moscow or Kyiv.
The United Nations was founded in 1945 from remorse over the two world wars. Maintaining international peace and security is a U.N. Charter objective. Its greatest duty is conflict prevention.
However, the U.N. Security Council could not adopt a resolution condemning Russia that would have demanded it immediately stop attacking Ukraine. The blockage came from Russia, which exercised its right of veto as one of the Security Council's five permanent members along with the United States, the United Kingdom, France and China.
Although some see the U.N. as powerless in the face of conflict involving a permanent member country, the secretary-general -- its top official -- can still act. The U.N. Charter also states that the secretary-general has the right to "bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security."
In reality, there have been several cases where the secretary-general acted to resolve conflict.
During the 1956 Suez Crisis, then U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold deployed an emergency force to Egypt. In the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, then Secretary-General U Thant mediated between the United States and the Soviet Union. During the Gulf War starting in 1990, then Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar visited Iraq to negotiate directly with then President Saddam Hussein.
Compared to past U.N. chiefs, Guterres's stance is conspicuously passive. Although enthusiastic about climate change countermeasures and other topics, it has been asserted that he has little interest in dealing with international conflict. But peace is indispensable for tackling the issues our planet faces.
With many states shifting to adopt policies that put their own country first, destabilizing international cooperation as a result, the U.N. is facing more challenges. Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly belittled the international organization by declaring the start of a military operation against Ukraine while an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council was being held.
If there is a prolonged situation in which a major power's tyrannical acts cannot be quelled, distrust among U.N. member states will likely grow. Now is the time for the U.N. to prove to the world its significance.