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Francis M. O’Donnell: UN must impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine

March 10, 2022 1:07 amby Francis M. O’Donnell
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A demonstrator wearing a Ukrainian flag on the shoulders holds a sign reading "No-fly zone! No war!" during a demonstration in support of Ukraine and to protest against Russia's invasion of the country, on the Plaza Catalunya square in Barcelona, on March 6, 2022. (Getty Images)

Many struggle to understand world powers’ refusal to enforce a no-fly zone (NFZ), at least on the western rest of Ukraine not (yet) occupied by Russia. 

It has been repeatedly requested by its legitimate democratically elected President Volodymyr Zelensky for the whole of this sovereign independent and democratic country, itself a founder member of the United Nations and the largest country entirely in Europe, in fact at its geographic and now bleeding heart. 

Russia has no rights there. Its unprovoked and unjustified invasion was repudiated by the whole world in the UN General Assembly. 

Precedents for a no-fly zone exist, amply. 

The NFZ can be justified as discharging Responsibility to Protect (R2P), supported by the United Nations in 2005.

It does not have to be NATO that enforces it officially but an "allied coalition" for Ukraine, including neutral countries, preferably under a UN mandate. 

Enforcing a no-fly zone and enacting R2P should sustain a ceasefire which is essential. 

Humanitarian corridors should be more for delivery of aid and protection of civilians than their forcible evacuation which only enables ethnic cleansing for which Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is notorious in other theatres of war.

Time is running out for Ukraine and world peace

Under the precedent of the Uniting for Peace modality, the UN General Assembly held an emergency special session.

Conscious of the failure of the Security Council to discharge its primary responsibility – maintenance of international peace and security – the UN passed its resolution A/RES/ES-11/1 on March 2, 2022.  

Remarkably, the resolution passed by an overwhelming 141 members states, way above the two-thirds required, and with only 35 abstentions.  

The five very few votes against came from Russia itself, as well as fellow dictatorships, the co-responsible and sanctioned Belarus, and North Korea, Eritrea and Syria. 

The resolution is a resounding rebuke to the Russian Federation and its regime led by President Vladimir Putin, and its accomplice Belarus. 

The resolution deplores in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine in violation of Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter. 

It compels measures to be undertaken by Russia, namely, that it immediately ceases its use of force against Ukraine and refrains from any further unlawful threat or use of force against any UN member state. 

According to the resolution, Russia must immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.

It also demands all parties to allow safe and unfettered passage to destinations outside of Ukraine and to facilitate rapid, safe and unhindered access to humanitarian assistance for those in need in Ukraine.

Yet, Russia and its rogue president, brazenly continue and aggravate this notoriously unjustified war. 

This is stark proof of the utter disregard with which he and his government hold the world community.

It is, more importantly, proof of the systemic contempt that he, and through him, the Russian Federation, hold the UN charter, the universal declaration of human rights, and the rule of law, including the Geneva Conventions and Russia’s manifest treaty obligations.

The repeated failure to honor, for the umpteenth time, the ceasefires for humanitarian corridors that his own commanders agreed-to, is testimony that Russia today cannot be trusted, at all. 

It is therefore little, or no basis of trust required to conduct negotiations of any kind – trust in Russia has completely evaporated. 

While according to the International Court of Justice (1962) "enforcement action" remains the exclusive domain of the UN Security Council, the General Assembly has the authority to establish a peace-keeping force.

The UN must move immediately to do exactly that. 

It should muster a “coalition of the willing” and craft, constitute and deploy a robust and adequately armed peacekeeping operation, using lessons learned and best practice from past operations. 

This would not necessarily be a NATO operation per se, but NATO members could indeed participate.  

Whether or not they do or don’t, other European, neutral, countries (Austria, Ireland, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, for example), and non-European states such as Australia, Brazil, Egypt, India, Israel, Japan, South Africa, or others, could. 

The operation should include aircover adequate to protect the delivery of humanitarian aid, the protection of civilians, and the peaceful movement, evacuation, and eventual repatriation of those at greatest risk. 

The air cover should have a protection mandate more robust than the precedent “UN Protection Force” (UNPROFOR) deployed during the Bosnian war, whose rules of engagement were limited to the protection of aid convoys but not civilian populations under siege. 

Indeed, the peacekeeping operation, given the scope of the UN General Assembly resolution, encompassing Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders, should also have authority to eventually cover the Donbas areas of Luhansk and Donetsk and indeed Crimea. 

It should also have a remit to act as an interposition force to gradually increase the physical separation of belligerent forces enabling the complete withdrawal of all invading Russian military units. 

It should be an enabler for the fulfillment of the Minsk agreements, to the extent that any remain salient and to facilitate the parties to work constructively in relevant international frameworks, including in the Normandy format and Trilateral Contact Group, towards their full implementation.

The UN should roundly dismiss as utterly inadmissible the apocalyptic nuclear threats by President Putin, who now ranks as a pariah, and a corrupt war criminal. 

Ukraine, through its heroic President Zelensky, has requested a no-fly zone. 

NATO’s dismissal of such a notion should be regarded as a dismissal of its own collective involvement, not of the idea as such. 

Indeed, for other countries, non-NATO states, and indeed the UN itself to succumb to such threats would be a gross abrogation of moral and legal duty. 

Rather the responsibility to protect principle invokes the prima facie case for its application. 

While humanitarian interventions have in the past been justified in the context of varying situations, the principle focuses only on the four mass atrocity crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

With mounting evidence, Russia is clearly engaging in massive bombing of civilian targets (town centers, administrative buildings, power plants, ports, civilian factories, schools, hospitals, residential complexes, shopping centers, and other civilian infrastructure), as President Putin has repeatedly demonstrated indeed and occasionally by implication of his brutal verbal threats.

So far, this war, launched by one man, waged by thousands of invading men, has forced the flight to safety abroad of over 2 million Ukrainian civilians, mainly women and children.

This is a make-or-break situation for the UN. Either it saves global peace or dies in World War III. 

Armed by this recent strongly condemnatory and prescriptive General Assembly resolution, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres should feel empowered to imperatively forge a global coalition to enforce a no-fly zone, through a robust peacekeeping operation, enabling a ceasefire, and enacting the responsibility to protect. 

Otherwise, there is no chance of any success in tackling global challenges from gender equality to food security, from human rights to inclusive governance, and from climate change and pandemic recovery to achieving sustainable development goals. 

A major part of the answer lies in a fundamental change in Moscow, and Russia’s exit from foreign lands, return to the rule of law, and fulfillment of all of its international obligations – that is also the greatest guarantee of Russia’s own security and progress.

Francis M. O’Donnell
Author:  Francis M. O’Donnell

Ambassador (ret.) Francis M. O’Donnell (born in 1954), an Irish citizen, has served abroad as an international diplomat in senior representative positions with the United Nations. His last UN post was coordinating UN system activities in Ukraine, 2004-2009. He subsequently served as Ambassador of the Sovereign Order of Malta to Slovakia until 2013, since when he remains engaged in global leaders’ and civil society networks advancing multilateralism.

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