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Russia is a permanent UN Security Council member, making accountability complicated

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Watching U.N. Security Council meetings on Ukraine can be jarring. As countries raise alarms about Russia's bombardment of Ukraine, Russia's ambassador dismisses every allegation as fake news. Russia is a permanent Security Council member, so it's hard to hold it to account there, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations puts it bluntly. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told reporters on her way into one recent meeting that Russia is using its position on the Security Council to launder lies.

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LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And these lies are designed for one purpose and one purpose alone - deflect responsibility for Russia's war of choice and the humanitarian catastrophe it has caused.

KELEMEN: Russia has been trying to head off a Security Council resolution demanding humanitarian access to Ukraine by proposing its own draft. Albania's ambassador said Russia should get into the Guinness Book of World Records for hypocrisy. Russia has also made claims denied by U.N. officials about biological weapons programs in Ukraine. Thomas-Greenfield calls that a false flag.

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THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Russia has repeatedly - repeatedly - accused other countries of the very violations it plans to perpetrate.

KELEMEN: The Security Council is supposed to be the guardian of international peace and security, says Lou Charbonneau of Human Rights Watch.

LOU CHARBONNEAU: But whenever it involves the permanent members, it's basically hamstrung.

KELEMEN: Throughout the Cold War, he says, the Security Council was deadlocked because the superpowers could veto anything. This moment may be the same, but Charbonneau says U.N. aid agencies are helping Ukrainians uprooted by war. And U.N. human rights officials are gathering evidence of war crimes.

CHARBONNEAU: So hopefully, there will eventually be proper accountability, but it's not going to come from the U.N. Security Council. The U.N. Security Council provides some good drama, a bit of nasty back-and-forth. But it's not substance. The substance is going to come from elsewhere.

KELEMEN: Eventually, the U.N. Security Council could play a role if Russia and Ukraine reach a negotiated settlement, says Richard Gowan of the International Crisis Group.

RICHARD GOWAN: Then it may be useful to have the council put its stamp on the agreement. And you can imagine a situation where you have a ceasefire in Ukraine or a disengagement of forces, and you need some sort of U.N. peace observer mission to confirm that Russia is pulling back.

KELEMEN: Speaking via Skype, Gowan says the U.N. will also have to deal with the global consequences of this war. Ukraine and Russia supply much of the world's wheat, and the developing world is worried about that.

GOWAN: The U.N.'s job is partially to help weak states navigate what is going to be a major global economic crisis just after the crisis that was sparked by COVID. And so the U.N.'s biggest contribution here may be at the global scale rather than actually mediating between Russia and Ukraine.

KELEMEN: For now, the U.N. Security Council continues to function in other areas. It recently renewed the mandate for the U.N. mission for Afghanistan, for instance. But as the war in Ukraine drags on, Gowan says it may be harder for Security Council diplomats to work together, and that could mean more fallout for the rest of the world. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.