World leaders at the United Nations have called for Moscow to be held accountable for human rights violations in Ukraine as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov defended his country’s actions in the seven-month war.
Addressing a meeting of the UN Security Council on alleged atrocities committed in Ukraine since Russia’s February 24 invasion, Lavrov on Thursday accused Ukraine of creating threats against Russian security and “brazenly trampling” the rights of Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine.
Moscow has called the war a ‘special military operation’.
“I can assure you that we will never accept this,” said Lavrov, who only sat in the council chamber for his own speech. “Everything I’ve said today simply confirms that the decision to conduct the special military operation was inevitable.”
Ukraine has dominated discussions at the UN, where world leaders are gathering in person for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic.
The special session of the Security Council took place a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the immediate mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of reservists to fight in a war that has already killed thousands, displaced millions, destroyed cities and undermined the global economy.
United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Washington would continue to support Ukraine to defend itself.
“The very international order we’ve gathered here to uphold is being shredded before our eyes,” Blinken told the council.
“We cannot — we will not — let President Putin get away with it.”
Lavrov was not in the room when Blinken and some other US allies spoke, but earlier accused countries supplying weapons to Ukraine and training its soldiers of being parties to the conflict, adding that “the intentional fomenting of this conflict by the collective West remained unpunished”.
Ukraine’s Western allies, he claimed, “have been covering up the crimes of the Kyiv regime”.
The US announced nearly $3bn in new military aid to Ukraine last month, making it the single largest US aid package for Ukraine since Russian forces invaded their neighbour.
Thursday’s meeting marked at least the 20th time the Security Council had met on Ukraine this year.
The council has been unable to take any meaningful action on Ukraine because Russia is a permanent veto-wielding member. The US, France, the United Kingdom and China — the four other permanent members — also have vetoes.
International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Karim Khan told the session there were “reasonable grounds” to believe crimes within the jurisdiction of the court, which began investigations in March, had been committed in Ukraine.
Highlighting evidence gathered on visits to Ukraine, Khan said the ICC investigation priorities were the intentional targeting of civilian objects and the transfer of populations from Ukraine, including children.
“In my view the echoes of Nuremberg should be heard today,” he told the Security Council, referring to the historic Nazi war crimes trials that took place in Germany at the end of the Second World War.
Khan has visited Bucha, where the discovery of dozens of bodies in streets and mass graves horrified the world.
At the time, Moscow dismissed the atrocities as fake, and on Thursday Lavrov dismissed Ukraine’s efforts to blame Russia as a “propaganda operation”.
Khan pushed back, telling Security Council members including Lavrov: “When I went to Bucha, and went behind St Andrew’s church, the bodies I saw were not fake.”
The US has said that authorities have “interrogated, detained, and forcibly deported” up to 1.6 million Ukrainians to Russia since the invasion, basing its estimates on a variety of sources, including Moscow.
Opening the meeting, UN chief Antonio Guterres said the UN rights body had seen “a catalogue of cruelty — summary executions, sexual violence, torture and other inhumane and degrading treatment” against civilians and prisoners of war.
“All these allegations must be thoroughly investigated, to ensure accountability,” he said, without pointing the finger at Russia.
In a special video address to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) a day before the special session, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for a special tribunal and “punishment” for Russia over its invasion of a sovereign nation and abuses.
That call was reiterated by Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba at the Security Council.
Kuleba added that officials like Lavrov also bore some responsibility for the atrocities.
“Russian diplomats are directly complicit, because their lies incite these crimes — and cover them up,” Kuleba said.
Asked if he planned to speak to Lavrov, he said he would “keep safe social distance”.
The secretary-general also expressed concern about plans for “so-called ‘referenda’” on joining Russia that are due to take place in some parts of Russian-occupied Ukraine from Friday.
The votes on becoming part of Russia, announced just this week, will continue until Tuesday in four regions in eastern and southern Ukraine, which together make up about 15 percent of the country’s territory. Putin has also threatened the use of nuclear weapons with former president and ally Dmitry Medvedev warning on Thursday that Moscow could use any weapons in its arsenal, including strategic nuclear weapons, to defend territories that are incorporated into Russia.
“Any annexation of a state’s territory by another state resulting from the threat or use of force is a violation of the UN Charter and of international law,” Guterres said.
Blinken said the plan added “fuel to the fire” just as Kyiv had won back swathes of land Russia had taken in the Kharkiv region.
It was critical to show that “no nation can redraw the borders of another by force,” he stressed.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the priority was to resume dialogue without conditions and for both sides to exercise restraint and not escalate tensions.
“China’s position on Ukraine is clear. The sovereignty, territorial integrity of all countries should be respected and the reasonable security concerns of all countries should be taken seriously,” Wang said.