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PBS Editor’s note: This story contains descriptions of violence that some may find disturbing.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave an impassioned speech to the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday, urging representatives not to let permanent member Russia continue to go unpunished for what he described as “the most terrible war crimes” since World War II.
His remarks come a day after he visited the city of Bucha, where bodies were found in the streets and in basements after the withdrawal of Russian forces. Zelenskyy described the alleged atrocities there and said the world is likely to see similar horrors in other cities still occupied by Russia — in addition to large-scale consequences like food insecurity and political chaos far beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Zelenskyy called on the Security Council to implement internal reforms to hold Russia — and, as he put it, other would-be war criminals — accountable, and he urged it to remove Russia as a member “so it cannot block decisions about … its own war.” If not, he said, it should “dissolve” itself.
Zelenskyy urged the council to act immediately to stop the Russian invasion, and called for a war crimes tribunal — like the Nuremberg trials after World War II — to hold Russia accountable.
He also described the role that Ukraine could play in this process, saying that it has a “moral right” to propose reforms of the world security system since it has helped people from other conflict-ridden countries, such as Afghanistan, in their times of need.
Zelenskyy suggested convening a global conference to discuss how to enforce U.N. goals such as guaranteeing recognition of borders. And he also proposed opening a “preventative” U.N. office in Kyiv that would focus on promoting peace.
“We must do everything in our power to pass onto the next generation an effective U.N. with the ability to respond preventively to security challenges and thus guarantee peace, prevent aggression and force aggressors to peace,” he said at one point.
Vasily Nebenzya, Russia’s ambassador to the U.N., later repeated Russia’s claims without evidence that Ukraine had staged the scenes in Bucha and said that civilians were allowed to move around freely, use their cell phones and leave the town while it was under Russian control. He accused Western countries of “fueling anti-Russian hysteria” by painting Russian soldiers as murderers and rapists, which he called “an incredibly low blow.”
Zelenskyy doubts the council’s ability to hold Russia accountable
It’s difficult for the Security Council — the U.N.’s most powerful body — to hold Russia accountable for its war in Ukraine because it is a permanent council member with veto power. Russia has downplayed its objective in the country and dismissed allegations of war crimes as untrue and has voted against multiple resolutions that would have it withdraw its troops.
Zelenskyy warned that if Russia goes unpunished, countries will be reliant on their own arms for security, rather than international law and institutions.
He reminded his audience that the opening chapter of the U.N. charter aims to maintain peace and then said it has been violated “literally starting with Article 1.”
“Where is the security that the Security Council was supposed to guarantee?” Zelenskyy asked, highlighting a common criticism of the U.N.’s ability to make its members fulfill the promises of Article 1 of the U.N Charter to maintain peace. Zelenskyy also highlighted the unlikelihood of the U.N. to take action in light of Russia’s permanent seat on the Security Council and its veto power.
“Ladies and gentlemen, are you ready to close the U.N.? Do you think the time for international order is gone?” he asked.
If the answer is no, he said, then action must be taken immediately to restore the U.N. charter and punish Russia.
He pointed to Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan and Yemen and said that if such atrocities had been punished earlier and not allowed to drag on, perhaps there would not be a war in Ukraine now.
So how can the world respond now? Zelenskyy said that anyone in the Russian military who gave or carried out criminal orders should be brought before a tribunal and held accountable.
He also urged the council to remove Russia “as an aggressor and a source of war” so that it cannot block responses to its own acts of violence.
“If there is no alternative and no option, then the next option would be: dissolve yourself altogether,” Zelenskyy added.
Zelenskyy says Bucha is ‘only one example’
Zelenskyy also said that there is not a single crime that Russian forces “will not commit.” He compared their actions to those of terrorist groups such as ISIS, with the only difference being that Russia sits on the Security Council.
Describing the scene in Bucha, near Kyiv, he accused Russian troops of killing entire families and trying to burn their bodies, torturing people, shooting them on the streets, throwing people into wells, killing them in their homes and using tanks to crush cars with civilians inside “just for their pleasure.”
In even more graphic detail, he described them cutting off limbs, slashing throats, raping and killing women in front of their children and pulling out peoples’ tongues “only because the aggressor did not hear what they wanted to hear from them.”
Zelenskyy said that Russia needs Ukraine’s wealth and its people, saying it has deported hundreds of thousands of citizens to Russia, abducted children and is aiming to turn Ukraine “into silent slaves.” He also alleged that the Russian military is openly looting the cities and villages it has occupied, stealing everything from food supplies to “gold earrings that are pulled out and covered with blood.”
Zelenskyy said the scenes in Bucha are “unfortunately only one example of what the occupiers have been doing on our land for the past 41 days.” NPR has not independently confirmed the reports.
Russia has denied these reports and accused Ukraine of staging the killings in Bucha. Zelenskyy said such denials are part of a classic tactic to say that there are different narratives and that it’s impossible to establish which one is the truth.
“But it is 2022 now,” he said. “We have conclusive evidence, satellite images, we can conduct full and transparent investigations.”
He called for such an investigation, as well as maximum access to journalists, cooperation of international organizations and the involvement of the International Criminal Court, of which neither Russia nor Ukraine is a member.
“Geography may be different or various, but cruelty is the same, crimes are the same, and accountability must be inevitable,” he said.