Some people are hesitant to take sides regarding Russia's war in Ukraine, but legally as well as morally, there's only one right side to take, as standing in the gray zone encourages the aggressor, undermines the United Nations and fuels human suffering, President Alar Karis said in his first address of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York on Wednesday.
ERR News is publishing the Estonian president's speech to the UNGA in full.
Mr. Secretary General,
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is my honor to be here today, though I wish the circumstances surrounding my first address were different. A year ago, Mr. Secretary General presented his inspiring report "Our Common Agenda," outlining his vision for the next 25 years of global cooperation, and initiated discussions on how to reinvigorate multilateralism and achieve sustainable development goals.
I support the goals of the report — and yet, it is a Herculean task, because the world is torn apart; we witness the constant brutal violation of the core principles of the UN Charter on every continent; the UN itself has become a battlefield where some states try to convince the world that the common values we're all obliged to adhere to do not exist.
The only standard we must follow is the UN Charter — our unique common promise of peace for all nations, big and small, a promise of advancing fundamental human rights, the equal rights of men and women. It is not a choice; it is a collective responsibility to ensure that peace, justice and human rights prevail.
On February 24, the Russian Federation, a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), attacked a democratic and peaceful sovereign Ukraine. Russia started a war of aggression with a goal to end the sovereignty of its neighbor, overthrow its legitimate government, exterminate the Ukrainian nation and implement its abusive order, impregnated with imperialism, self-interest and dominance.
The Russian invasion, including the illegal occupation of Crimea and Russia's prior land grabs in Georgia and Moldova, demonstrate Russia's total disrespect of international law and the rules-based international order, and are an assault on the UN Charter, every value and principle the United Nations stands for.
This brutal and unjustified aggression is the most serious threat to global peace and security since the end of the Second World War, and challenges the very foundations of the UN system, undermining the security of all members of the international community.
Some colleagues are hesitant to take sides vis-a-vis Russian aggression. Some argue that this war is between Russia and Ukraine.
I see the aggressor and the victim.
Legally as well as morally, there's only one right side to take. Standing in the gray zone encourages the aggressor, undermines this organization and fuels human suffering.
In recent years, we have witnessed devastating human suffering in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Yemen, Syria, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, just to name a few. Russia's war of aggression makes finding solutions to these conflicts only more difficult, as it has increased food insecurity, adds stress on the global humanitarian relief system and bolsters the economic crisis.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I visited Ukraine two months after the invasion began. The site was horrific. I lack words to describe the brutality of this scene. The face of war is the same everywhere. Its cruelty will never leave the people who must live through this. Wars and conflicts only bring horror and misery to mankind.
As of August 22, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has recorded in Ukraine more than 13,000 civilian casualties, with approximately 6,000 killed and nearly 8,000 injured. The actual numbers are significantly higher. Each murder is further evidence of the grave violations of international law by the aggressor.
We condemn in the strongest terms the war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine.The UN Assistant Secretary General on Human Rights reported to the UNSC about credible allegations of forced transfers of unaccompanied children to Russian-occupied territory, or to the Russian Federation. We have seen mass graves of tortured civilians. I wonder — are we living in the 21st century?
How many devastating wars will it take to move forward the long overdue #UNSecurityCouncil reform? UN's relevance is put to the test with Russia's war we can't fail. Gave my first national address @UN General Assembly about UN's relevance in crisis solving, #UNSC. More in thread: pic.twitter.com/afQJkw1kWY— Alar Karis (@AlarKaris) September 21, 2022
Excellences, ladies and gentlemen,
I want to pay tribute to the immeasurable resilience of the people of Ukraine. We grieve for the victims of Russia's aggression and stand with Ukraine in ensuring a future for its people and nation.
This brave nation is fighting for values set in the UN Charter, the noble cause of freedom, democracy and human rights. According to Article 51 of the UN Charter. Helping Ukraine to protect its right to exist is our collective obligation.
At the same time, it is disturbing that the UNSC, a body that bears the chief responsibility for maintaining international peace and security, has been paralyzed and utterly unable to play its role. Russia has abused its veto power to block the Council from adopting any decisions regarding the grave violation of the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine.
The Security Council lies at the heart of the UN. It is shameful that, since February 24, it has adopted only one statement — on May 6 — on Ukraine. How many devastating wars will it take to move forward the long overdue Security Council reform?
I am grateful that while the Security Council remains paralyzed on the issue of Russia's aggression, the soul and conscience of the UN, the General Assembly, has been active and decisive. I recall the overwhelming support for the UNGA's March 2 resolution that condemned Russia's aggression and urged Russia to immediately and unconditionally withdraw all of its troops from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.
We deplore the Russian Federation's failure to implement this resolution as well as its failure to comply with the legally binding March 16 order by the International Court of Justice requiring Russia to immediately cease its use of force against Ukraine.
How can we accept Russia having veto power?
Estonia has always been a strong proponent of curbing absolute veto power, and even moreso when it has been used to cover war crimes and crimes against humanity. I am glad that the General Assembly adopted by consensus a landmark decision, the so-called veto initiative, which provides the UNGA with the opportunity to step in when the UNSC is unable to act.
The question remains — how can we accept that the aggressor has veto power in the Security Council?
Conflicts and war bring enormous humanitarian crises. Russia's aggression has led to an immense need for resources and aid. Nearly 18 million Ukrainians — 40 percent of the country's population — are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.
The international support for Ukraine has been heartwarming. The UN is busy helping Ukrainians who didn't need our help before this aggression. To date, Estonia has sent more than €20 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine. We have seen an unprecedented massive support of Ukraine from Estonia's private sector, civil society and citizens. We continue to assist and work on the reconstruction of Ukraine — it needs to begin now already. We call on others to join us in this.
Conflicts create an immense refugee crisis. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the total number of people worldwide who were forced to flee their homes due to conflicts and human rights violations in 2021 was 89.3 million. Displacements were driven, for example, by the brutality of the Bashar al-Assad regime, conflict in the Tigray region and the Taliban's takeover of Kabul.
In 2022, this number has already exceeded the 100 million mark, with the increase caused by Russia's war of aggression. There are more than 7 million recorded Ukrainian refugees across Europe; another 7 million have been internally displaced. Estonia has received nearly 55,000 refugees — 4 percent of our country's population.
We ensure social services and basic education to refugees fleeing from war. Estonia has created 1,000 additional places in different education programs for Ukrainian refugee children by opening a new school — the Freedom School. One day, its students will be the leaders and rebuilders of Ukraine. Estonian education technology companies are donating their solutions to support Ukrainian schools and pupils whose education has been disrupted by the war.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because our future depends on the youth sitting in their classrooms, and on their education. We are made by history — we cannot let the lack of knowledge define our future. To avoid such a brutality repeating itself, we have to raise awareness of the history of our nations. We need to evade confusion caused by active brainwashing and disinformation. We see how ignorance makes it easy for any aggressor to put forward its false narratives.
War and conflict and a lack of openness bring with them extreme violations of human rights. It must be clear that basic human rights are universal, the same for all UN members, and cannot be ignored by any government. Special attention should be devoted to ensuring gender equality and the right to an education. In the 21st century, the opportunity to study should not be a wish or a dream.
Let me use this tribute to praise the courageous women who have now become the forefront of protest against the Taliban in Afghanistan to fight for their right to choose their own path and role in society. It is our profound duty to support their struggle. I call on the de facto leaders of Afghanistan to immediately stop harassing of UNAMA's Afghan female staff. Respecting universal human rights is not a choice. Neither culture nor religion can be invoked to justify human rights violations.
In the same vein, we welcome the release of the assessment report of the human rights situation in Xinjiang by the Office of the UN High Commission for Human Rights. The report underscores the serious human rights violations occurring in Xinjiang, which may constitute international crimes — in particular, crimes against humanity. This is extremely alarming and requires urgent attention by the international community.
Ladies and gentlemen,
There remains little dispute over the existential crisis posed by climate change. We witnessed devastating flooding in Pakistan caused by erratic monsoon rains. In solidarity with the people of Pakistan, Estonia is providing help to those severely affected. Russia's aggression is also bringing further pain to those already suffering from the impacts of the pandemic, conflicts, famine and climate change.
Let me be very clear: this aggression has brought high inflation and a global food and energy crisis. The head of the UN World Food Program (WFP) has warned that Russia's aggression will lead to the worst food crisis since World War II. In physics and in life, a cause triggers a reaction. Russia's aggression triggered the global food and inflation crisis. We have witnessed Russia's occupying forces stealing Ukraine's grain supplies, burning down warehouses and destroying grain fields. Market disruptions are not being caused by sanctions; the global food and economic crisis are being caused by the war Russia started, and Russia can end all of this by ending the war.
Yet, Russia has no intention of ending the war. Instead, the Russian regime decided to escalate. We find its cynical nuclear threat totally unacceptable; it is a threat to the global community.
To alleviate the crisis, the EU has launched the EU-Ukraine "solidarity lanes" initiative. It has helped export more than 6 millions tons of predominantly agricultural goods from Ukraine. Estonia also welcomes the Black Sea Grain Initiative that was signed in Istanbul on July 22, brokered by the UN secretary general and president of Turkey. We must keep up international pressure on Russia to monitor Russia's adherence to the deal and its extension.
We follow with deep concern the situation in Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, one of the world's largest. Russia has occupied the plant and turned it into a combat zone. The risk of nuclear disaster is very real. This power plant should be demilitarized without delay, and full control of the plant returned to Ukraine. Moreover, it is essential to grant IAEA experts persistent and unfettered access to the facilities of the power plant. I regret that last month, Russia also shamelessly blocked the consensus concerning the outcome document of the Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation [of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)].
Our common duty to push back on imperialism
Estonia has been vocal in addressing the issues of cybersecurity in the UN. We will continue these efforts to elevate cybersecurity as an essential component of the UN's international peace and security agenda. Russia has demonstrated how state-provided malicious cyber tools are used alongside conventional weapons. Russia's cyberattack against the satellite communications of Ukraine on February 23 served to prepare and facilitate Russia's on-the-ground invasion.
It is our duty to ensure accountability and justice at all levels. Impunity breeds impunity, and leads to new crimes being committed. It is of utmost importance that there are independent and effective investigations into the atrocity crimes and crimes of aggression committed against Ukraine, as well as in Syria, Ethiopia and elsewhere. We must provide justice to victims and bring those responsible for atrocities and genocide to trial.
Estonia fully supports the investigation led by the International Criminal Court. We give the most serious consideration to the establishment of an independent special court for the crimes of aggression and the compensation mechanism for the damages caused by aggression. We support all initiatives attempting to secure accountability.
The war in Ukraine affects us all. It is our common duty to push back the ugly manifestations of imperialism, colonialism and racism by Russia. Russia must understand that the road they have taken is disastrous, and that the war they have started cannot be won. If we stop caring, if we get tired, if we fall into indifference, the aggressors and criminals will only be empowered. This is not the world we want to live in, nor the world we want to leave to future generations.
The UN is and remains the cornerstone of our multilateral rules-based world order. Its relevance is being put to the test, and we cannot fail. The UN must emerge from this watershed moment stronger, more united and more relevant than ever before.
Finally, let me assure you that Estonia continues to provide humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable around the world. Our development cooperation is aimed at achieving the [UN's] Sustainable Development Goals, increasing digital cooperation and creating an open and safe digital society for all. We remain a responsible and active partner in the UN — in this crisis and beyond.
Editor: Aili Vahtla