António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, traveled on Friday to Odesa, Ukraine’s largest port city, in the midst of a war that has underscored the limits of his organization’s influence when one of its most powerful members instigates a war.
A day after meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey in Lviv, in western Ukraine, Mr. Guterres witnessed the progress of one of the United Nations’ most concrete recent achievements: grain shipments leaving Ukraine for global markets. Oleksandr Kubrakov, Ukraine’s infrastructure minister, said on Friday that he and Mr. Guterres had inspected the process of loading grain on a boat in Odesa’s port.
“We can say with confidence that the grain corridor works efficiently due to the #BlackSeaGrainInitiative,” Mr. Kubrakov wrote on Twitter.
The shipments are the product of a fragile agreement brokered by the United Nations and Turkey to restore the flow of grain from Ukraine, one of the world’s breadbaskets, and facilitate exports of Russian grain and fertilizer that Moscow says have been hindered by international sanctions on banking and shipping. The monthslong absence of so much grain aggravated a global food crisis, stoked famine in Africa and contributed to soaring grain prices.
On Thursday, Mr. Guterres heralded the effectiveness of the deal, saying it confirmed the United Nations’ vital role as a mediator.
Our Coverage of the Russia-Ukraine War
“The positive momentum on the food front reflects a victory for diplomacy — for multilateralism,” said Mr. Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister.
But he also acknowledged that the unresolved problem that had brought him to Ukraine was the war. As the head of a global organization whose charter pledges to end “the scourge of war,” Mr. Guterres has repeatedly called for a political solution to end the conflict and has offered to mediate, to little avail.
As an example of the obstacles the U.N. leader has faced, from the beginning of Russia’s invasion in late February until April, Mr. Guterres could not get President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on the phone, according to Mr. Guterres’s spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric.
Some of the most effective efforts to punish Russia have come in the form of tough economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union, but those came outside the Security Council, the structure within the United Nations that has the power to impose sanctions.
While the war has laid bare the limits of the United Nations’ ability to resolve global conflicts, it has also showcased the organization’s vital humanitarian role, providing aid, food and health care to millions of Ukrainian refugees. Mr. Guterres himself served as the U.N. high commissioner for refugees from June 2005 to December 2015, taking up the role of secretary general in 2017.
But Russia holds veto power on the Security Council, robbing it of the ability to pass legally binding resolutions holding Moscow accountable. And Russia has a powerful ally, with its own veto, on the council: China.
Among the council’s most striking recent failures is the yearslong civil war in Syria, in which Russia blocked definitive action. China’s and Russia’s alliances kept the Security Council from moving aggressively to counter atrocities against the Rohingya ethnic group in Myanmar. North Korea, which China also protects, has repeatedly ignored U.N. prohibitions against conducting nuclear tests.
Cases where the council was able to act include imposing painful sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. The council also authorized military intervention in support of Libyan rebels in 2011, despite Russia’s reluctance — but the assassination of the Libyan dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, reinforced Russian suspicion of the organization.
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