U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed Tuesday for a four-day humanitarian pause this week to coincide with Orthodox Easter, as Russia's war in Ukraine entered a dangerous new phase.
"The onslaught and terrible toll on civilians we have seen so far could pale in comparison to the horror that lies ahead," he said of the Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine. "This cannot be allowed to happen. Hundreds of thousands of lives hang in the balance."
Guterres called for a pause in fighting to begin on April 21 – which is Holy Thursday in the Orthodox Christian calendar – through April 24, when they celebrate Easter. Both Ukrainians and Russians celebrate Easter during this period.
The U.N. chief spoke to reporters in front of The Knotted Gun sculpture by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd. The bronze statue depicts an oversized .357 Magnum revolver with its muzzle tied in a knot and is dedicated to a non-violent world.
Guterres said the brief pause would allow for the opening of a series of humanitarian corridors for civilians who want to leave hostile areas to do so with the assistance of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and it would also allow in aid supplies for people living in hard hit areas, including Mariupol, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk.
"The United Nations is ready to send humanitarian aid convoys during this period to these locations. We are submitting detailed plans to the parties," but he did not say if the parties, particularly Russia, had signaled a willingness to implement such a temporary truce.
"For all these life-or-death reasons, I call on Russians and Ukrainians to silence the guns and forge a path to safety for so many at immediate risk," the secretary-general said. "The four-day Easter period should be a moment to unite around saving lives and furthering dialogue to end the suffering in Ukraine."
Guterres' humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, had been due to fly to Turkey on Tuesday to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other senior officials to try to push through local cease-fires. Griffiths had to abruptly cancel his trip late Monday when he tested positive for COVID-19.
The United Nations says 12 million Ukrainians need humanitarian assistance due to Russia's invasion and war. More than one-third of those most in need are in the besieged cities of Mariupol, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk. Guterres said they anticipate the number of people requiring assistance to increase to 15.7 million – about 40% of all Ukrainians left in the country.
The U.N. Security Council was briefed Tuesday by the head of the International Organization for Migration and the deputy high commissioner for refugees.
On March 3, the High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, told the Security Council that 1 million people had fled Ukraine in the war's first week and that UNHCR was planning for as many as 4 million refugees if the violence did not stop.
"Now eight weeks into the conflict, we are at 5 million (refugees) and counting, with 5 million unique stories of loss and trauma," Grandi's deputy, Kelly Clements, told council members via video from Hungary where she was on mission.
Additionally, some 7.1 million people are displaced inside Ukraine. Ninety percent of the displaced and refugees are women and children.
Ukraine's envoy said the battle for Ukraine's east – known as the Donbas – is now unfolding.
"It means that while the Ukrainian forces courageously protect every parcel of the Ukrainian soil, the civilians in the conflict area remain under deadly threat from the Russian forces," Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya told the council.
He said the situation in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol remains the most critical, with thousands of civilians trapped with dwindling supplies of food and water.
"Hundreds of them, including children, have taken shelter in the Azov steel plant," Kyslytsya said of the fortress-like factory where civilians are sheltering alongside some Ukrainian soldiers. "They need immediate safe evacuation, and the Russian forces are well aware of this. Instead, the Russians deny all requests from the Ukrainian side, world leaders and U.N. high officials for evacuation corridors for civilians."
Kyslytsya welcomed the secretary-general's call for an Easter cease-fire, saying, "We demand Russia follow his call."
Ireland's foreign minister visited Kyiv last week. He came to the Security Council on Tuesday urging an end to the fighting in the face of Russia's new eastern offensive.
"We have to stop this war," Simon Coveney said. "I want to call on Russia directly; agree to an immediate humanitarian cease-fire, commit to negotiations, respect this (U.N.) Charter."
Coveney visited the Kyiv suburb of Bucha. He said what he saw was "profoundly shocking," including a mass grave containing 503 civilians.
"Until two months ago, it was a pleasant and vibrant town; a place many of us around this table could have happily imagined living in," he said. "It now lies in ruins, with the stench of burning buildings and bodies in the air."
He called for accountability for atrocities committed there.
The foreign minister said Ireland, a country of 5 million people, has taken in nearly 25,000 refugees from Ukraine in the past six weeks and treats them essentially as citizens, with the right to education, health care, housing and to legally work.
Poland has the most Ukrainian refugees – nearly 3 million. Ambassador Krzysztof Szczerski told the council that one in five Polish families now has a guest from abroad.
The U.N. Human Rights Office says it has verified the killing of 2,072 civilians, including 71 children, since Russia launched its invasion on February 24. The U.N. says the real number is significantly higher.