Ukraine and Western states appealed to the international community Monday to support a draft resolution at the United Nations General Assembly condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and calling for an immediate cease-fire as Moscow's forces stepped up their bombardment of the country's second-largest city, Kharkiv.
"We are today at a crucial and historical moment," European Union Ambassador Olof Skoog told member states on behalf of the 27 EU members. "Too many times in the past the international community has been blind or too slow in front of unfolding tragedies. Entire generations in many places around the world have paid and are still paying the price of inaction. We can't make the same mistake again: We have to take action."
The West and Ukraine framed the crisis before the body as an existential threat to the principles of the United Nations, the charter on which it was founded in 1945, and the international rules-based order.
"Now it is time to act, time to help Ukraine, that is paying the ultimate price for freedom and security for itself and of the world," Ukraine envoy Sergiy Kyslytsya said. "If Ukraine does not survive, international peace will not survive. If Ukraine does not survive, the United Nations will not survive — have no illusions. If Ukraine does not survive, we cannot be surprised if democracy fails next."
Uniting for Peace resolution
The General Assembly is meeting under what is known as the Uniting for Peace resolution. It allows special meetings of the entire membership to be called when the U.N. Security Council is deadlocked on an issue and cannot exercise its mandate to maintain or restore international peace and security — in this case, because of Russia's veto.
Although the council in practice has been divided on many issues, Uniting for Peace has been invoked fewer than a dozen times since it was adopted in 1950, according to the Security Council Report, which tracks U.N. meetings. The last time was 40 years ago, in 1982, concerning Israel.
The debate is likely to continue through Wednesday, as more than 100 countries have asked to take the floor. The United States is scheduled to speak toward the end of the debate, closer to the introduction of a draft resolution strongly condemning the Russian invasion and calling for a cease-fire and the withdrawal of Moscow's troops. Its language mimics the one that Russia vetoed in the Security Council on Friday.
A two-thirds majority of voting assembly members is needed to adopt the resolution.
Russia's envoy, Vassily Nebenzia, said Moscow's actions, which he said were made in self-defense, had been "distorted." He also tried to paint Moscow's invasion as a defense of the principles of the U.N. Charter.
"We are protecting ourselves from a nationalist threat, but Russia is also seeking to uphold the purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter on the soil of Donbas and Ukraine, ensuring that the main goal of the United Nations is upheld — namely to prevent succeeding generations from a scourge of war," Nebenzia said.
He denied that Russian troops were targeting civilians.
"We constantly hear lies, fakes about indiscriminate shelling of Ukrainian cities, hospitals, schools, kindergartens," Nebenzia said. "The Russian army does not pose a threat to the civilians of Ukraine, is not shelling civilian areas."
China was the only major Russian ally to speak Monday morning. The situation has evolved to a point that China does not wish to see, Ambassador Zhang Jun said.
"The Cold War has long ended," he said. "The Cold War mentality based on bloc confrontation should be abandoned. Nothing can be gained from stirring up a new Cold War, but everyone will stand to lose."
"It is our consistent and unequivocal position that all countries' sovereignty and territorial integrity should be respected, and that the purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter should be upheld," the Chinese envoy added.
Other Russian allies, including Syria, Belarus, Venezuela and North Korea, are scheduled to speak during the debate.
Peace talks amid refugee exodus
As delegates took to the podium, Russian and Ukrainian delegations were meeting in a border town in Belarus for the first direct talks to halt the fighting.
"This offers a ray of hope," Abdulla Shahid, the president of the General Assembly, said. "We pray that these talks will calm down tempers and pave way to peace."
The U.N.'s Human Rights Office said Monday that more than 400 civilian casualties have been reported, including more than 100 deaths. It said the real figure could be much higher as many reported casualties have yet to be confirmed.
Meanwhile, civilians continue to flee to safety. The U.N. refugee agency says that the numbers are changing by the hour, but more than a half-million people have already crossed Ukraine's borders, mostly toward Poland.
Some reports have emerged that non-white refugees have encountered discrimination at the Polish border and difficulty accessing transport to leave. Ambassador Krzysztof Szczerski said that was not true.
"This is a complete lie and a terrible insult to us," he said.
The Polish envoy said his government had organized trains to bring the elderly and mothers with children to Poland, sent aid convoys, and prepared hospital beds for the wounded and sick. In the past 24 hours, the first refugee babies had been born in Polish hospitals, he said.
Monday afternoon, the U.N. Security Council received virtual briefings on the growing humanitarian crisis from U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths and High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, who were both in Geneva.
Grandi said that while the numbers were changing hourly, so far at least 520,000 people had fled Ukraine, and they would continue unless there was an immediate halt to the conflict.
"We are currently planning — repeat: planning — for up to 4 million refugees in the coming days and weeks," he said, adding that it is the fastest-rising exodus he has seen since the Balkan Wars in the 1990s.
Humanitarian chief Griffiths said a cease-fire was urgently needed.
"The lives of millions of civilians are simply at stake," he said. "We know from other recent conflicts how brutal, deadly and protracted urban warfare can be."
He said emergency medical services were the most pressing need.
France and Mexico are circulating a draft resolution calling for safe and unhindered humanitarian access, which may be put to a vote as soon as Tuesday.