posted on Mon 15 Jul 2019 7:29 PM
Briefing on Ukraine

Tomorrow morning (16 July), the Security Council is expected to hold a briefing on Ukraine, at the request of Russia.  The anticipated briefers are Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo and OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Lamberto Zannier.

The recently enacted Ukrainian language law, which formally takes effect tomorrow, is the core issue that Russia raised in its request. The Ukrainian parliament approved the Ukrainian language bill on 25 April, and it was signed into law by then-president Petro Poroshenko on 15 May. The law institutes Ukrainian as the official language of the country, requiring that it be used in the public sector. The law does not prohibit the use of other languages in religious ceremonies and for private purposes. Ukraine has argued that the law constitutes an internal matter not related to the Minsk agreements. This view is generally shared by the US and EU members of the Council.

Russia has argued that the law is a prohibition of Russian—which is spoken mainly in the eastern parts of the country, including the separatist-held areas of Lugansk and Donetsk—and the languages of other ethnic groups in Ukraine.  It has further maintained that the law runs counter to the spirit of the Minsk agreements, which the Council endorsed in resolution 2202.

Following Russia’s request for the meeting focused on the Ukrainian language law, Ukraine, which is not on the Council but served on the body in 2016-2017, also requested a meeting of the Council on the broader aspects of the situation in Ukraine. Leading up to the meeting, Council members held negotiations on the format and the scope of the meeting. It appears that Russia was consistent in insisting that the meeting focus exclusively on the language law, while some other members, primarily the US and EU members, favoured a more comprehensive discussion of the conflict in Ukraine.  In this regard, while Russia may emphasise its views on the language law, other members may choose to focus their remarks more intensively on other issues, such as the security and humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine.

This is the second time Russia has requested a Council discussion on Ukraine’s language law. Russia sought an urgent meeting of the Council on 20 May, five days after Poroshenko approved the law. The timing of the Russian request coincided with the inauguration of the newly elected president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. The US and EU members were opposed to holding that meeting, calling for a procedural vote on whether to convene it. Only five Council members (China, the Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Russia and South Africa) voted in favour of holding the meeting, six (Belgium, France, Germany, Poland, the UK, and the US) voted against, and four (Côte d’Ivoire, Indonesia, Kuwait and Peru) abstained. The meeting was not held, as at least nine affirmative votes are required for a procedural motion to pass.

In the explanations of vote that followed, members such as France, Germany and the US questioned the usefulness of holding the meeting on the same day that Ukraine was undergoing a democratic transition of power. Some also noted that they would need more time to analyse the law. Russia, in contrast, emphasised that the language issue requires the attention of the Council due to its implications for wider issues of peace and security. It stressed that issues related to language precipitated the hostilities in Ukraine in 2014.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Russia is likely to reiterate its position that the law undermines the Minsk agreements and Council resolution 2202, while also posing a threat to peace and security. While the US and EU members are not opposed to discussions on the law at this moment, they are likely to address other issues they perceive to be more pressing in the context of Ukraine.

Some Council members might address the latest developments related to the downing of MH17.  The Joint Investigative Team (JIT) comprised of law enforcement agencies from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands, and Ukraine have been conducting a criminal investigation on the incident. On 19 June, the JIT announced that it would prosecute four individuals (three Russians and one Ukrainian) suspected of being implicated in the downing of MH17. The legal proceedings will take place in the Netherlands and under its criminal law.

In 2014, the Council adopted resolution 2166, condemning the downing of MH17 and calling for accountability for the incident. While the resolution called on all members to cooperate with the efforts to establish accountability, the JIT has said that Russia provided incomplete and insufficient information on the JIT legal inquiries. Russia has disputed these claims, emphasising that it has cooperated fully with the investigation.  Russia has also stressed that the JIT has shown an anti-Russian bias. Among current Council members, Belgium is a member of the JIT, and may be one of the members addressing the issue of the MH17 investigation during the meeting.

Some Council members are also likely to raise the issue of the Ukrainian sailors detained by Russia during an incident in the Kerch Strait (Sea of Azov) in November 2018. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea decided that Russia should release all 24 Ukrainian sailors and three ships.  Ukraine has claimed that its ships were in international waters during the incident, while Russia says that the ships entered its territorial waters. The US and Council members from the EU, consistent with their positions on this matter, might call on Russia to respect the ruling of the Tribunal. Russia has disputed the jurisdiction of the Tribunal in this case.