A woman holds her child as she arrives in Berdyszcze in Poland, after crossing the border from Ukraine Credit: UNICEF/Tom Remp
With the war in Ukraine now in its third week, UN political affairs chief Rosemary DiCarlo warned the Security Council on Friday that direct attacks against civilians and civilian objects are prohibited under international law, and may amount to war crimes.
In a fast-breaking meeting called by Russia to address its claims of United States support for military biological research in Ukraine, Ms. DiCarlo said Russian armed forces are pursuing laying siege to several cities in the south, east and north of the country, with a large concentration reportedly massed along several approaches to the capital, Kyiv
The situation is particularly alarming in Mariupol, Kharkiv, Sumy and Chernihiv, she said, where shelling of residential areas and civilian infrastructure has resulted in an increasing number of civilians killed and injured.
“The utter devastation being visited on these cities is horrific,” she stressed.
Civilians ‘inexcusably’ targeted
As of 11 March, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recorded 1,546 civilian casualties – including 564 killed and 982 injured – since the start of the Russian invasion.
The real casualty figures are likely “considerably higher”. Most have been caused by explosive weapons with a wide impact area, including heavy artillery, multi-launch rocket systems and air strikes.
Further, she said OHCHR has received credible reports of Russian forces using cluster munitions in populated areas – indiscriminate attacks, which are prohibited under international humanitarian law.
As of 10 March, the World Health Organization (WHO) verified 26 attacks on health facilities, health workers and ambulances, causing 12 deaths and 34 injuries. This includes the bombing of the Mariupol maternity hospital on 9 March, which she condemned.
Ms. Di Carlo went on to describe the targeting of civilians, residential buildings, hospitals, schools and kindergartens as “inexcusable and intolerable”, emphasizing that all alleged violations of international humanitarian law must be investigated, and perpetrators held accountable.
Millions in dire need of aid
Ms. Di Carlo said humanitarian aid is being scaled up in areas where security permits and has reached more than 500,000 people. The UN and partners have developed operational plans to meet humanitarian needs where they are most acute, she said, appealing to donors who pledged over $1.5 billion to the appeal last week, to release the funding quickly.UN Photo/Manuel ElíasRosemary Di Carlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, briefs the Security Council meeting on Threats to International Peace and Security.
Evacuations must continue
It is critical to achieving a ceasefire to allow for the safe passage of civilians from besieged areas, she told ambassadors.
On 9 March, more than 51,000 people were reportedly evacuated through five out of six agreed-upon safe passages. These evacuations must continue.
The number of refugees fleeing the violence has reached 2.5 million – all of whom, including third-country nationals, need access to safety and protection, in line with the principle of non-refoulment, and without discrimination.
‘Logic of dialogue’ must prevail
“The need for negotiations to stop the war in Ukraine could not be more urgent”, she said, noting that three rounds of talks held thus far between Ukrainian and Russian delegations must be intensified – notably to secure humanitarian and ceasefire arrangements as a matter of priority. “The logic of dialogue and diplomacy must prevail over the logic of war.”
Perhaps most alarming are the risks the violence poses to the global framework for peace and security, she said, adding: “We must do everything we can to find a solution and put an end to this war; we must do it now.”
Russia biological weapons claim refuted
Today’s meeting comes on the heels of claims by Russian Ministry of Defence Spokesperson Major General Igor Konashenkov on 6 March, his country’s military had uncovered evidence of US-funded military biological programmes in Ukraine, including documents confirming the development of “biological weapons components”.
Addressing those concerns, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, said the “United Nations is not aware of any biological weapons programmes”.
Nor is it in a position to confirm or deny” reports that public health facilities are in areas impacted by armed conflict, placing the safety of those facilities at risk. She appealed to all parties in the conflict to ensure the safety of all such facilities in Ukraine.
Explaining that the Russian Federation and Ukraine are both States parties to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention – which prohibits their development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use – and that Moscow is a depositary Government, she said biological weapons have been outlawed since the Convention entered into force in 1975.
With 183 States parties to the treaty, biological weapons are “universally seen as being abhorrent and illegitimate,” she stressed.
Assessing compliance: A State responsibility
However, the Convention lacks a multilateral verification mechanism overseen by an independent organization, such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), meaning that the responsibility of assessing compliance rests with States parties.
The treaty does contain several measures for States to address concerns or suspicions about the activities of their peers, Ms Nakamitsu said. Under Article V, for example, States parties can consult and cooperate to resolve any problems which may arise. An annual exchange of information has been established, based upon the submission of confidence-building measures.
The Russian Federation and Ukraine both participate annually in the confidence-building measures, and their annual reports are available to all States parties for the purposes of transparency and reassurance.
In addition, she said that under Article VI, a State Party which finds that its peer is in breach of its obligations can lodge a complaint with the Security Council. An investigation based on the complaint can then be initiated if agreed by the Council.
Noting that Article VI has never been activated – and that these provisions have not been regularly used – they are nonetheless internationally agreed procedures available to defuse tensions.
“I would, therefore, encourage the Biological Chemical Weapons States parties to consider making use of the available procedures for consultation and cooperation to resolve these issues,” she said. “Situations such as this demonstrate the need to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention, to operationalize and institutionalize it.”
Addressing other concerns, she warned that an accident involving the nuclear facilities in Ukraine could have severe consequences for public health and the environment and all steps must be taken to avoid it.
“The possibility of an accident caused by failure to a reactor’s power supply or the inability to provide regular maintenance is growing by the day,” she stressed. The forces in effective control of nuclear power plants in Ukraine must ensure their safe and secure operation.
‘Extreme concern’ over nuclear plants
She expressed extreme concern that four of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) seven pillars for the safe and secure operation of facilities, are reportedly not being implemented at Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhya – Europe’s largest reactor.
“Communications must be fully restored, and operating staff must be allowed to properly carry out their duties and to do so free of undue pressure,” she asserted.
The Council has held three briefings on the situation in Ukraine since the Russian Federation launched its military assault on 24 February, addressing humanitarian needs (28 February and 7 March) and the safety of nuclear sites (4 March).UN Photo/Evan SchneiderVassily Nebenzia, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, addresses the Security Council meeting on threats to international peace and security.
Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said his delegation convened the meeting because during what it still maintains is a “special military operation”, it had discovered a “truly shocking” emergency clean up by “the Kyiv regime” of traces of a biological military operation, with support from the United States Department of Defense.
He said the Russian Ministry of Defence has documents on its website confirming that a network of 30 biological labs across Ukraine – in Odessa, Kyiv, Dniper Kherson and elsewhere – were conducting “very dangerous” experiments to strengthen the pathogenic qualities of the plague, anthrax, cholera and other lethal diseases using synthetic biology.
Some were aimed at spreading infection through migratory birds and bats, while others – funded by the United States – used excto-parasites, like lice and fleas, a particularly reckless endeavour as it would not allow for controlling how a situation could develop.
He said the results were being sent to the military biological centres in the United States, including the Walter Reade Army Institute of Research, the Naval Medical Research Center, and the Biological Warfare Laboratories, at Fort Detrick in Maryland.
“Biological threats know no borders,” he warned. “No region in the world can feel safe”. He accused the United States of blocking a legally binding protocol to create a verification mechanism, leading Moscow to believe that “they have something to hide”. The Russian Federation will not exclude the possibility of invoking the Convention’s Articles V and VI, he said, but for now, it expects to hear responses from the United States.UN Photo/Manuel ElíasAmbassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield of the United States addresses the UN Security Council meeting on Threats to International Peace and Security.
US accuses Russia of lies, disinformation
To those claims, United States Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Moscow called today’s meeting for “the sole purpose of lying and spreading disinformation”.
Last month, she said, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, laid out with “tragic accuracy” what Russia would do, warning it would manufacture a pretext for an attack, even cautioning it would fabricate claims of biological or chemical weapons activities to justify its own violent attacks against Ukrainians.
“The Russian Federation is attempting to use the Security Council to legitimize disinformation and deceive people to justify President [Vladimir] Putin’s war of choice against the Ukrainian people,” she said, adding that China too has spread disinformation in support of Russia’s “outrageous” claims.
“I will say this once: Ukraine does not have a biological weapons programme. There are no Ukrainian biological weapons laboratories supported by the United States – not near Russia’s border or anywhere,” she affirmed.
Laying out the facts, she said Ukraine owns and operates its own public health laboratory infrastructure, with facilities that make it possible to detect and diagnose diseases like COVID-19, “which benefit us all.” The United States has assisted Ukraine to do this safely, with work undertaken proudly, clearly and in the open.
She accused the Russian Federation of having long maintained a biological weapons programme, with a well-documented history of nerve agent attacks, notably against Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal.
“It continues to shield the [Bashar al] Assad regime in Syria from accountability when the United Nations and OPCW found that it had used chemical weapons repeatedly over the years. Its call for the Council meeting is “potential false flag operation in action,” she said.UN Photo/Manuel ElíasAmbassador Zhang Jun of China addresses the UN Security Council meeting on Threats to International Peace and Security.
“Biological weapons are weapons of mass destruction,” said China’s Ambassador Zhang Jun. “Any information on bio-military activities should trigger high attention from the international community.”
He noted with concern, credible information released by Moscow, stressing that its concerns should be “properly addressed”. He pressed States parties to implement their Convention obligations, provide clarification and accept multilateral verification.
He also took note of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) press report advising Ukraine to destroy pathogens in its laboratories to prevent the spread of infectious diseases and looked forward to receiving more information in this regard.
He firmly rejected claims against China made by the United States representative. The international community has raised awareness around the US military’s biological activities, with 336 labs around the world. “If the United States believes the information is fake, all they can do is to provide relevant data to us so the international community can draw its conclusions on its own”.UN Photo/Evan SchneiderSergiy Kyslytsya, Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the United Nations, addresses the Security Council meeting on threats to international peace and security.
Russian aggression ‘threatens us all’ warns Ukraine
Ukraine’s Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya directed his comments to “the representative of the aggressor State, who sits in the seat of the Soviet Union” – whose aggressor State status was recognized by General Assembly resolution ES 11/1, adopted overwhelmingly on 2 March at an emergency session.
He quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who said on 10 March that “we do not plan to attack other countries; we did not attack Ukraine either”. The Russian Embassy in London then Tweeted that a pregnant woman was “wearing makeup and playing multiple roles of pregnant women in Mariupol.”
He said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov then told reporters in aftermath of the strike on 9 March that “Russian forces do not fire on civilian targets”, before clarifying later that the Kremlin would “look into the incident because you and I do not have clear information on what happened there”.
On 10 March, Mr Lavrov claimed without evidence that the attack on the Mariupol hospital was warranted because the building had been seized by Ukrainian armed groups.
“Whatever the gentleman in the Soviet seat may say in reply is most probably useless,” he cautioned.
By calling today’s meeting, the aggressor State has “shot itself in the foot”, he said, as Ukraine runs a health system that is in full compliance with its international obligations.
He underscored that Ukrainians are being killed and cities are being destroyed. People are being buried in mass graves in Ukraine’s cities, for the first time since the Second World War. He urged the world to be “resolute in countering such barbaric actions.”
“Russian aggression threatens us all,” he said.
Finally, he read from an open letter penned by 194 Nobel Laureates, who equated Russia’s actions with those of Nazi Germany in 1939 against Poland – using feigned provocation – adding their voices in condemning Russia’s military tactics.