Ukraine’s president has urged the UN Security Council to ensure its members adhere to the rules of international law or shut its doors, as he accused Russian troops of committing “the most terrible war crimes” since World War Two.
In a passionate address to the UN’s most powerful body on Tuesday after more grisly evidence emerged of civilian massacres in areas that Russian forces recently left, Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that “aggressors” should be “brought to peace immediately”.
He showed a short video of burned, bloodied and mutilated bodies, including children, in Irpin, Dymerka, Mariupol and Bucha.
Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia then told the Security Council that Russian troops are not targeting civilians, dismissing accusations of abuse as lies.
Zelenskyy questioned the value of the 15-member UN Security Council, which has been unable to take any action over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because Moscow is a veto power, along with the United States, France, Britain and China.
“The UN can be simply closed. Are you ready to close the UN?” he asked, as Russia’s permanent UN representative looked on. “If your answer is no, you need to act immediately.”
“The UN system must be reformed immediately so that there is fair representation” at the UN for all countries, he continued.
His anger and frustration palpable, Zelenskyy blasted Russia’s leadership as “colonisers”.
“Russia wants to turn Ukraine into silent slaves,” he told the council.
Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, leading to one of the largest displacements of civilians in recent history, and sparking outrage across the globe.
Russia describes the invasion as a “special military operation” aimed at demilitarising and “denazifying” Ukraine.
Russia’s Nebenzia said Moscow was trying to bring peace to Ukraine’s breakaway eastern Donbas region and was not trying to “conquer lands” in Ukraine.
Addressing Zelenskyy, he said Russia places “on your conscience the ungrounded accusations against the Russian military, which are not confirmed by any eye witnesses.”
Denying Kyiv’s claim that Russian forces have deported thousands of civilians from Ukraine, Nebenzia said that 600,000 people had been brought voluntarily into Russia throughout the conflict.
“We’re not talking about any kind of coercion or abduction, as our Western partners like to present this, but rather the voluntary decision by these people as testified by many of these videos that are accessible in social media.”
Al Jazeera’s Kristen Saloomey, reporting from the UN’s headquarters in New York, said Zelenskyy “talked about the responsibility of the Security Council UN to protect the rule of international law and went so far as to call for a global conference to see how to improve and achieve the goals of the UN, which was set up to maintain international peace and security.”
Zelenskyy’s address came as Western nations have expelled dozens more of Moscow’s diplomats and weighed imposing further sanctions on Russia, but there appear to be some divisions about how far to go.
Some European leaders have called for a boycott of Russian oil and gas imports, but Germany has expressed concern that an embargo on Russian energy could plunge the continent into a severe economic crisis.
Zelenskyy said his forces needed more powerful weaponry, some of which the West has been reluctant to give.
The bodies of at least 410 civilians have been found in towns around Kyiv that were recaptured from Russian forces, Ukrainian officials said, adding that a “torture chamber” was discovered in the town of Bucha, on Kyiv’s outskirts, from which some of the grimmest details have emerged.
Russia has insisted that its forces have not committed any crimes and that the images of dead bodies in Bucha had been faked by Ukraine.
Journalists on the ground in Bucha said many of the victims appeared to have been shot at close range, and some had their hands bound or their flesh burned.
A mass grave in a churchyard held bodies wrapped in plastic. The Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office said the bodies of five men with their hands bound were found in the basement of a children’s sanatorium where civilians were tortured and killed.
Four million Ukrainians have fled the country in the wake of the Russian invasion. More than seven million more people have been internally displaced, the UN migration agency estimated.
Addressing the council, the UN’s Secretary-General António Guterres called the war in Ukraine “one of the greatest challenges ever to the international order because of its nature, intensity and consequences”.
“The war in Ukraine must stop, now,” Guterres said, warning of the global fallout from the conflict, with spiking prices of food, energy and fertilisers affecting up to 1.2 billion people in 74 countries.
Rosemary Anne DiCarlo, the UN’s under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, said hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians remain trapped in besieged areas.
DiCarlo said at least 1480 civilians have been killed and at least 2,500 wounded between February 24 and April 4, although the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights believed the numbers are considerably higher.