What Selassie and Zelinsky might say on Will and Means in Collective Security
October 10, 2022
October 10, 2022
Ukrainian President Valdimir Zelinsky’s video speech to the UN Security Council in New York on 5 April 2022 was a rare example of a head of state appealing in person to a multilateral collective security organization while his country is under attack. It was a reminder of a similar in-person appeal 86 years ago in Geneva, in June 1936, by Emperor Haile Selassie to the 52-member League of Nations following Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia.
Mussolini’s troops invaded northern Ethiopia in October 1935 in what became known as the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Like Ukraine, the invasion followed tensions and skirmishes between 1930 and 1934 on Ethiopia’s borders with Italian-administered Eritrea and Somaliland, some of them clearly orchestrated by Italy. Beyond a desire for more colonial dominions, Italy’s fascist leadership sought to avenge the humiliating defeat at Adwa which ended the First Italo-Ethiopian war (1885-1896). Like Ukraine, the military campaign carried imperial and colonial overtones, was brutal, and featured war crimes like the use of mustard gas against civilian populations and the poisoning of the water supply. It was also successful: by June 1936, Addis Ababa had been taken.
That invasion was in clear breach of international law against aggression. Article 16 of the League’s Covenant provided for joint action against any other member which made war in violation of the Covenant. Economic sanctions were to be applied, and if insufficient, military assistance. The Council could even expel a member.
Yet, the League failed to take any action in response to Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. Though the League concluded Italy was guilty of aggression, no meaningful sanctions followed. Several of its European members had carried out similar earlier colonial grabs in Africa and were unenthusiastic. The United States was deeply isolationist at the time. Most importantly, the mood in Europe in the early 1930s was one of accommodation and appeasement. The 1935 Italian invasion, like Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria, did not occur on European soil while Italy was a prominent member of the League.
Appeasement was soon and dramatically revealed as a mistake. Germany’s 1936 militarization of the Rhineland followed, then its 1938 annexation of Austria, its aggression against Czechoslovakia, and the 1939 Stalin-Hitler Pact. The German attack on Poland in September 1939 finally ignited World War II. As critical as those events were, it was years earlier in Manchuria and Ethiopia that the League’s collective security weakness first became apparent. It would take five years – and a world war – before Haile Selassie would re-enter Addis Ababa after its liberation.
At first glance, the two cases – 86 years apart – present much the same. Yet there are important differences in how they were handled.
In his 1936 address in Geneva, Selassie openly condemned Italy’s aggression and use of chemical weapons on Ethiopian civilians and civilian targets. His appeal to the League itself was primarily a moral one. He denounced the fact that no other countries within the so-called ‘Society of Nations’ would come to Ethiopia’s help. He criticized the hypocrisy of the League, underscoring that the League’s failure to act would essentially negate its existence as an organization.
He did not take up the structural weaknesses of the League when it came to collective security. He might for example have called for more effective measures or the expulsion of Italy, or demand reform of the organization itself. To the contrary, he noted: “Your Assembly will doubtless have laid before it proposals for the reform of the Covenant and for rendering more effective the guarantee of collective security. Is it the Covenant that needs reform? What undertakings can have any value if the will to keep them is lacking? It is international morality which is at stake and not the Articles of the Covenant.”
By comparison, in his own 2022 speech to the UN Security Council, Zelensky also openly condemned Russia for its aggression and detailed its war crimes against civilians, underscoring that Russia’s leadership “feels like colonizers – as in ancient times.” He asked rhetorically what security the Security Council proposed to guarantee, what peace the United Nations proposed to maintain. If the first article of the Charter was being violated, he asked, what was the point of all the other articles?
But then he took aim at a specific contradiction in the Charter. He pointed to the problem posed when a state “turns the right of veto in the UN Security Council into a right to kill.” In other words, what happens when a veto-wielding state uses that veto (Article 27) to shield an invasion? Zelensky called for reform of the UN on the basis that the goals of San Francisco have not been achieved. Specifically, he called for transformation of the collective security system through the creation of “an effective UN with the ability to respond preventively to security challenges.”
It is tempting to conclude that when one of its permanent members is simultaneously endangering the peace and using its veto to protect itself, the UN Security Council in 2022 looks like the League of Nations in 1936. The net effect appears the same: paralysis of the institution charged with maintaining collective security. But there is a difference. The League’s membership could but did not wish to act under the Covenant’s collective security system. By contrast, the UN’s membership wished to but could not act under the Charter’s collective security system.
That is why, with the Security Council paralyzed, member states have resorted to non-binding General Assembly resolutions to express their will. Following two vetoed Security Council Resolutions on 25 February and 30 September 2022, the General Assembly has adopted two resolutions by large margins on 2 March (141 votes) and 12 October (143 votes). The problem of moral will is thus partially resolved even as the problem of effective means remains.