So-called referenda in Russian-controlled Ukraine ‘cannot be regarded as legal’: UN political affairs chief

A woman stands in an abandoned school, damaged after a shell strike, in Krasnohorivka, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine. (file)
© UNICEF/Ashley Gilbertson
A woman stands in an abandoned school, damaged after a shell strike, in Krasnohorivka, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine. (file)

So-called referenda in Russian-controlled Ukraine ‘cannot be regarded as legal’: UN political affairs chief

Peace and Security

Recent so-called referenda conducted in four Russian-occupied regions in Ukraine cannot be considered legal under international law, the UN’s political affairs chief, Rosemary DiCarlo, told the Security Council on Tuesday. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also briefed ambassadors, blasting the “sham referenda”, though Russia objected to his participation via videoconference. 

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The country's ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, said the President should participate in person, in line with the rules.  "The Council should not turn into a forum for political shows or cinema,” he added.

Door-to-door voting 

The referenda were held over the past five days in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions for residents to vote on whether they wished to become part of the Russian Federation. 

Voting took place in polling centers, Ms. DiCarlo reported, and de facto pro-Russian authorities accompanied by soldiers, also went door-to-door with ballot boxes.  

These exercises - which were held during active armed conflict, in areas of Ukraine under Russian control and outside Ukraine’s legal and constitutional framework - “cannot be called a genuine expression of the popular will,” she said

“Unilateral actions aimed to provide a veneer of legitimacy to the attempted acquisition by force by one State of another State’s territory, while claiming to represent the will of the people, cannot be regarded as legal under international law.” 

Upholding Ukrainian sovereignty 

The political affairs chief underscored the UN’s full commitment to the sovereignty, unity, independence, and territorial integrity of Ukraine. She reminded Russia of its obligation to respect the country’s laws in the administration of occupied territories. 

This latest development is among recent actions that threaten to further escalate the conflict, now in its seventh month.  

Ms. DiCarlo spoke about heavy fighting in southern Ukraine in the past few weeks and escalating military operations in Donetsk and Luhansk.   

The Ukrainian military also conducted a successful counter-offensive this month to restore control over most of the Russian-held areas in the Kharkhiv region. 

Meanwhile, daily attacks on many Ukrainian cities have continued, including in Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as targeting of civilian energy and water infrastructure.  

Nuclear threat persists 

“We have also heard alarming rhetoric regarding the use of nuclear weapons. This is unacceptable,” said Ms. DiCarlo. 

The UN remains deeply troubled by reports of continuing attacks near the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, and she urged combatants to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). 

“It is imperative that all attacks on nuclear facilities end, and that the purely civilian nature of such plants be re-established,” she stressed.   

Human rights violations 

Ms. DiCarlo also expressed grave concern over allegations of human rights violations committed in areas of northeastern Ukraine, including after the recovery of more than 400 bodies from improvised graves in the city of Izium. 

The UN human rights office, OHCHR, is working with local authorities to investigate this and other allegations in areas in the Kharkiv region that were until recently under Russian control.  

Last week, the UN-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine concluded that war crimes had been committed in the conflict.  

Ms. DiCarlo called for those responsible to be brought to account. 

“Rarely, if ever, has the international community collected so much evidence of human rights violations, potential war crimes and other atrocities as they were happening,” she said. 

“It is tragic that we have not been able to stop them. But it would be shameful if we were not able to ensure justice for the victims and their loved ones.” 

Extend grain deal

Overall, the war has resulted in some 14,844 verified civilian casualties so far, with nearly 6,000 deaths, according to OHCHR, though actual numbers are likely to be considerably higher. 

Its ripple effects continue to be felt by millions worldwide, affected by rising fuel and energy costs. Ms. DiCarlo highlighted the vital need to renew the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which is due to expire in November. 

More than five million metric tonnes of foodstuffs have been shipped from Ukrainian ports since the deal was signed in July, according to the UN Spokesperson briefing journalists in New York on Tuesday, heralding the 5,250,578-tonne figure so far, as “good news”. 

The initiative continues to gather pace, Ms. DiCarlo told ambassadors, while efforts to remove remaining obstacles to Russian food exports continue. 

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (on screen) of Ukraine addresses the Security Council meeting on maintenance of peace and security in Ukraine.
UN Photo/Laura Jarriel
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (on screen) of Ukraine addresses the Security Council meeting on maintenance of peace and security in Ukraine.

Attempt to steal territory: Zelenskyy

Appealing for international action, President Zelenskyy called for Russia to be isolated in the international community.

“In front of the eyes of the whole world, Russia is conducting this so-called sham referenda on the occupied territory of Ukraine”, he said, speaking through an interpreter.

The alleged results have been prepared well in advance, “just as this compulsory issue of passports for the population of the occupied territories,” he continued, adding that Russia wants to annex these areas.

“This is the most brutal violation of the UN Charter,” he said.

“This is an attempt to steal the territory of another state. This is an attempt to erase the norms of international law. This is a very cynical attempt to force the male population in the occupied territory of Ukraine to mobilize into the Russian army in order to send them to fight against their own homeland.”

Referenda followed norms: Russia

Mr. Nebenzia, the Russian ambassador, defended the controversial referenda, which he said were monitored by more than 100 independent international observers from 40 countries.

He told the Council President Zelenskyy had stated in an interview that people who considered themselves Russian, or who liked Russia, should leave Ukraine.

“Now the inhabitants of Donbass, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia  oblasts are carrying out his cynical recommendation.  They're returning to the homeland and they're taking their land with them that their forefathers lived on for centuries,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.

“The referendum were conducted exclusively transparently with upholding of all electoral norms. This is an undisputed fact. However, the Kyiv regime and its backers want to say anything to the contrary.”