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Russia’s suspension from UN Human Rights Council raises big questions

people in damaged Ukrainian church
Civilian buildings in Ukraine, including residential blocks, hospitals and churches, have been hit by Russian strikes. Bodies in civilian clothing have been found in the streets after Moscow's forces retreated east. AFP

On April 7 the United Nations General Assembly voted to suspend Russia from the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council over “gross and systematic human rights abuses” in Ukraine. SWI looks at how this will affect the council’s work and at the wider implications.

The only other country to have been voted off the Human Rights Council is Libya. That happened in 2011 in response to grave violations by the regime of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Russia’s suspension is the first of a “Big Five” permanent member of the Security Council, the UN’s supreme body.

The US-led push garnered 93 votes in favour – including from Switzerland – while 24 countries voted “no”, 58 abstained, and the rest were absent. “Russia’s participation on the Human Rights Council is a farce,” said US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-GreenfieldExternal link on April 4. “It hurts the credibility of the council and the UN writ large.”

Ukrainian ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya, arguing for the resolution, called on the General Assembly to “save the Human Rights Council and many lives in the world”. He urged members not to press the “no” button, “a red dot on the screen, red as the blood of innocent lives lost”.

The vote followed reports of hundreds of civilian bodies found in parts of Ukraine such as Bucha, near Kyiv, after the withdrawal of Russian troops. There is also mounting evidence that Russia has targeted civilian infrastructure as well as besieging the southern port of Mariupol, inflicting life-threatening conditions on the civilian population.

A two-thirds majority of voting members (abstentions do not count) was needed to suspend Russia from the 47-member council. Following its suspension, Moscow announced it would withdraw from the Human Rights Council.

‘Ambivalent’ result

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, there have been two other votes in the General Assembly condemning Moscow’s action. The previous ones saw 141 and 140 “yes” votes from the 193 UN member states. However, the one suspending Russia from the Human Rights Council passed by only 93 in favour, with the rest either against, abstaining or not voting at all. Does this raise a question about the legitimacy of the vote?

Phil Lynch, Geneva-based director of the NGO International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), rejects this idea. He says the two previous votes were declaratory and did not result in a concrete outcome, unlike this one.

“I think the decline in numbers reflects the fact that it was a very consequential vote, and that Russia engaged in a campaign of serious bullying, intimidation and threats,” he told SWI


Russian bullying

Several diplomatic sources confirmed to SWI that Russia had sent a letter to their missions, warning that any country voting “yes”, abstaining or failing to vote would be regarded as an “unfriendly country”.

Lynch says he has seen the letter, sent to missions in New York and Geneva, which, he says, also warned that failing to oppose the suspension would have serious consequences for that state, multilaterally and bilaterally. “That is not an insignificant threat from a permanent member of the Security Council with significant military and economic power and influence,” he says.

Olivier de Frouville, a professor of public law at the University of Paris 2 and expert on UN human rights issues, sees the vote as “ambivalent”. He says that while the procedural requirements were met, “the majority is not overwhelming. This is not so much about the 24 who voted against, their reasons are generally clear – a number of them are also  accused of massive violations of human rights. But the 58 that abstained should really be a matter of concern for the sponsors.”

voting results
The results of the vote to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council on April 7. © United Nations

China voted “no”, whereas it had previously abstained. So did a number of other countries, notably in Africa and central Asia. India, which has ties to both Russia and the West but has perhaps been tilting awayExternal link from supporting Russia since the atrocities in Bucha, abstained again.

Gross abusers on the council

Russia’s suspension raises another question. There are other membersExternal link of the 47-member Human Rights Council with appalling human rights records, notably China and Eritrea but also Venezuela, Cuba and the United Arab Emirates, which has been accused of atrocities in the Yemen war. So why haven’t they been suspended, and what makes Russia different?

Lynch argues it is a combination of factors, with “the overwhelming evidence of atrocity crimes committed in the context of a war of aggression against a sovereign state, all in violation of the very existence of the UN Charter. That makes the case of Russia different and explains why action has been taken against Russia in circumstances where it hasn’t been taken against other states responsible for systematic violations”.

De Frouville says it is a political decision by a number of states to suspend one member and not another. He regrets that “there is no kind of independent expert mechanism to make the recommendation to the General Assembly to suspend the state”.  But he agrees that “there is a specificity in the situation of Ukraine, which is linked to the context of aggression that you cannot find in some other situations”.

But one could argue that Eritrea, since 2000 one of the worst human rights abusers in the world and dubbed “Africa’s North Korea”, has also intervened elsewhere. For example, its troops are accused of committing some of the worst massacres as well as rapes in Ethiopia’s Tigray war.

Lynch notes that to suspend a member from the Human Rights Council, you need to secure a two-thirds majority of members present in the General Assembly. “In the case of Eritrea, there’s been very weak support – and in many instances strong opposition – among African states for the mandating of commissions of inquiry and other mechanisms on Eritrea,” he says. “It’s very difficult to see how you could get the numbers necessary to suspend Eritrea without having majority support from its own group.”

And what about China, which has been accused of possible genocide against its Uyghur population, as well as repression in Hong Kong?

“I think with China, again the evidence of widespread gross and systematic violations, possibly amounting to crimes against humanity particularly in the Xinjiang region, is overwhelming,” Lynch says. “But it’s very difficult to say at present how you would get a majority to suspend China, given the extent of their financial, political and military power and influence, and the dependency of many states on China.”


How will Russia’s withdrawal affect the council?

Once the General Assembly had voted to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council, Moscow announced it was withdrawing. “That’s like announcing your resignation once you’ve been fired,” said one Western ambassador.

So how will Russia’s departure affect the council? Withdrawal means there is an empty seat, and a vote will take place to elect a replacement member from the Eastern European group. A UN spokesman said it was not yet clear when this vote would take place.

De Frouville thinks Russia’s withdrawal will improve the atmosphere in the council. “Russia was clearly in the last two years a major factor of tension, in the sense that it was kind of aggressively putting into question a certain number of initiatives – not expecting to win the vote, but rather to make an ideological point,” he says. “Among many other instances, they recently opposed language on the participation of children, and presented 10 hostile amendments on a draft resolution on the right to a clean  environment. They also put amendments to defend so-called ‘traditional values’ on issues such as reproductive rights and violence against women.”

Lynch says he takes the Russian withdrawal as meaning “that they will effectively boycott the Human Rights Council, withdraw from their seat as a member and withdraw from engagement in the Human Rights Council”. But theoretically at least, Russia could still continue as an observer state. That is up to Moscow, Lynch says.

He thinks that Russia will, in any case, continue to lobby and threaten other states “if not directly, then through proxy states like Belarus. The fact that they engaged in such a campaign of bullying and intimidation I think shows that the Human Rights Council matters and that states such as Russia and China try to use membership of the Human Rights Council to undermine human rights standards and evade accountability.”

Edited by Imogen Foulkes.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR