Russia and the UN Human Rights Council: A Step in the Right Direction

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The United Nations General Assembly has voted to suspend Russia’s membership of the UN Human Rights Council. This is only the second time in the Council’s 16 year history that a member has been suspended under GA resolution 60/251 paragraph 8 for committing ‘gross and systematic violations of human rights’. While that seems a relatively benign bar for suspension, bear in mind that many countries that have sat on the Council have at the same time been committing grave human rights abuses. The suspension of Russia is a strong and clear signal that the world’s foremost intergovernmental organisation condemns the atrocities being perpetrated in Ukraine.

Some commentators might argue that being suspended from the Human Rights Council does nothing to prevent ongoing abuses by Russia in Ukraine. Many people focus solely on the Security Council, insisting that nothing short of removing Russia’s veto power will do anything to protect Ukrainians from the rapes, torture, and killing being carried out by Russia’s armed forces and mercenaries. But that is too simplistic a view. It fails to take into account the ways in which international relations and diplomacy take place in intergovernmental fora, let alone the importance states place on acceptance by their peers. Naming and shaming has long been a key way for states to hold to account their peers for committing human rights abuses. This can be seen at the most extreme end by suspension from or non-election to human rights bodies, but in a more common way in the way states respond and react to being scrutinised for their domestic human rights record through the Universal Periodic Review mechanism. It is no coincidence that countries release political dissidents, amend their laws on reproductive rights, or ratify human rights treaties, in the year before they are up for review in front of their peers.

There are countries that care little about diplomatic relations or the way they are viewed on the global stage. But they tend to be few and far between, and usually are pariah states. But most countries seek the approval of other states, and Russia is very much one of those countries. Indeed, it cared enough about the vote on its Human Rights Council membership to send warning letters to some state missions to the UN in New York in advance of the vote on Thursday. Russia made clear that a vote in favour of the resolution, or even an abstention on the vote, would result in diplomatic retaliation on a bilateral level. Despite those warnings, countries Russia might have hoped to count on to support it abstained from the vote. India was one of those countries. Despite sending clear signals over recent weeks that it would not cut ties with Russia, India abstained from the vote on Russia’s continued membership of the Council. They were far from the only ones. Of the 58 countries that abstained, many are Russia’s political allies from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, or countries with whom Russia has strong bilateral relations.

The vote in UNGA was 93 in favour of suspending Russia from the Human rights Council, 24 against, and 58 abstentions. By comparison, last month there were only 5 countries who voted against the UNGA resolution condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, and only 35 that abstained. This can be explained, at least in part, by the very different views some states take to human rights abuses as compared with breaches of international law on use of force and state sovereignty. Every country, from Sweden to Somalia, and from Thailand to Tuvalu, commits human rights abuses. Some states rail against even the notion of international human rights law, preferring instead to focus on development as a mechanism that advances similar issues but without encroaching on state sovereignty. The fact that so many of those countries either voted for Thursday’s suspension of Russia or abstained on the resolution demonstrates the overwhelming condemnation of the systematic human rights violations it is perpetrating in Ukraine.

Of the countries that spoke in favour of Russia retaining its membership of the Human Rights Council, DPRK (North Korea), Syria, Cuba and Venezuela were among the most prominent. Those states, which are not exactly renowned for their respect of human rights, used their platform to attack Western hegemony, to raise the issue of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, and most notably to defend what they termed as Russia’s ‘foreign policy objectives’. They did so despite the clear evidence that has come to light in recent days of extrajudicial killings, torture, massacres of civilians, rape, and destruction of hospitals, schools and homes in Bucha and beyond. They did so despite the clear evidence that has come to light of war crimes and seemingly a genocide being carried out by Russian troops under the command of senior Russian military leaders. They did so despite, or perhaps because, they face similar accusations of grave human rights abuses in their own countries. To the neutral observer, having those states in Russia’s corner pretty much sounded the death knell for its continued membership of the UN’s main human rights body.

There was mention by some states of the need for the Human Rights Council to remain representative of the UN as a whole. In 2006, when the Council replaced the Commission, a key change was the membership. There is proportionate geographic representation at the Council, with regional groups allocated seats in proportion to their size. And of course that has resulted in human rights abusers being able to sit as members of the body. The soft membership criteria in the Council’s constituent instrument were supposed to guard against the gravest abusers seeking election to the Council, although it quickly became apparent that these were not sufficient to do that job. That being said, over the years some of the gravest abusers have stepped away from seeking election when it became clear that they would not be successful. But the suspension clause was designed to catch those who are members and then commit the worst atrocities. In this case, as with Libya in 2011, that suspension clause has deployed for exactly the right reasons.

But does this matter in the grander scheme of things? This step does shore up some legitimacy of the UN human rights system by ensuring that a gross and systemic abuser is not sitting on the main human rights body. But will it save even one Ukrainian from being raped, tortured or killed? Will it result in even one perpetrator being brought to justice? It is easy to take a defeatist approach to diplomacy and diplomatic matters at the UN. These things take time, and yet for the Ukrainians on the ground time is of the essence. But it does matter. It may be one small step in the condemnation of Russia. One small step in isolating a country that is increasingly being seen as a pariah state despite its political and military power. One small step to legitimising the UN and its mandate to protect and promote human rights. And one small step to supporting smaller states to stand up against grave human rights abusers (whether by voting for or abstaining on the resolution). There will be repercussions from Russia, but the UN has stood up and shown that there are lines that cannot be crossed even if the country doing so is one of the ‘great powers’.

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Nicolas Boeglin says

April 8, 2022

Dear Professor Freedman

Many thanks for this extremely useful post. In its letter circulated a few days before the vote, Russian diplomacy stated that:

"It is worth mentioning that not only support for such an initiative but also an equidistant position in the vote (abstention or non-participation) will be considered as an unfriendly gesture".

Taking into consideration the abstention of Brazil, China, India, Sudan and some others among the 58 abstentions and the 18 "No Show" including Venezuela in Latin America, I was wonder if we can from this vote see that all the 58 "absteners" + 18 "No Showers" being included automatically in the Russian official list of "hostiles" States. If it is the case for some of them, but not all of them, the "selection criteria" would be extremely interesting to know.

Yours sincerely

Nicolas Boeglin

Riccardo Pavoni says

April 8, 2022

Thank you for your post.
I do agree that the relevance of India's abstention should be singled out.
In Latin America, on the other hand, Bolivia and Nicaragua have in fact supported Russia by voting against, whereas Venezuela has been absent.
@ Nicolas Boeglin: China voted against, if I'm not mistaken...

Nicolas Boeglin says

April 8, 2022

Dear Riccardo

Many thanks for your very kind remark and the error I made concerning China.

Here a short note on this vote (in Spanish, sorry) with the China position correctly included:

Excepting Lybia in march 2011 and the "withdrawal" of the US in 2018 from HRC, any precedent you have in mind or some of our colleagues of an exclusion from the "Commission of Human Rights" working since 1946 until march 2006 (the ancestor of the new body named Council of Human Rights)?

Yours sincerely

Nicolas Boeglin

Nicolas Boeglin says

April 13, 2022

Dear Riccardo and EJIL colleagues

Here a note in English on recent UN vote suspending Russia membership. Anyone with more information on Russia' s delegate statement after the vote indicating that Russia has withdrawal from UNHRC?

Immediately after the vote, the Russian delegate indicated in his official statement at UN General Assembly that:

"his delegation made the decision to suspend its membership on the Human Rights Council, on 7 April, before the end of its term".

It is just to know when exactly this decision was taken by Russia: before, during or a few segonds after the vote.

Yours sincerely

Nicolas Boeglin