On Tuesday, Russia will attempt to regain a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, viewing it as a gauge of the perceived backing for its membership, despite facing strong condemnation from Western nations due to the Ukraine invasion. Russia, which was expelled from the Geneva-based organization following its invasion of Ukraine last year, will be subject to a General Assembly vote for a potential new seat in the 2024-2026 term. The upcoming vote follows a recent tragic incident in which over 50 lives were lost due to a Russian missile strike on the Ukrainian village of Groza.
When it comes to voting for members of the Human Rights Council, the dynamics are more complex, as certain nations with their own checkered human rights records may feel uneasy about endorsing punitive measures. This vote will be conducted through a confidential secret ballot, serving as a test of Russia’s claim that it enjoys covert support from nations in the Global South.
Last week, the Russian Mission to the UN hosted a reception in New York to garner support for its candidacy to the council. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia conveyed that Russia is prepared to persist in advancing human rights as a component in the process of bringing together states and groups of states, emphasizing the importance of cooperation rather than discord, pressure, or guidance in this regard.
However, senior U.S. diplomat Robert Wood expressed concerns that Russia’s reelection to the body, despite its ongoing engagement in war crimes and other atrocities, could tarnish the credibility of both the institution and the United Nations.
What is the UN Human Rights Council?
The United Nations Human Rights Council is a critical international body established in 2006 to safeguard and promote human rights worldwide. With 47 member states, its primary role is to monitor how well countries are upholding human rights within their borders. It serves as a global forum for addressing human rights issues, conducting reviews of the human rights records of UN member states, and making recommendations for improving human rights situations in various countries. The UNHRC plays a crucial role in advancing the universal principles of human rights, including civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights.
This is done through various mechanisms, including reviewing reports and discussing pressing human rights issues. The UNHRC also appoints special experts and groups to investigate and report on specific concerns, such as freedom of speech, torture, and discrimination.
The UNHRC plays an indispensable role in advancing global human rights standards. It provides a platform for dialogue, raises awareness about human rights violations, and encourages countries to improve their human rights practices. While not without flaws, the council remains a vital force in the ongoing pursuit of universal human rights and dignity.
Russia’s History with the UNHRC
Russia was one of the founding members of the UNHRC when it was established in 2006. However, over the years, its actions and policies have sparked significant scrutiny from the international community.
One of the most notable moments in Russia’s relationship with the UNHRC was its expulsion from the council in 2020. This expulsion came as a consequence of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and the subsequent conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The international community, particularly Western nations, condemned Russia’s actions and accused it of violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and human rights. As a result, Russia’s membership was not renewed, and it lost its seat on the council.
Despite its expulsion, Russia had continued to engage with the UNHRC on various human rights issues. It often defended its own record on human rights and criticized what it perceives as Western bias in the council’s actions. Russia has also used its position in other United Nations bodies, such as the Security Council, to influence decisions related to human rights issues, sometimes leading to tensions and disagreements within the UN system.
In April 2022, Russia faced suspension from the Human Rights Council, with 93 members of the UN General Assembly voting in favor, 24 opposing, and 58 choosing to abstain.
The vote will consist of all 193 members of the UN General Assembly in New York. Diplomats stationed there noted Russia’s vigorous campaign, which includes offering small countries incentives such as grain and arms in exchange for their votes.
Russia’s central argument revolves around its intention to use its potential membership to prevent what it views as a growing tendency within the HRC to become an instrument that aligns solely with the political interests of a particular group of countries. It asserts that it does not wish for this group to penalize governments that pursue independent and external policies.
Russia & Human Rights
Russia has faced criticism for its stance on LGBTQ+ rights. In 2013, the Russian government passed a law that broadly bans “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships among minors,” which many human rights organizations and international bodies viewed as discriminatory against the LGBTQ+ community. This law has led to concerns about discrimination, harassment, and violence against LGBTQ+ individuals in Russia.
Many observers argue that Russia’s political environment lacks genuine competition and freedom. The government, under President Vladimir Putin, has been accused of suppressing political opposition and limiting the ability of opposition parties to operate effectively. Elections have faced allegations of irregularities and lack of transparency. Moreover, government has taken steps to exert control over various aspects of society, including the media, the internet, and civil society organizations. Laws regulating the internet, foreign-funded NGOs, and media ownership have raised concerns about freedom of expression and civil liberties in Russia.
Domestic violence poses a significant threat to women’s rights in Russia. In January 2017, Russia decriminalized non-severe domestic violence for first-time offenders, which often covers long-time abusers since many victims don’t report their abuse. Police frequently overlook domestic disturbance calls and discourage criminal prosecution, placing the burden on victims. This decriminalization has made statistics unreliable, but it’s clear that many cases don’t reach the courts. When women cannot rely on legal protection for their physical safety, it jeopardizes their overall rights.
A United Nations expert has reported a significant deterioration in the human rights situation in Russia following its invasion of Ukraine in February of the previous year. The expert, Special Rapporteur Mariana Katzarova, has described this deterioration as a “systematic crackdown” on civil society and has called for measures to address these concerns. In her report, Special Rapporteur Mariana Katzarova has alleged that Russian authorities have engaged in widespread and arbitrary arrests of individuals critical of the Russia-Ukraine war. She further emphasizes that those detained are facing severe risks to their lives due to the “continual use of torture and ill-treatment” by the authorities.
The OHCHR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights) disclosed on December 2, 2022, that it had gathered evidence on 86 instances of conflict-related sexual violence. These cases encompassed acts such as rape, gang rape, forced nudity, and coerced public stripping, with the majority attributed to individuals within the Russian armed forces or police authorities.
The ongoing conflict in Ukraine continues to have devastating consequences for millions of women and girls. They face heightened risks of experiencing gender-based violence, sexual exploitation, and abuse, in addition to grappling with the loss of essential sources of income and the escalation of poverty. Moreover, the extensive damage to infrastructure has rendered services such as healthcare and critical support for survivors of violence inaccessible to a significant portion of the population.
Amidst mounting reports that contribute to the increasing body of evidence detailing international crimes, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and even genocide, committed during Putin’s war on Ukraine, Russia is actively seeking to reclaim its seat at the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Allowing Russia to regain its seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council would send a deeply concerning message to the international community. This decision could have far-reaching implications, not just for Russia and Ukraine but for the global order as a whole. The U.N. Human Rights Council is responsible for monitoring and addressing human rights abuses and violations worldwide. Allowing Russia to rejoin despite credible evidence of international crimes in Ukraine would undermine the council’s credibility and its mission to hold violators accountable.
Most importantly, this decision would have a direct impact on the victims of human rights abuses and conflict, majorly those in Ukraine. It could signal that their suffering and the crimes committed against them are not taken seriously on the global stage, potentially discouraging reporting of abuses and hindering efforts to seek justice.