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Russia’s Bid to Rejoin the Human Rights Council Draws Heaps of Scorn


Russia is running for a seat in the Human Rights Council, after being ousted in April 2022 by the General Assembly and despite massive documentation by United Nations and other experts alleging Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Here, a scene in September 2022 after the liberation of Izium, in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine, where local residents had buried civilians and troops killed during the battle that freed the city from Russian occupation. Investigators began exhuming the bodies within days of winning back the territory. NATIONAL POLICE OF UKRAINE/CREATIVE COMMONS

Despite its status as an international pariah over its invasion of Ukraine and strong opposition from dozens of countries at the United Nations, Russia is seeking to reclaim a seat on the Human Rights Council in an election slated for October. Russia was suspended from the body in April 2022, in the middle of its three-year term, by a vote in the General Assembly amid mounting accusations of war crimes.

The United States has called Russia’s candidacy “preposterous,” and the US-based Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights is calling on UN members to reject Russia’s bid.

Russia, which withdrew from the Geneva-based Human Rights Council when it was on the verge of being expelled by the General Assembly in April 2022, said it would work to strengthen human rights globally, according to its “commitment document,” seen by PassBlue.  

Asked why Russia was running for a seat again, Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, said to PassBlue, “Well, why not?” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, however, didn’t mention his country’s candidacy in his Sept. 23 General Assembly speech — even though his office, in Moscow, would normally be directing the campaign through its envoy in Geneva.

In the latest report by the UN’s independent commission of inquiry on Ukraine, introduced to the Human Rights Council on Sept. 23, Erik Mose, chair of the commission, said that it was “concerned by the continuous evidence of war crimes committed by the Russian armed forces in Ukraine.”

The commission, he added, is doing “more in-depth investigations regarding unlawful attacks with explosive weapons, attacks affecting civilians, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, and attacks on energy infrastructure.”

A separate report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), released in April 2023, documented continuing Russian violations of human rights and international humanitarian laws and war crimes, including attacks on civilians and infrastructure, killings, rape, torture and unlawful deportations of children. President Vladimir Putin has been accused of committing war crimes by the International Criminal Court, which issued an arrest warrant for him earlier this year. He remains a global outlaw.

Meanwhile, the full-scale war that Russia launched in Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, has claimed 17,535 civilian casualties as of Sept. 10, according to the OHCHR, although it said that the real numbers could be higher. The number of soldiers killed or wounded on both sides is estimated to be about 500,000, as of mid-August, with Russian dead around 120,000 out of 300,000 casualties, and Ukrainian dead at 70,000 out of 200,000 casualties.

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“Russia has committed violations of international humanitarian law in Ukraine and violations and abuses of human rights in Russia,” the US State Department said in an email to PassBlue, “including the arbitrary arrests of Russians endeavoring to exercise their freedom of expression to condemn Putin’s brutal war.”

But Randa Siniora, a Palestinian activist and human rights advocate based in the West Bank, accused the US of hypocrisy for its criticism of Russia’s human rights violations. She pointed out to PassBlue in an interview that the US continued to back Israel, despite its human rights violations committed against Palestinians.

Indeed, the Human Rights Council has been repeatedly accused by a range of nongovernmental organizations and countries of being biased and hampered with deep imperfections, yet it remains the largest international entity promoting human rights.

“We know that the Human Rights Council is always manipulated by states,” Siniora said. “So there are always political considerations taken into account and never a pure conviction in human rights principles to which the Council is there for.”

Robert Wood, an alternate US ambassador to the UN, told PassBlue in an interview in July that the US realized that dealing with human rights violations in different places requires different approaches.

“Whether it’s Israel, whether it’s Myanmar, there are these challenges regarding human rights protection, and the US has always spoken out on them,” Wood said. “Sometimes it’s better to deal with some of these issues in private, sometimes it’s better to be public. We do try to look for the most effective way to influence the human rights situation in a positive way, and that’s not always possible to do in every country.”

Russia is challenging Albania and Bulgaria for the three open seats in the 47-member Human Rights Council allotted to the Eastern Europe bloc, each to serve a three-year term starting in January 2024. Council membership is based on equitable geographical distribution based on the UN’s regional blocs, with 13 seats reserved for African states, 13 for Asia-Pacific, 8 for Latin American and Caribbean, 7 for Western Europe and others (including Israel and the US), and 6 for Eastern Europe.

Freedom House says that Albania and Bulgaria have functioning democracies but struggle with corruption and organized crime. (Albania is a member of the Security Council through Dec. 31.)

Russia’s suspension from the Human Rights Council attracted much media attention, as it was the first time a permanent member of the Security Council, the UN’s most prestigious body, was evicted from the Geneva organization. On May 10, 2022, the General Assembly elected Czechia (Czech Republic) as a member of the Human Rights Council for the rest of Russia’s term, beginning on May 10, 2022, and ending on Dec. 31, 2023.

“I am glad to see that there will be a competitive election for the two East European seats,” Felice Gaer, director of the Blaustein Institute, told PassBlue. “This will give member states an opportunity to do the right thing: to vote in favor of other candidates and, thus, oppose Russia’s candidacy. Russia’s abuses are not limited to Ukraine.”

“Russia’s civil society, independent media and political opposition have been dramatically weakened,” Gaer added. “The number of political prisoners and wrongly detained individuals has increased, and many have been compelled to flee the country or curtail their work.”

The General Assembly ousted Russia from the Human Rights Council through a US-led resolution backed by 93 countries. Russia, China, Belarus, Syria and Iran were among the 24 countries to vote against it, while 58 countries, including India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, abstained.

The US push to remove Russia from the Geneva body was triggered when the American envoy to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, traveling in Romania in early April  2022, accused Russia of war crimes after images and other documentation emerged showing civilians allegedly executed by Russian soldiers in Bucha, Irpin and other cities near Kyiv.

Some UN observers say Russia’s move to be elected again to the Council is an attempt to show its influence internationally.

“It’s a demonstration to show that Russia is a major player that has a following globally,” Jeff Laurenti, a foreign affairs analyst formerly with the Century Foundation, told PassBlue. “It is important to the Kremlin that Russia shows that it still punches above the weight of most countries, and when it presents as a permanent member of the Security Council for a UN body like the Human Rights Council, countries will defer to it.”

“And let’s face it,” Laurenti added, “saints rarely win elections.”

If Russia wins a seat, the election will automatically nullify its 2022 suspension, but Laurenti said he doubted that Russia has the support to secure the majority vote — or 93 ballots — needed in the General Assembly.

Albania’s ambassador to the UN, Ferit Hoxha, told PassBlue that countries who voted for Russia’s suspension will not let it back in as long as its war in Ukraine lasts. Albania announced its own candidacy on March 3.

Bulgaria, with its candidacy messages of fighting discrimination and hate speech as well as promoting the empowerment of women and girls and gender equality, is aiming to return to the Council for a second term, said Lachezara Stoeva, Bulgaria’s ambassador to the UN in New York City.

Although Russia’s political influence has dwindled globally since its began attacking Ukraine last year, it still maintains a reservoir of support from African countries, two-thirds of which abstained from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the General Assembly’s emergency session on March 2, 2022, just weeks after Russia unleashed its troops on its neighbor. Twenty-eight African countries sided with Ukraine and 17 abstained. Only Eritrea voted with Russia.

Experts such as Laurenti and Brett Schaefer, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said that if Russia prevailed in its bid for a Human Rights Council seat, it would not be the only country with a history of severe rights violations sitting in the body.

The Council is not exactly a church of the saved for the saved, Laurenti noted, and numerous current members do not have pristine human rights records, either.

Morocco, a current and founding member, occupies the contested region of Western Sahara in North Africa and refuses to negotiate over the promised UN referendum for Sahrawi citizens. Morocco’s military occupies the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a ​​non-self-governing territory recognized by at least 45 UN member states and the African Union. The UN’s mission in Western Sahara, called Minurso, was created to hold the referendum decades ago. It has never happened.

Israel, a past member of the Council that is accused of human rights violations against Palestinians by an array of independent experts and parties, endorsed Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara territories. This has worsened the hostility in the region.

UN member states have also accused Beijing, which is a Council member through Dec. 31 but is running for re-election, of committing genocide against ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang Province. A 2022 report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded that “serious human rights violations” against the Uyghurs and “other predominantly Muslim communities” have been committed by the Chinese government.

The Council needs to be more independent to deliver its mandates, Schaefer wrote on GIS, a geopolitical advisory firm. He argued that the resolution establishing the Council sets minimal criteria for election. A country’s human rights record, no matter how terrible, does not disqualify it from running for a seat, however, so voting on candidates is hard to predict, especially by secret ballot.

This article was updated on Sept. 28 to correct that countries are elected to the Human Rights Council by a majority (93) of the members of the General Assembly. Membership can be suspended, however, by a two-thirds majority of the Assembly.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on Russia aiming for a Human Rights Council seat again?

Damilola Banjo is a reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.

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Russia’s Bid to Rejoin the Human Rights Council Draws Heaps of Scorn
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6 months ago

“Perhaps PassBlue is unaware that last year the Human Rights Council appointed a Special Rapporteur to report on the human rights situation inside Russia. This is the first time a P-5 member has had such an investigation. Her report A/HRC/54/54 was presented last week to the Human Rights Council and she will present it to the General Assembly on October 25, unfortunately after the vote on Russia’s candidacy to the Council. The report makes chilling reading. It would have been pertinent to include some of its observations in your article as it is not just in Ukraine that Russian authorities are committing human rights violations, but in Russia itself.”

Susan Markham

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