Russia Is Denied a Seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council

By John Mercury October 11, 2023

Russia failed to regain a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council after a majority of countries in the General Assembly voted against it on Tuesday, a sign that support for international efforts to isolate Moscow for its war in Ukraine remains significant after nearly 20 months of fighting.

Russia lost the vote for the two council seats allocated to Eastern European countries — to Albania and Bulgaria, both supporters of Ukraine. Still, Moscow managed to secure 83 votes in its favor — just under half of the assembly — indicating its hopes the international community will move on from the war are not entirely unfounded.

“It does support the Russian argument that they are not quite as isolated at the U.N. as they seem,” said Richard Gowan, a United Nations analyst for the International Crisis Group.

The vote was the latest test of a Western-led campaign to diplomatically isolate Moscow for its assault on Ukraine. Since the start of the full-scale invasion last year, nearly 150 countries have backed United Nations resolutions demanding that Russia unconditionally withdraw from Ukraine, and several dozen nations have imposed economic sanctions on Moscow.

But many countries have remained neutral, seeing the conflict as primarily a European and American problem, and the Russian economy has proved to be more resilient than expected, mitigating the impact of the sanctions. As the war drags on, concerns are mounting that support for Ukraine will wane, allowing Russia to potentially improve its military performance and gradually improve its place on the international stage.

Created in 2006, the Geneva-based council is regarded as the world’s most important human rights body. While it has no criminal enforcement or sanctioning powers, the council can undertake investigations that help shape the global image of countries. It can also try to influence a country’s behavior if it is deemed to have poor rights records.

Russia had been active in council proceedings, challenging resolutions critical of allies such as Syria and Belarus, and proposing amendments aimed at undercutting a wide range of rights initiatives.

But last year, less than two months after it invaded Ukraine, Russia was suspended from the council in a U.N. General Assembly vote. It was only the second country to lose its membership on the council, after Libya — a diplomatic blow to Moscow and a success for American-led efforts to isolate it.

The suspension came in response to Russia’s indiscriminate bombings in Ukraine and killing and torture of civilians by Russian forces in the suburbs of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. Since then, rights groups, including the council itself, have documented what they say are Russian war crimes in Ukraine, such as unlawful attacks on civilians and the systematic torture of prisoners.

But with the war approaching its 20th month, support for continued aid to Ukraine is waning in several countries.

Some African nations have complained that the West’s attention has been consumed by the war in Ukraine and argued that it should refocus on issues of interest to the developing continent, including food security and climate change. There are also concerns that the United States, Ukraine’s leading supplier of weapons in the war, could pull back from its support of Kyiv.

Russia’s bid to rejoin the council appeared to be part of its strategy to capitalize on this war fatigue and drive a wedge between the West and the rest of the world over the war in Ukraine.

Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, has accused the United States of using the council to undermine Russia. “The Human Rights Council must be protected from misuse as a tool for settling political scores and from practice of double standards,” Mr. Nebenzia said at a reception last Thursday to gather support for his country’s candidacy.

Mr. Gowan, from the International Crisis Group, said Western diplomats had warned in recent weeks that Russia may be able to secure enough votes to return to the council. In response, Western nations and rights groups campaigned to draw attention to Russia’s record of brutality in Ukraine.

“Russian forces in Ukraine continue to commit apparent war crimes, including unlawful attacks and mistreatment of prisoners, and crimes against humanity, including torture, summary executions, and enforced disappearances against civilians,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement last week.

Many countries and rights groups also said that Russia’s re-election to the body would be a blow to the U.N.’s efforts to promote peace.

“Putting the torturer of Ukrainians on a world human rights body would be a travesty of justice,” Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a Geneva-based nongovernmental organization monitoring the United Nations, said in a statement.

U.S. deputy ambassador to the U.N. Robert Wood told a Security Council meeting last week that “Russia’s re-election to that body, while it openly continues to commit war crimes and other atrocities would be an ugly stain that would undermine the credibility of the institution and the United Nations.”

The meeting was called by Ukraine after it claimed that Russia had hit a small village with a missile that killed more than 50 people — one of the deadliest missile strikes of the war.

Mr. Gowan said that Tuesday’s vote showed that “Ukraine’s friends are still the biggest force at the U.N.”

But he added that the 83 votes in favor of Russia — more than twice the number of countries that opposed or abstained from supporting a U.N. resolution that strongly condemned the war shortly after it began — also indicated that more and more countries were ready to move past the conflict and focus on protecting their own interests.

“It’s a minor success for Moscow,” Mr. Gowan said.


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