Russia loses vote to rejoin UN’s top human rights body despite Putin’s charm offensive with stolen grain

By Isaac M October 11, 2023

Russia’s desperate bid to rejoin the UN’s top human rights body with a charm offensive involving stolen Ukrainian grain and arms was defeated by a significant majority in a General Assembly vote on Tuesday.

Russia received 83 votes from the 193-member UN, significantly more than the 24 countries who supported Moscow when it was booted out of the Human Rights Council in another vote more than one year ago.

Russia was competing against Albania and Bulgaria for two seats on the Geneva-based UNHRC, representing the East European regional group. Bulgaria secured 160 votes, Albania received 123, while the Vladimir Putin-led nation managed only 83.

In the run up to the voting, Russia made efforts to lure African allies and other friendly nations with stolen Ukrainian grain and arms in exchange for their votes – a charm offensive that experts said could work on some nations in need of the bartered goods.

Moscow had claimed it had support from a silent majority at the UN, something which Tuesday’s vote shows was not the case. But experts said even its ability to win over 83 countries shows it maintains a surprisingly high level of support on the international arena.

“I think the Russians will be pleased that they persuaded a sizable minority of UN members to back them (which) suggests that Moscow is not a total pariah in the UN system, despite repeated Western criticism,” Richard Gowan, UN director of the International Crisis Group, said.

That said, the US and Ukraine’s allies were still able to ensure that Albania and Bulgaria swept the contest for the two seats, he said.

“So, Kyiv’s friends still have a solid majority in the assembly,” Mr Gowan said.Yousuf Syed Khan, senior lawyer at Global Rights Compliance, said that declining to accept Russia’s bid for HRC membership “means that vulnerable member states were not assuaged by Russia’s bid to provide arms and grain in exchange for votes”.

“Today, Ukrainians and the world community alike can welcome this glaring diplomatic success,” he told The Independent.

The US and its allies had discouraged many of the UN General Assembly’s members and asked them to vote against Russia, the diplomats aware of Moscow’s attempts to woo nations with grains said.

US deputy ambassador Robert Wood told the Security Council that Russia’s re-election “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”.

Russian envoy to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, accused the US of preventing Russia’s return to the council with its campaign.

“The main phobia of our American colleagues today is electing Russia to the Human Rights Council,” he told a Security Council meeting called by Ukraine on last week’s strike by a Russian missile on a Ukrainian soldier’s wake in a small village that killed 52 people.

Experts have called it a near-unprecedented event where the UN body has acted consistently for 18 months to suspend a member nation.

“It is close to unprecedented that the UN Human Rights Council acted as it did 18 months ago, it being only the second time in the Council’s history that a member has been suspended for committing ‘gross and systematic violations of human rights’,” said Catriona Murdoch, partner at international human rights law firm Global Rights Compliance.

She added that the impact of this war on civilians and “the apocalyptic devastation it is leaving meant the stakes were higher with this vote”.

The other closely watched race was in the Asia group where four countries – China, Japan, Kuwait and Indonesia – were candidates for four seats. While all were expected to reach the majority of votes needed and therefore gain a seat each, some rights groups campaigned hard against Beijing and the size of the vote was closely watched.

Indonesia topped the ballot with 186 votes followed by Kuwait with 183 votes and Japan with 175. China was last with 154 votes.

Additional reporting by agencies

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