The United Nations General Assembly on 7 April, 2022 suspended Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council, based in Geneva, over reports of “gross and systematic violations and abuses of human rights” by invading Russian troops in Ukraine. The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them.
The March 2006 resolution that established the Human Rights Council says the General Assembly of the United Nations may suspend membership rights of a country “that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights”. Members of the Human Rights Council are countries that are elected for a three-year term.
The U.S.-led push garnered 93 votes in favour, while 24 countries voted no and 58 countries abstained. A two-thirds majority of voting members in the 193-member General Assembly in New York, abstentions do not count, was needed to suspend Russia from the 47-member Geneva-based Human Rights Council.
How is a country suspended in the Human Rights Council?
Suspensions are rare. Russia is only the second country to have its membership rights stripped at the Human Rights Council which was established in 2006. The assembly suspended Libya in 2011, because of violence against protesters by forces loyal to the then-leader Muammar Gaddafi, during upheaval in the North African country.
It was the third resolution adopted by the 193-member General Assembly since Russia invaded neighbouring Ukraine on Feb. 24. The two previous General Assembly resolutions denouncing Russia were adopted with 141 and 140 votes in favour.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield introduced this new proposal following accusations that Russian troops tortured and killed Ukrainian civilians in Bucha. She said that Russia’s membership on the council hurts its credibility, “undermines the entire U.N. and it is just plain wrong.”
The Resolution adopted on 7 April 2022, expresses “grave concern at the ongoing human rights and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, particularly at the reports of violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law by the Russian Federation, including gross and systematic violations and abuses of human rights”.
President Zelenskyy called, earlier this week, for a Nuremberg-style tribunal to investigate and prosecute Russian war crimes. “The Russian military and those who gave them orders must be brought to justice immediately for war crimes in Ukraine,” he said in his nearly 20-minute speech before the United Nations Security Council. Zelenskyy’s appearance before the international body followed Ukrainian claims that at least 300 civilians were tortured and killed in Bucha by Russian troops.
Over the weekend, the Russian invasion sparked renewed global outrage as horrific images emerged of bodies scattered across the streets, some with their hands tied and gunshot wounds to the back of the head. On 5 April, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance is working with the International Criminal Court to investigate Russian war crimes in Ukraine. “Targeting and murdering civilians is a war crime. All the facts must be established and all those responsible for these atrocities must be brought to justice,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
Russia says it is carrying out a “special military operation” that aims to destroy Ukraine’s military infrastructure and denies attacking civilians. Ukraine and allies say Moscow invaded without provocation.
Russia had warned countries that a yes vote or abstention will be viewed as an “unfriendly gesture” with consequences for bilateral ties.
Russia was in its second year of a three-year term on the Geneva-based council, which decisions are only recommendations and not legally binding on Member States. However, the decisions of the Human Rights Council send important political messages, and it can even authorize investigations into alleged human rights abuses committed by governments. Last year, the Council published a high-profile report on Lybia for example. Click here for my article here.
Moscow is one of the most vocal members on the Human Rights council and its suspension bars it from speaking and voting, officials say, although its diplomats could still attend debates. Last year, Russia has prevented a high-profile investigation to be voted on the human rights situation in Yemen.
Last month the Human Rights Council opened an investigation into allegations of rights violations, including possible war crimes, in Ukraine since Russia’s attack in February 2022.
Speaking before the vote, Ukraine’s U.N. Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya said a yes vote would “save the Human Rights Council and many lives around the world and in Ukraine,” but a no vote was “pulling a trigger, and means a red dot on the screen – red as the blood of the innocent lives lost.”
Belarus, China, Iran, Russia and Syria were among the U.N. members that voted against the resolution. India abstained from voting.
The United States announced it would seek Russia’s suspension after Ukraine accused Russian troops of killing hundreds of civilians in the town of Bucha. Bucha’s deputy mayor said around 50 bodies were found after Russian forces withdrew were the victims of extra-judicial killings by Russian troops. This is must be subject to independent investigations, because nobody knows who is behind the killings. Ukraine said that it will use all “available UN mechanisms” to collect evidence on Russia’s crimes in the country.
Russia’s deputy U.N. Ambassador Gennady Kuzmin said now was not the time for “theatrical performances” and accused Western countries and allies of trying to “destroy existing human rights architecture.” “We reject the untruthful allegations against us based on staged events and widely circulated fakes,” Kuzmin told the General Assembly before the vote, defending Russia’s record as a Human Rights Council member. It is very saddened that Russia continues to deny human rights violations committed against civilians during its military intervention in the territory of a souverain state, Ukraine.
After abstaining on the previous two General Assembly votes, Russia’s partner China opposed the resolution Thursday. “Such a hasty move at the General Assembly, which forces countries to choose sides, will aggravate the division among member states, intensify the confrontation between the parties concerned – it is like adding fuel to the fire,” China’s U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun said before the vote.