Russia to U.N. Members: You’re With Us or Against Us

Moscow will interpret a failure to vote against its ouster from the Human Rights Council as a show of support for the U.S.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
The United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva
The United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva
The United Nations Human Rights Council during a debate in Geneva on June 26, 2019. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

Russia, facing the likelihood of being suspended from the United Nations Human Rights Council on Thursday, on Wednesday issued a veiled threat to some member states: Failure to vote against Moscow’s ouster would be interpreted as a show of support for a U.S.-led campaign to isolate Russia.

The warning—which was expressed in a letter to select members obtained by Foreign Policy—raised concern among U.N. delegates that Moscow, which wields enormous diplomatic influence at the U.N., may retaliate against states that back the American-led initiative. The move comes as the United States and other Western allies are preparing the groundwork for a Thursday vote in the 193-member General Assembly that would expel Russia from the U.N.’s premier human rights body.

The Russian letter, sent to African, Asian, Latin American, and Caribbean nations, appears directed at smaller, developing countries seeking to avoid being drawn into the big-power fight over Ukraine. These nations are more likely to cast an abstention or decline to show up for the vote.

Russia, facing the likelihood of being suspended from the United Nations Human Rights Council on Thursday, on Wednesday issued a veiled threat to some member states: Failure to vote against Moscow’s ouster would be interpreted as a show of support for a U.S.-led campaign to isolate Russia.

The warning—which was expressed in a letter to select members obtained by Foreign Policy—raised concern among U.N. delegates that Moscow, which wields enormous diplomatic influence at the U.N., may retaliate against states that back the American-led initiative. The move comes as the United States and other Western allies are preparing the groundwork for a Thursday vote in the 193-member General Assembly that would expel Russia from the U.N.’s premier human rights body.

The Russian letter, sent to African, Asian, Latin American, and Caribbean nations, appears directed at smaller, developing countries seeking to avoid being drawn into the big-power fight over Ukraine. These nations are more likely to cast an abstention or decline to show up for the vote.

According to the Russian letter, the move to expel Russia from the rights council is “another step to punish our country for independent internal and foreign policy.” It is “in line with Western countries’ efforts to preserve their domination and total control in the world,” as well as their “‘human rights neocolonial’ policy in international affairs.” Moreover, the letter says, the move “will allow a small group of Western countries to unimpededly dictate their vision of human rights and to use human rights issues as an instrument of political pressure and punishment of ‘unfavorable’ states.”

It goes on to state, “an equidistant voting position (abstention or non-participation) will serve the goal of the United States and be considered accordingly by the Russian Federation.” The letter does not specify what the consequence of an abstention or non-vote would have on relations with Moscow, but one senior ambassador who read the letter said it signaled Russia’s intention to retaliate diplomatically against countries that did not support Moscow.

Following reports of Russian atrocities in the city of Bucha in Ukraine, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, on Monday said the United States would press for a vote in the General Assembly to suspend Russia’s membership. “Russia’s participation on the Human Rights Council is a farce,” Thomas-Greenfield said on a visit to Romania. “And it is wrong, which is why we believe it is time the UN General Assembly vote to remove them.”

Under the terms of a March 2006 resolution, the U.N. General Assembly can suspend a member of the Human Rights Council that “commits gross and systematic violations of human rights.”

As of Wednesday morning, about 50 countries had agreed to co-sponsor the resolution. The preliminary list of co-sponsors was dominated by Western governments. More than half the co-sponsors were European, and there was only a single African country: Liberia.

“What we’re hearing is it looks pretty clear Russia will get suspended,” said Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. director at Human Rights Watch. “I have heard Russia has been lobbying member states and warning them that even abstentions would be considered as hostile acts.”

“Given the evidence of war crimes and serious human rights violations committed by Russian forces in Bucha and elsewhere in Ukraine, it is essential that the U.N. and International Criminal Court move swiftly with their investigations to gather and preserve evidence,” Charbonneau added. “Suspension of Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council, a body it’s clearly unfit to be a member of, is an important step to holding Russian authorities accountable for their actions.”

In New York, Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia also protested a separate decision by his British counterpart, Barbara Woodward—who is serving this month as president of the U.N. Security Council—to invite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to brief the Security Council virtually Tuesday. Nebenzia argued that U.N. Security Council rules established after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic require that member state representatives address the council in person.

Nebenzia also characterized Woodward’s decision to allow the Ukrainian delegation to play a video of alleged Russian atrocities in the council as a “grave abuse” of her role as council president. “[S]uch practice undermines the foundation and spirit of the work of the UNSC. In-person participation, diplomacy and negotiations are the core principles of the UNSC and its Chamber,” he wrote in a letter to Woodward on Tuesday.

Nebenzia warned that further similar steps by the United Kingdom could risk having “implications on our future work and on the mood in the Council in general.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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