U.N. Kicks Russia Off Human Rights Council

In one way at least, so far, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has joined Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Gennady Kuzmin addresses the U.N. General Assembly.
Gennady Kuzmin addresses the U.N. General Assembly.
Gennady Kuzmin, Russia’s deputy permanent representative of the United Nations, addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Ukraine in New York City on April 7. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Putin’s War

The United Nations General Assembly voted Thursday to suspend Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council, the first time a country has been bounced from the U.N.’s premier rights body since 2011, when the government of former Libyan strongman, Muammar al-Qaddafi, was pushed out.

The 193-member assembly adopted a U.S.-sponsored resolution suspending Russia’s membership in the rights council for the commission of “gross and systematic violations of human rights.” The resolution was adopted by a vote of 93 to 24, with 58 abstentions.

The measure constituted a stunning rebuke of Russia, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council that wields enormous diplomatic influence at the United Nations. It came days after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered a chilling account to the U.N. Security Council of what he characterized as war crimes in the town of Bucha, Ukraine, following the withdrawal of Russian forces there. Following his talk, the Ukrainian delegation broadcast a brief video before the council documenting grisly scenes of civilian killings in cities across Ukraine.

The United Nations General Assembly voted Thursday to suspend Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council, the first time a country has been bounced from the U.N.’s premier rights body since 2011, when the government of former Libyan strongman, Muammar al-Qaddafi, was pushed out.

The 193-member assembly adopted a U.S.-sponsored resolution suspending Russia’s membership in the rights council for the commission of “gross and systematic violations of human rights.” The resolution was adopted by a vote of 93 to 24, with 58 abstentions.

The measure constituted a stunning rebuke of Russia, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council that wields enormous diplomatic influence at the United Nations. It came days after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered a chilling account to the U.N. Security Council of what he characterized as war crimes in the town of Bucha, Ukraine, following the withdrawal of Russian forces there. Following his talk, the Ukrainian delegation broadcast a brief video before the council documenting grisly scenes of civilian killings in cities across Ukraine.

The vote fell short of the overwhelming majority of U.N. members who ruled in March—by a vote of 141 to 5, with 35 abstentions—to condemn Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine and demand the withdrawal of its troops. But it still represented a significant outcome, contributing to Russia’s growing diplomatic isolation and denying it an opportunity to defend its activities in Ukraine as a member of the rights council.

Following the vote, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told journalist Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC that the vote was “historic” and “unprecedented” in that it was the first time a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council had been suspended from the rights council. “So many countries voted for the resolution, and we were successful in again isolating Russia, condemning Russia, and supporting the people of Ukraine,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

Still, the U.N. General Assembly’s vote underscored the continued ambivalence that many states—particularly in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia—have about rallying behind the United States and Europe in ratcheting up economic, political, and military pressure on Russia. The overwhelming majority of co-sponsors of the resolution came from Western powers, particularly Europeans, as well as close U.S. allies in Asia, including South Korea, Japan, and Singapore.

Mexico, which abstained on the vote, said shunning a U.N. member was counterproductive. “To exclude, to suspend, is not the solution,” Mexico’s U.N. ambassador, Juan Ramón de la Fuente, told the U.N. General Assembly. “Even in the midst of war, all channels should be maintained for dialogue with Russia.”

China’s U.N. envoy, Zhang Jun, expressed support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity but voted against the resolution, which was formally introduced by Ukraine. He warned the resolution would aggravate divisions among U.N. member states and “deprive” Russia of its legitimate seat on the rights council. It would simply “add fuel to the fire,” he said.

Although the United States secured the backing of Israel, which had previously declined to co-sponsor a U.S.-sponsored resolution in the days following the Russian invasion, its other allies in the Middle East—including Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—abstained. The vast majority of African nations—including Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Sudan—abstained on the vote, and nearly 10—including Algeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe—voted to block the initiative.

South Africa and Senegal expressed concern that suspending Russia’s membership in the council was premature, given that a Commission of Inquiry established by the U.N. Human Rights Council had yet to conclude its investigation into alleged atrocities.

After the vote, a Russian representative, Gennady Kuzmin, dismissed the resolution as an “illegitimate and politically motivated step with the aim of demonstrably punishing a sovereign member state of the U.N. conducting an independent domestic and foreign policy.”

Before today’s session, Russia on Wednesday issued a veiled threat to some member states: Failure to vote against Moscow’s ousting 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 United Nations, may retaliate against states that back the U.S.-led initiative. The Russian letter—sent to African, Asian, Latin American, and Caribbean nations—was directed at smaller, developing countries seeking to avoid being drawn into the big-power fight over Ukraine. Those nations are typically more likely to cast an abstention or decline to show up for a controversial vote that pits big powers against one another.

According to the Russian letter, the move to expel Russia from the rights council is “another step to punish our country for [conducting an] independent internal and foreign policy.” (Ukraine is a sovereign nation and is in no way part of Russia’s internal policy.) 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 went 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 did 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.

Washington moved toward the vote after seeing the evidence of Russian atrocities in Bucha, Ukraine, including the deliberate massacre of civilians by Russian troops. “Russia’s participation on the Human Rights Council is a farce,” Thomas-Greenfield said during a visit to Romania. “And it is wrong, which is why we believe it is time the U.N. 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.”

“I have heard Russia has been lobbying member states and warning them that even abstentions would be considered as hostile acts,” said Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. director at Human Rights Watch.

“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 Zelensky to brief the U.N. Security Council by videoconference. Nebenzia argued that U.N. Security Council (UNSC) rules established after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic require member state representatives address the council in person.

Nebenzia also characterized Woodward’s decision to allow the Ukrainian delegation to play the 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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