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Human rights vote at U.N. highlights stark divisions over Russia

Screens show results from voting on April 7 by the United Nations General Assembly as member countries passed a resolution to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council because of its invasion of Ukraine and over allegations of human rights abuses by its troops. (Jason Szenes/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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The U.N. General Assembly’s Thursday vote suspending Russia from the body’s Human Rights Council drew a newly clear delineation of the global order in ways that seemed to go far beyond allegations of Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

On one side, 95 nations — just slightly more than half the U.N. membership, but enough to reach the necessary two-thirds of those casting a vote — supported the resolution backed by the United States and dozens of others. The total included members of NATO and the European Union, some small Pacific island nations and much of Latin America.

With their votes, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said, “the international community took one collective step in the right direction.” Calling the vote an “important and historic moment” she said it “sent a strong message that the suffering of victims and survivors will not be ignored.”

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But the total was a significant reduction from the 141 that voted in favor of last month’s nonbinding General Assembly measure condemning Russia’s “aggression” in Ukraine.

On the other side, the 24 countries that opposed Thursday’s action — compared to five last month — included China, Iran, Vietnam, Algeria, Ethiopia, much of Central Asia and Cuba, all of which had previously abstained.

“We firmly oppose the politicization of human rights issues” and “double standards,” China’s representative said. Introduced days after images circulated of dead civilians lying in the streets of the Kyiv suburb of Bucha following Russian troop withdrawals, the suspension resolution “was not drafted in an open and transparent manner,” he said, and “forces countries to choose sides.”

Most striking was Thursday’s 58 abstentions by those who declined to choose sides in a way that some said would undermine the U.N. system itself. They including all but a handful of African nations and the entire Persian Gulf. Many of the abstainers strongly condemned what was happening in Ukraine, and seemed to have little doubt about who was responsible.

But most expressed unease over adjudicating it, however credible and horrifying the allegations of torture and intentional killing of civilians, before the charges had been fully investigated by U.N. and other inquiries already initiated to do just that.

Singapore, which voted last month in favor of condemnation and whose prime minister visited with President Biden last week at the White House, said it was “gravely concerned and distressed” by recent reports and images from Bucha. But it explained its Thursday abstention as support for the “independent, international commission of inquiry” that the Human Rights Council has already established to investigate the alleged human rights abuses, and urged all countries to cooperate with it.

Some abstainers, many with their own human rights problems, argued that the suspension vote set a bad precedent, and would make an already bad situation worse. Saudi Arabia, which supported last month’s resolution, called the Russian suspension “an escalatory step” and “a form of politicization of the work of the council … that gives certain [countries] more rights than others.”

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Russia’s deputy ambassador, Gennady Kuzmin, called the resolution “human rights colonialism,” and an “attempt by the United States to maintain its dominant position and total control in international relations” at the expense of smaller states.

“Today is not the time or the place for theatrics, or these kinds of extremely theatrical performances” with “no relationship to the actual situation on the ground” in Ukraine, Kuzmin said. He called on members to “really consider your decision and vote against the West’s attempt … to destroy the [U.N.'s] human rights architecture.”

That architecture, centered in the Human Rights Council, historically has been one of the most troubled edifices in the U.N. system, long accused of the kind of pressure to take sides that some charged underlay the suspension vote.

Established in 2006, it was a replacement for the Commission on Human Rights, one of the founding organs created by the U.N. charter after World War II. One of the commissions first tasks was appointing a drafting committee for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But by the turn of the century, the commission had fallen into disrepute, accused of bias, with a membership that included numerous alleged rights abusers and procedures that often descended into finger-pointing and shouting matches.

The newly created council was intended to address those problems. Its 47 members are chosen by regional groups of nations, and approved by the General Assembly for terms of three years, with no member serving more than two consecutive terms. In meetings several times a year, it is designed to closely coordinate its work of monitoring and promoting adherence to human rights and humanitarian law with the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The council’s founding resolution commits all members to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” It includes a paragraph outlining the suspension procedure for any member that “commits gross and systematic violations” of such rights, a provision utilized in 2011 to suspend Libya in the wake of Moammar Gaddafi’s violent crackdown on anti-Government protesters.

Libya’s suspension gave rise to persistent questions about the same problems that had plagued the commission — the presence of alleged abusers on the council in the first place.

Many smaller and less powerful countries believe the council gives them an outlet to stand against big powers such as the United States. For a series of U.S. administrations, that led to outrage over repeated votes against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, and a reluctance to criticize countries that the United States opposed.

In 2018, President Donald Trump, as part of his broader effort to separate the United States from international institutions, withdrew from the council in protest of its censure of Israel and failure to criticize countries out of U.S. favor.

The Biden administration rejoined the council last year, arguing, as had a number of its predecessors, that the United States could have more influence from within than outside the organization. The current membership, even without Russia, includes a number of U.S.-designated problem nations, including Eritrea, Cuba and China.

“It was Russia today, but tomorrow it could be any of our members,” Cuba’s representative said in opposing the suspension resolution. “Could this Assembly some day adopt a resolution suspending the membership of the United States in the Human Rights Council? We all know that has not happened, nor will it” despite U.S. invasions and sanctions over the years.

Brazil, which abstained, said the various inquiries should be allowed to complete their work. “Only then, would this General Assembly be in a position to better assess” Russia’s alleged crimes, the Brazilian delegate said. “We must at all cost avoid repeating the mistakes of the old commission.”

When the voting concluded, Russia asked again for the floor to say that it did not want to be a member of a council that “is in fact monopolized by one group of states who use it for their short-term aims,” and had already resigned. That brought challenges from Britain, whose delegate said it “sounds like someone who’s just been fired tendering their resignation.”

Seeing a silver lining, the British diplomat noted that while suspension would keep the seat open, withdrawal would trigger a new election by the Eastern Europe regional group, and the opportunity for a new member “who will genuinely promote human rights to take that seat.”

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