Continuing its emergency special session today, the General Assembly took the extraordinary step of adopting a resolution that suspended the Russian Federation’s membership in the Human Rights Council, doing so in the wake of recently revealed images and testimonies of atrocities perpetrated against the civilian population of Ukraine.
The Assembly adopted the draft resolution by a recorded vote of 93 in favour to 24 against, with 58 abstentions, signaling the international community’s strong censure of Moscow’s aggressive actions towards a neighbouring State.
By the text, the Assembly expressed its grave concern at the ongoing human rights and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, noting that the violations were of such a degree that the Russian Federation must forfeit its membership in the intergovernmental body until such time as a review is considered appropriate.
Ukraine’s delegate, introducing the text, drew a clear, straight line from the brutalities being carried out in his country to the genocide perpetrated in Rwanda in 1994, the harbingers of which, he said, were “largely ignored” by the United Nations Secretariat. He underscored further parallels, including the fact that Rwanda was a non-permanent member of the Security Council at the time and used its seat as a pulpit for its “genocidal regime”. By the same token, the Russian Federation has instrumentalized its place on that organ “to spread lies almost daily”, he cautioned.
He went on to delineate the atrocities uncovered in the wake of Moscow’s withdrawal from Bucha and other Ukrainian cities and villages, describing a scene where “thousands of peaceful residents have been killed, tortured, raped and abducted and robbed by the Russian army”.
Warning delegates not to abstain on the vote, he quoted the words of writer and Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel, who in 1999 cautioned that “Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning — it is an end. And indifference is always a friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor, never his victim whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten.” Noting that the resolution had been drafted by a cross-regional group of two dozen States and co-sponsored by more than 50, he said that voting “yes” would allow delegates to prove they were not the indifferent bystanders that Mr. Wiesel cautioned against.
Speaking after the adoption of the resolution and the suspension of its Human Rights Council membership rights, the Russian Federation’s representative said that his country had decided to suspend its membership of that body before the end of its term. It was taking this step, he said, because that Council has been hijacked by one group of States for its own purposes. He underscored that his country could not remain as part of a mechanism that enables States to blackmail others for their own purposes, especially as those same States had blatantly violated human rights for years.
Several representatives questioned the statement made by the Russian Federation’s delegate, with the United Kingdom’s representative noting it “sounds like someone being fired tendering their resignation”. Later, he observed that following on the heels of the suspension, the declaration of the Russian Federation of its withdrawal would trigger a byelection. This means that a Member State from the region will be able to take the seat and protect human rights, whereas, he said, quoting the words of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, “it was difficult to find a war crime that Russia did not commit in Bucha”.
Several representatives took to the floor to decry the resolution, with Iran’s representative rejecting it as “politically driven”. He stressed his country’s opposition to the use of the Organization’s human rights mechanisms in the service of the political gains of certain States. Not only that, but the resolution will further deepen the existing confrontation, he said.
In a similar vein, Syria’s delegate said that not only were human rights being politicized, but some States were applying double standards in the consideration of these liberties. They were choosing to shine a spotlight on some nations while ignoring violations carried out in others, depending on what best suited their political ambitions.
China’s representative also opposed the politicization of human rights as well as the application of pressure on certain States in the name of such rights. A hasty move in the Assembly had forced countries to choose sides, setting new precedents, he said. A move to deprive a State of its legitimate membership in the Human Rights Council should be founded on facts and not through a text whose drafting had not been conducted in an open fashion.
Cuba’s delegate, meanwhile, cautioned against activating the suspension of the membership clause in the Council, noting that it could be used to achieve political goals. “It is the Russian Federation today, but tomorrow it could be any of our countries, especially nations of the South, which do not support the interests of domination, and which firmly defend their independence,” he said. He pointed out the irony of the fact that the United States was opposed to the creation of the Council at its inception but has now gone on to activate one of its most contentious clauses.
Several delegates chose to highlight the urgent need for continued mediation and diplomacy, with South Africa’s representative stressing that “Wars end when dialogues begin, and wars endure when there is no dialogue”. All parties stand to gain from a negotiated outcome and to lose from violent conflict, he said, praising efforts by both Ukraine and the Russian Federation to hold talks without preconditions.
Cambodia’s representative cautioned that the removal of the Russian Federation as a Council member would only isolate it and further entrench the situation in Ukraine. Rather, there was a need to build an environment more conducive to dialogue. “At a fragile time for world peace, security and stability, the engagement among the Member States in all relevant United Nations bodies, including the Human Rights Council, is very important,” he said.
Mexico’s delegate stressed that the central focus in this regard should be to bring to justice those responsible for atrocities and not to suspend any one State from a subsidiary body of the General Assembly.
The creation of an Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine was welcomed by many delegates, including Senegal’s representative. The findings of that mechanism will provide a comprehensive view of the extent of alleged violations, he said, noting that only then can appropriate measures in response be considered. The resolution today anticipates an outcome that has not been confirmed, which is why his delegation abstained on the vote.
Echoing those sentiments, the United Arab Emirates’ delegate said that due process must be followed with regard to any violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. Her delegation abstained on the resolution as the bodies that comprise the international order were not supposed to be “a club for the like-minded”, but rather spaces where nations could talk freely with one another.
Offering a different view, Myanmar’s representative said it was clear that atrocities were being carried out against the citizens of Ukraine. He drew attention to the images coming out of Bucha that, he said, resonated decidedly with the people of Myanmar, who have gone through “massacre after massacre” at the hands of the illegal military junta.
Delegates also expressed their conviction that there was already evidence that the hand of Moscow could be seen in reports of atrocities, with Lithuania’s delegate, speaking on behalf of the Baltic States, pointing out that the United Nations itself — through its Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) — had reported on violations by the Russian Federation, which belied the need for further delay. The Office has documented instances of cluster munition use by the Russian Federation in populated areas on at least two dozen occasions, as well as the arbitrary detention and possible enforced disappearances of journalists and civil society actors, he said.
The United States’ representative said she had visited Republic of Moldova and Romania a few days ago and met with women and children who shared stories of the violence committed by the Russian armed forces. She also cited credible reports of landmines and booby traps left behind in the wake of the Russian Federation’s failure and subsequent withdrawal in some areas. She went on to note the release of images from Bucha of corpses in the street, some with their hands tied behind their backs in what appeared to be summary executions. Against this backdrop, she said the world was watching to see if the United Nations would meet this moment. Ensuring that human rights violators cannot occupy a leadership position in the human rights arena is a step in the right direction, she said.
Also speaking were the representatives of Kazakhstan, Venezuela, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Egypt, Brazil, Chile, Belarus, India, Timor-Leste, Qatar, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Indonesia, Panama, Thailand, Viet Nam, Uzbekistan, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei Darussalam, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Algeria, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Kiribati, Netherlands (also on behalf of Belgium and Luxembourg), France, Denmark (on behalf of the Nordic countries), Georgia, Poland, Czech Republic, Italy, Liechtenstein, Marshall Islands, Croatia, Spain, Slovakia, Germany, Slovenia, Canada, Japan, Australia, Portugal, New Zealand, Botswana, Romania, Austria, Ireland, Israel and Malta.
Also speaking were observers for the European Union and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.