The United Nations General Assembly voted on a resolution last April 7 that called to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council. The tally was split between 93 votes in favor, 24 opposed, and 58 abstained.

The session marked the continuation of emergency assemblies centered on the conflict in Ukraine. Last week, Russia was once again on the receiving end of criticism over alleged human rights violations after disturbing images from the Ukrainian city of Bucha emerged. The photos published depicted hundreds of bodies along the streets, some burnt and with bullet holes in the heads. Some reports also reveal that the Russians had tortured and raped several of their victims before leaving the city.

Votes in favor of the resolution were just shy above half of the UN membership but were enough to meet the two-thirds majority to pass. The group who voted in favor included the United States, NATO members, members of the European Union, most of Latin America, and a handful of Pacific island states.

A handful of the abstentions, by countries like Jordan, Mexico, India, Kuwait, and Qatar will raise eyebrows in the United States. The US has close relations with Jordan, Mexico, and Qatar that include military cooperation and extensive foreign aid, and Kuwait was the victim of Iraq in terms of war crimes committed against its civilians in the first Gulf War.

“Today, the international community took one collective step in the right direction,” United States Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said. “We ensured a persistent and egregious human rights violator will not be allowed to occupy a position of leadership on human rights at the UN.”

UN General Assembly vote tally to expel Russia from the UN Human Rights Council (Sergiy Kyslytsya). Source:
UN General Assembly vote tally to expel Russia from the UN Human Rights Council (Sergiy Kyslytsya/Twitter)

The win was also celebrated by the European Union. The head of the EU delegation, Ambassador Olof Skoog, said that the “rare decision” made by the Assembly “sends a strong signal of accountability,” adding that the move will hopefully prevent and discourage future human rights violations.

However, last Thursday’s tally was significantly lower than the previous General Assembly resolution of 141 votes in favor of condemning Russia’s “aggression” in Ukraine.

Those who opposed the text, including Russia, China, Cuba, Syria, Iran, and North Korea, have voiced their concerns about the passing of the resolution.

“Today is not the time nor the place for theatrics, or these kinds of extremely theatrical performances like the one presented by Ukraine. In fact, the draft resolution we are considering today has no relationship to the actual human rights situation on the ground,” the Russian Deputy Representative of the Russian Federation to the UN, Gennady Kuzmin, said before the vote was made.

Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun warned that Thursday’s result will “set a new dangerous precedent, further intensify confrontation in the field of human rights, bringing a greater impact on the UN governance system, and produce serious consequences.”

He also said they “firmly oppose the politicization of human rights issues” and “double standards.” Note that China faces its own human rights crisis with its alleged treatment and massacre of the Uyghurs, which the United States declared genocide last year.

However, Thursday’s most striking figure was the 58 UN member states who opted to abstain from voting on the resolution. These include countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

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Some abstainers, such as Singapore, explained that their decision was in support of the “independent, international commission of inquiry” launched by the Human Rights Council to investigate alleged human rights violations.

However, there are those like Saudi Arabia that fear that the suspension is an escalatory move and “a form of politicization of the work of the council… that gives certain [countries] more rights than others.”

Russia Leaves the Council

Kuzmin spoke after the suspension was adopted and suddenly announced that his country had already decided to leave the Council. The Russian representative claimed that the Council was being monopolized by a select group of states for their personal goals.

“These States for many years have directly been involved in blatant and massive violations of human rights or abetted those violations,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.

“In spite of their membership as members of the Council, they are not ready to sacrifice their short-term political and economic interests in favor of true cooperation and stabilizing the human rights situation in certain countries.”

The UN Human Rights Council

The Council, established in 2006, served as a replacement for the Commission on Human Rights that was founded in the aftermath of World War II. The commission fell into disarray as accusations of bias, abuse of power, and constant disagreements plagued the group.

The Human Rights Council was formed to address the issues of the commission. It has 47 members chosen by a regional collective of nations. Members of the Council are given a term of three years through the General Assembly. No member may serve more than two terms in a row.

Several meetings are held throughout the year to discuss matters on human rights and humanitarian law in coordination with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The last time a member was suspended from the Council was in 2011, when Libya and its then-leader
Muammar al-Qaddafi violently cracked down on anti-government sentiment in the country. The same provision was used in the resolution last Thursday.

Currently, Russia faces more human rights violations, war crimes, and crimes against humanity due to their recent bombing of the Kramatorsk Train Station in Donetsk. The attack has reportedly killed at least 50 people (and counting) who were evacuating the city due to fears of Russian bombardment in the coming days.