Could Russia be suspended from the Human Rights Council?

(UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré)

On 1 March, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, speaking at the 49th session of the Human Rights Council, remarked: “One can reasonably ask whether a UN member state that tries to take over another UN member state, while committing horrific human rights abuses and causing massive humanitarian suffering, should be allowed to remain on this Council,” But how realistic is it that Russia’s membership of the Council could be suspended?

Contrary to some misinformation floating around Geneva, there is both a precedent and a legal basis for suspension.  The legal basis is set out in paragraph 8 of the General Assembly (GA) resolution 60/251,  establishing the Human Rights Council. With operative paragraph 8 (OP8), the GA decided that “the General Assembly, by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting, may suspend the rights of membership in the Council of a member of the Council that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights.”

It is difficult to argue that gross and systematic violations, including violations of the rights to physical and mental health, to physical security and to life, have not been perpetrated by Russia in Ukraine. In the week since the invasion began on 24 February, the UN has recorded 752 civilian casualties in Ukraine, including 227 killed– 15 of them children. Nor is there any doubt that the Russian State is directly responsible for those violations.

The precedent for Russia’s suspension is provided by the case of Libya. On 25 February 2011, the Council adopted a resolution (by consensus) recommending that “the United Nations General Assembly, in view of the gross and systematic violations of human rights by the Libyan authorities (specifically in the context of Muammar Al-Qadhafi’s violent crackdown on anti-Government protestors), [consider] the application of the measures foreseen in OP8 of General Assembly Resolution 60/251.’

Less than a week later, acting on the recommendation of the Council, the General Assembly followed suit, passing a resolution on the 'Suspension of the rights of membership of the Libyan Arab Jamahirya in the Human Rights Council.’

Speaking after adoption, then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “The world has spoken with one voice: we demand an immediate end to the violence against civilians and full respect for their fundamental human rights, including those of peaceful assembly and free speech.” These sentiments were echoed by Human Rights Watch, which said the suspension “sends a strong signal to the Libyan authorities that what they have done will not be tolerated by the international community,” and also “that this type of behaviour will not be allowed by the Human Rights Council among its own members.”

Suspending the Russian Federation

It’s clear from the above mentioned that there is both the legal basis, precedent and justification for suspending Russia’s membership of the Human Rights Council. Crucially, doing so would, as was the case with Libya 11 years ago, send a strong message to Russia that its actions are unacceptable to the international community, and that a country that deliberately targets civilians in a neighbouring country (in addition to committing serious violations against protesters and others in Russia itself) has no place amongst those elected to protect human rights around the world. It would also be the strongest possible message that the UN could send to President Putin - stronger even than the establishment of a commission of inquiry.

“It would also be the strongest possible message that the UN could send to President Putin - stronger even than the establishment of a commission of inquiry.”

Notwithstanding these points, for the moment it is far from certain that the Council will take the important first step of recommending suspension to the General Assembly. The issue is unlikely to be included in the resolution currently being negotiated at the Council in the context of the 3 March urgent debate on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This is likely due to concerns amongst the main sponsors, as well as Ukraine itself, that invocation of OP8 of resolution 60/251 could weaken support for the resolution at a time when the international community should be once again presenting a united front.

But that need not be the end of the matter. It is quite possible for the Council to adopt a separate resolution or decision later in its (current) 49th session that would specifically focus on the issue of Russia’s membership. During negotiations on the draft resolution due to be adopted at the conclusion of the urgent debate, there appeared to be some support for suspending Russia’s membership, especially amongst Western States. However, as of today, there does not yet appear to be the critical mass necessary to push it over the line.

For the sake of the integrity of the UN Charter and for the credibility of the Council and the wider UN, and - most importantly - for the sake of the people of Ukraine, Council members must urgently shake off their doubts or hesitation and begin consultations on a Council decision recommending that that General Assembly suspend Russia’s rights of membership. They must, in short, show the same courage as the Government and people of Ukraine.

Marc Limon is the executive director and founder of the Universal Rights Group (URG), a think tank focused on international human rights with offices in Geneva, New York and Bogota. Prior to founding the URG in 2013, Limon worked as a diplomat at the UN Human Rights Council from the body’s establishment in 2006 until the end of 2012.