Human Rights Council kicks off as Ukraine war tears world politics apart

The Human Rights Council will hold its 49th meeting amid Russia's military invasion of Ukraine. (Credit: UN Photo/Violaine Martin)

Human rights talks held this month in Geneva are set to be underpinned by the ongoing military aggression against Ukraine. 

At least 68 foreign ministers and heads of organisations are due to address the UN Human Rights Council in person and another 77 by video message on Monday, after two years of sessions held mostly online. But already Ukraine is upsetting the meeting’s agenda.

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres, who was due to travel to Geneva for the Council’s 49th session, has said he will stay put in New York to attend to the aggravating situation. Other foreign ministers, including from Spain, France, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, disappeared from the list of in-person speakers near the end of last week. Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov is still due to come to Geneva but other priorities could drag him away at the last minute.

Government officials will likely express their country’s position on the war, as others have already done in other global meetings such as the UN Environmental Assembly.

The human rights talks could be further stirred by the situation in Ukraine, as the Council is due to vote on Ukraine’s proposal to hold an urgent debate on its ongoing military invasion. If adopted, the session would be held at the end of the week after the high-level segment.

Read also: Ukraine requests urgent debate at Human Rights Council

Backing Ukraine’s proposal, NGOs are calling for tough measures to be taken against Russia, including kicking the member state out of the Human Rights Council, where it currently holds one of the 47 seats. In a statement released on Friday, the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) said Russia should be suspended for “gross and systematic violations and its manifest breach of the UN Charter and non-cooperation with UN mechanisms”.

Whether other states take up this demand remains to be seen. The only time a state was strapped from its HRC membership was in 2011 when the UN General Assembly suspended Libya from the human rights body over Gaddafi’s crackdown on protests.

The rights organisation also urged countries to launch an inquiry mechanism into the rights abuses being committed in Ukraine and appoint a UN expert to investigate the human rights situation in Russia, a long standing demand from civil society groups.

If any of these proposals are tabled, they would have to count with the vote of at least one-third of the Council’s members. But with all five permanent members of the Security Council – China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States – currently holding a seat at the Human Rights Council, negotiations are bound to be tense.

Growing opposition by Russia and other aligned countries towards certain proposals also has diplomats worried that other texts up for renewal, including on South Sudan, Nicaragua, Myanmar and Syria, could face difficulties. A draft resolution on Yemen was unexpectedly defeated at the Council’s last session in September, dealing a blow to western countries behind the proposal and setting a “dangerous precedent”, according to diplomatic sources. But the ongoing assault against Ukraine could very well isolate Russia and weaken opposition against the proposals. The texts will not be voted on until the end of the session at the beginning of April.