Human Rights Council approves commission of inquiry to look into rights violations in Ukraine

The Human Rights Council voted in favour on Friday of setting up a commission of inquiry into violations of human rights and international humanitarian law “stemming from the Russian aggression in Ukraine”.

Thirty-two of the current 47 member states voted to adopt the resolution put forward by Ukraine while 13 abstained and two – Russia and Eritrea – opposed the vote.

Venezuela and Cuba, which had previously opposed the vote to hold an urgent debate, decided to abstain, as did other member states including China, Pakistan, India, Cameroon, Gabon, Bolivia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

The vote comes after Ukraine wrote to the HRC president last week asking for an emergency session to be held “in response to the extremely grave deterioration in human rights in Ukraine” as a result of Russian hostilities.

Hundreds of civilians have died, mainly due to the use of heavy artillery in densely populated areas with “concerning reports” of cluster munitions striking civilian targets. More than one million people have now been reported by the UNHCR to have fled the country.

The resolution, co-sponsored by 68 member states, condemns Russia's invasion of Ukraine and calls on council members to urgently establish an independent international commission of inquiry, constituted by three human rights experts, to look into rights abuses on the ground in Ukraine.

It condemns Russia’s actions and demands an immediate withdrawal of troops, echoing the resolution passed at an emergency session of UN General Assembly earlier this week.

The resolution also says its commission of inquiry should “cooperate with judicial and other entities” such as the International Criminal Court, which also this week announced that it will launch a criminal war crimes investigation into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Today’s vote at the Council echoed the message that we saw two days ago at the UN General Assembly: Russia, stop your aggression. Seek diplomacy instead of war,”  Ambassador Lotte Knudsen, head of the EU delegation to the UN in Geneva, said in a statement after the vote, joining several other member states in welcoming the move.

Among those that voted in favour of the resolution, not all were satisfied with the final version of the text, however, including Russia ally, which Brazil denounced it as “flawed” and unbalanced.

“Given the lack of information available regarding human rights violations and abuses in Ukraine… we reiterate our view that a fact-finding mission would be more appropriate…, ” Brazil’s ambassador said.

Russia denounced the “unilateral nature” of the resolution and described it as a waste of resources.

The Human Rights Council has various instruments and mechanisms that it can adopt to conduct research into rights abuses, and the establishment of an international independent commission of inquiry is among the strongest steps it can take.

Experts also noted the wording of the resolution, which tasks experts to “collect, consolidate and analyse evidence” of abuses and to “preserve all information”, including witness statements or interviews for use, sending a strong signal to Russia but also ensuring that evidence collected is of a high enough standard to be using in any future legal proceedings.

Closing the debate, Ukraine’s permanent representative, Yevheniia Filipenko, thanked members for their support and addressed ambassadors of Russia and Belarus: “In finding ourselves here… you understand it all. Each one of you has the possibility to make the choice to continue to defend evil or maintain human dignity and this is your choice.”

Suspension for Russia? Asked at a press briefing following the vote whether Ukraine would take further steps and seek to have Russia suspended from the Human Rights Council, Filipenko said: “Nothing is off the table”.

This last happened in 2011 when Libya was suspended from the council. Marc Limon, executive director and founder of the Universal Rights Group, writing in Geneva Solutions yesterday, said that “there is both the legal basis, precedent and justification” for suspending Russia’s membership, which could send an even stronger signal that the resolution itself.

Filipenko said: “We will continue to work…[with our colleagues in New York] to see how this issue can be thoroughly and strongly addressed”.

Next steps for setting up the commission. Following Friday’s vote, the independent commission of inquiry to conduct the investigation is expected to be established “as soon as possible”, Filipenko added, although the exact details and timing are still to be confirmed.

The president of the Human Rights Council, Federico Villegas of Argentina, will be tasked with appointing three independent experts that will work alongside the Office of the High Commission on Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, which around 100 people on the ground. A budget of $4.1 million has been earmarked for the inquiry.

The experts will provide the council with an oral update at its fifty-first session, followed by a comprehensive written report at its fifty-second session, the resolution states.