Ukraine requests urgent debate at Human Rights Council

OHCHR flags on the Mont-Blanc bridge to mark Human rights day on 10 December, Geneva, Switzerland, December 6, 2021. (OHCHR Photo/Pierre Albouy)

Ukraine has written to the president of the Human Rights Council requesting an urgent debate on the deteriorating situation in the country after Russia launched a major assault on Thursday. 

Yevheniia Filipenko, Ukraine’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, said the request was “in response to the extremely grave deterioration in human rights in Ukraine” as a result of Russian hostilities.

“This request is presented by Ukraine as the country concerned and supported by numerous other HRC member states,” Filipenko added in the letter shared on Twitter.

In a separate tweet, the European Union delegation said it fully supported the request. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms Russia's unprecedented military aggression against Ukraine.”

The main annual session of the Human Rights Council will open in Geneva on Monday, with many heads of state and foreign ministers due to attend in-person – including Russia and the United States’ top diplomats, Sergey Lavrov and Antony Blinken.

Both are due to speak on Tuesday on the second day of the high-level segment in what has the potential to be a charged and tense debate. Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba is schedule to speak on Wednesday.

Despite the urgent escalating crisis, a decision on whether to hold an “urgent” debate on Ukraine would only be voted on by HRC members once the three-day high-level segment has concluded.

If approved, the debate would see Ukraine put forward a draft resolution for countries to adopt. This would most likely include language demanding that the rights of people in Ukraine be respected in accordance with international law and condemning violations of human rights. It could also call for an investigative mechanism to be set up to look into rights abuses on the ground in Ukraine.

UN human rights commissioner Michelle Bachelet said she was deeply alarmed by Russia’s military attack on Ukraine, which she said “clearly violates international law” and puts countless civilian lives at risk.

 “States that fail to take all reasonable measures to settle their international disputes by peaceful means fall short of complying with their obligation to protect the right to life.” 

An urgent debate - but then what?

After several weeks of failed attempts at diplomatic talks and with Russia’s assault on Ukraine already underway, one can ask what the Human Rights Council can realistically hope to achieve and what impact an emergency resolution can have in changing the current course of actions?

“I don’t see it as the council’s role to stop a war… it’s really the leading venue to address how the war is fought,” Human Rights Watch executive director Ken Roth told a news briefing in Geneva ahead of Thursday’s invasion.  “If there are large-scale war crimes, then it is the council's role to spotlight the war crime with the aim of deterring them.”

He said that resolutions have proven effective in getting countries that do not want to lose their international legitimacy to cooperate.

“If you look at how hard governments fight to avoid resolutions, it's again indicative that the shaming process the council is able to engage in matters to governments,” Roth added, citing Ethiopia’s resistance to a resolution last year establishing an international commission of experts to investigate rights violations in the country.

“A strong Council resolution, particularly one accompanied by investigative oversight and evidence collection, is effective governance.”