Ukraine-Russia conflict dominates first day of Human Rights Council

The Russian Federation takes the floor at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, 28 February 2022. (Photo: Geneva Solutions)

The Human Rights Council opened its main annual session Monday with member states voting in favour of holding an urgent debate on the escalating conflict in Ukraine.

Twenty-nine member states approved Ukraine’s request to hold an urgent debate following a nominal vote held at the opening of the annual session of the UN Council in Geneva. The United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil and Poland were among the countries that voted in favour.

Five countries, including China, Russia, Eritrea, Cuba, and Venezuela, voted against the request while 13, including the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Cameroon and Sudan, abstained.

The vote comes after Ukraine on Thursday ​​wrote to the HRC president 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.

“The reason for this request is known to the whole world.  Russia, member of this Council, perpetrated an unprovoked and unified attack on Ukraine,” Yevheniia Filipenko, Ukraine’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva said ahead of the vote.

Ukraine has submitted a draft resolution for adoption at t​he session, which is expected to be held at the end of the week following the high-level segment of the Council.

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

Taking the floor before the vote, Russia’s ambassador Gennady Gatilov said the subject proposed for the urgent debate had nothing to do with concerns for human rights in Ukraine: it was a new "attempt by Kyiv to hijack the attention of the international community of the targeted elimination – which has been going on for eight years – of the innocent civilian population in Donetsk and Luhansk”.

He added that Russia had launched special operations “to stop the tragedy” in the Donbass region and denied that it was firing at civilian targets in Ukraine.

The UNHCR reported that more than 422,000 people have fled the country and that many more are internally displaced.

At least 376 civilian casualties have been confirmed, including 94 deaths, according to UN figures last updated before midnight on 26 February.

A charged HRC session

The 49th session of the Human Rights Council got off to a tumultuous start, with the crisis in Ukraine, and the vote on the emergency debate, overshadowing an already packed five-week session in which reports and mandates on over 40 thematic issues and 50 country situations are due to be discussed.

In her opening statement, Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned that the world was at a “tipping point” in history and that decades of progress in advancing human rights were now in jeopardy.

“Depleted by the pandemic, divided by growing polarisation, undermined by growing environmental harm and corroded by digital disinformation, hatred and distortions of democracy, and disregard of the rule of law, many societies are evolving – or plunging – into increased repression and violence; rising poverty; anger; and conflict,” she said.

UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres repeated his plea for Russia to stop hostilities in Ukraine. 

"The escalation by the Russian Federation is leading to escalating human rights violations. The inevitable result are civilian casualties; women, children and men forced from their homes. I have consistently called for the end of the offensive," he said in a video message after cancelled his trip to Geneva to attend to emergency meetings in New York.

Foreign ministers and other dignitaries from around the world joined calls for an immediate cessation of hostilities and expressed their alarm at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Swiss president and minister for foreign affairs Ignazio Cassis expressed his “great compassion” for the conflict’s victims and said Switzerland “condemns in the strongest possible terms the attack by the Russian Federation on Ukraine, which constitutes a flagrant violation of international law”. The country on Tuesday joined EU in imposing a broad of sanctions on Russia.

Russian foreign minister cancels trip to UN in Geneva

Russia’s mission in Geneva confirmed that foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, would no longer be physically attending due to “anti-Russian sanctions”.

Lavrov was scheduled to speak at the Council and the Conference on Disarmament in-person on Tuesday morning. 

In a post on Twitter, Russia’s Mission in Geneva said Lavrov has been forced to cancel his trip “due to an unprecedented ban on his flight in the airspace of a number of EU countries that have imposed anti-Russian sanctions”.