What does Russia’s suspension mean for the Human Rights Council?

Room XX during a Human Rights Council session in 2020. (Credit: UN Photo/Antoine Tardy)

The diplomatic slap Russia received in New York, as UN members voted to suspend it from the human rights body, has left diplomats wondering what will be the ramifications in Geneva.

Russia’s removal from the Human Rights Council adds another layer of diplomatic condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In a vote of 93 against 24 in favour and 58 abstentions, the UN General Assembly agreed on Thursday to suspend Russia from the Geneva-based body, where it held one of the 47 seats until 2023.

This would leave the door open to reinstate it if the situation were to change, as was the case back in March 2011 when Libya, which had been suspended over dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s crackdown on protests, was then allowed back in the Council in November after the leader had been deposed, then later captured and killed.

Russia decided to play a different hand of cards. Right after the vote, it shut down the possibility of recovering its seat altogether, with the Russian Ambassador to the UN announcing that his country would be withdrawing from the Council altogether.

Later in the evening, Russia sent a letter to the Council’s president Federico Villegas relinquishing its membership, which in effect reinstates it as an observer, Rolando Gomez, media officer for the Council, told reporters in Geneva on Friday. This means Russia has lost its power to vote but can still take the floor during the discussions.

On the other hand, it frees up a seat, leaving the body with only 46 members. Gomez said that another state from the Eastern European region would have to fill up the spot, since seats are regionally distributed. There would have to be an election at the General Assembly, although it wasn’t clear when that would happen.

Unchartered territory

The full-scale of the impact on dynamics at the Council are yet to be seen as this is the first time a permanent member of the UN Security Council with such political influence has been ousted. Any political consequences would likely begin to show at the upcoming session in June, sources agreed.

For one thing, Russia, who is used to submitting sometimes up to ten amendments for certain resolutions, will not be able to do that without another council member acting as a proxy. While these suggested changes to the draft text rarely, if ever, get through, they express countries' disapproval – and not only Russia’s – with the views expressed through text language. It remains to be seen who else will step up and take over this role.

Observers expect Russia to continue to work in the background as it has always done, but its power to directly influence the council’s decisions will likely take a hit. “Russia has been fierce opponents of resolutions related to sexual and reproductive rights and LGBTQI rights at the Human Rights Council, and now they have lost their platform to influence in these decisions,” Ramón Muñoz, director of the Geneva-based International Network of Human Rights (RIDH), told Geneva Solutions.

Now that the seat is up for grabs, the next candidate could affect the balance at the Council on extremely diverging issues where one more vote in favour or against could prove decisive, Muñoz noted.

But how much Russia will continue to engage with the Council is another mystery diplomats and observers are still left to solve. A diplomatic source from the South called Russia’s suspension “a strategic error”, arguing that “it gives Russia all the cards to destroy the Council”.

One possibility, they said, was that Moscow could reopen resolutions voted in Geneva at the UN General Assembly. Resolutions adopted at the rights body then need to get the green light in New York, and while not an obligation, they’re usually approved in a bundle. If these texts were to be renegotiated at the General Assembly, all countries would get to vote instead of the Council’s 47 members. This could potentially topple a resolution and undermine the Council, the source said.

While theoretically possible, Muñoz doesn’t think that this is likely to happen as “no country would risk exposing themselves by rallying such an embarrassing attack against the Human Rights Council”.

A former European diplomat who asked not to be named said that this could also further drive a wedge between members in an already divided Council.

The delegate from the South noted that some smaller countries felt they had been put in an uncomfortable position, forced to choose sides. In a confidential letter distributed to diplomats before the vote, seen by Reuters, Russia said it would consider any votes in favour or in abstention as an “unfriendly gesture” and would “be taken into account both in the development of bilateral relations and in the work on the issues important for it within the framework of the UN”.

Several countries speaking at the General Assembly expressed their concerns around the knock-on effects the war was having on food and energy security.

What it means for war in Ukraine

Beyond affecting the council’s work, the impact of Russia’s suspension on the ground is difficult to measure. It is unlikely that it will end the war or convince Russia to withdraw its troops, but it sends a strong political signal, sources said.

On one hand, it adds to the concerted efforts by Western countries to isolate Russia on the international stage, including a resolution adopted at the General Assembly in March condemning the invasion, its suspension from the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the growing number of sanctions.

“The hope is that, cumulatively, all of the actions we're taking across the UN to isolate Russia, as well as unprecedented sanctions, add up to the pressure that is needed to convince, if not President Putin, then maybe the people around him to stop the war,” an European diplomatic source told Geneva Solutions.

Who shall sit at the Council?

The decision to remove Russia from the Council raises questions about its functioning. Whether countries with poor human rights records should be allowed to be a part or not has been a long standing debate. Some argue that allowing them to be a part of it forces them to engage with the human rights system and at the very least make commitments when they present their candidacies.

Russia’s suspension is only the second time in the history of the Council that the General Assembly has used its power to remove a member for committing “gross and systematic violations of human rights”.

“It's the first time that a sitting member of the Human Rights Council has perpetrated human rights violations and war crimes on this scale against another member,” said the European diplomatic source, adding that “this was an exceptional measure in response to exceptional circumstances”.

But other countries have also been accused of serious violations while sitting at the Council, with it amounting to very little action from council members, to the frustration of many campaigners. The Saudi-led military coalition against the rebel Houthis in Yemen was accused of killing thousands of civilians and torturing detainees in a UN report in 2018, while Saudi Arabia held a seat at the Council. China, currently a member of the human rights body, has also been accused of allegedly persecuting and holding millions of Uyghur, a Muslim minority, in camps.

Another European diplomatic source told Geneva Solutions that the only reason Russia was able to be suspended is because of a combination of two factors: circumstances and political feasibility. The images that emerged over the weekend of massacres in Bucha, Irpin and other Ukrainian cities around Kyiv following the retreat of Russian troops only accelerated a process that was already in motion, according to the source.

For Muñoz, sanctioning Russia for its aggression was warranted as it was a question of the Council’s “legitimacy”, but noted that it should also spark a debate to better define the criteria that countries must meet to become a member.