Human Rights Council green lights UN expert on Russia, renews mandate on Afghanistan

Delegates attend the 51st session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva on 12 September, 2022. (Credit: UN Photo by Pierre Albouy)

Human rights in Afghanistan will continue to be monitored by the UN rights body while abuses against Russians inside the country will also come under scrutiny after two resolutions passed on the last day of the 51st session of the Human Rights Council.

A European-led proposal to appoint a special rapporteur on Russia was approved at the Human Rights Council on Friday, with Russia only managing to rally a few allies to oppose the move.

The resolution, adopted with 17 votes in favour, six against and 24 abstentions, tasks a UN expert with collecting and examining information on allegations of rights abuses committed within the country and reporting back to the council in one year.

The move responds to a long standing call by rights campaigners for the council to address Russia’s clampdown of local civil society, including journalists and political figures. Since its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has doubled down on its repression, arresting or fining those who speak out against the war, shutting down NGOs and kicking out foreign media correspondents.

Luxembourg’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Marc Bichler, who’s state penned the resolution, called Russia’s laws “draconian” and said that “this council had a duty to address the human rights situation in Russia”. Czech Republic, France, Poland and the United States also joined the condemnations of Russia’s repressive policies, warning that Moscow’s withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights had left Russians without any recourse to seek protection.

The Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Germany paid tribute to the oldest Russian human rights NGO, Memorial International, for being among the three winners of the Nobel Peace Prize announced today. A Russian court ordered its closure in December 2021 under a “foreign agents” law for its work documenting political repression under the Soviet Union.

Ukrainian ambassador Yevheniia Filipenko highlighted “the link between internal repression and external repression against Ukraine” and expressed its support for the resolution.

Russia rebuked the move, accusing western countries of “using the council to obtain their political goal”. China, Venezuela and Cuba backed Russia’s views, calling it a “politicised” proposal and calling others to join them in voting against it without much success.

The outcome came as a slight consolation for the West, after yesterday’s crushing defeat by China, which managed to mobilise countries against a western bid on Xinjiang.

Afghanistan expert renewed

Afghanistan’s special rapporteur was also renewed for a year and granted greater range to monitor the rights of children and the rights of women and girls, who have been shunned from the public sphere since the Taliban seized power last year and have restricted their freedoms.

The current mandate holder, Richard Bennett, told the council last month that “there is no country in the world where women and girls have so rapidly been deprived of their fundamental human rights purely because of gender”.

Urging fellow council members to vote in favour of the European-led proposal, UK deputy ambassador to the UN Rita French said: “Afghanistan remains the only country in the world where girls cannot attend secondary school. Religious and ethnic minorities, particularly the Hazara people, LGBT+ persons and civil society activists are facing violence and discrimination.”

The resolution passed with 29 votes in favour, three against and 15 abstentions. China and Venezuela, who opposed the move complained that the text did not bring into account those responsible for the collapse of the country’s economy, referring to the US without naming it.

“The military intervention by some states behind the crisis in Afghanistan and it is those countries who should shoulder the responsibilities for the reconstruction of the country's economy,” said China, also requesting that the resolution call on states to unfreeze Afghan assets.

The amendments to the text were all rejected by its supporters. While expressing appreciation for the work of the special rapporteur, the envoy for the former Afghan government, Nasir Ahmad Andisha, regretted that the council “shied away” from going further and appointing an “accountability mechanism capable of investigating every violation that arises, one that could thoroughly document and collect evidence to establish criminal responsibility”.

Heated discussions

A number of other proposals also generated heated discussions. A resolution led by Switzerland on transitional justice saw push back from Russia, who asked to scrap any mention of the International Criminal Court, accusing the international body of being politicised. But its efforts were in vain.

Panama and Austria’s request for a report on the human rights implications of emerging technologies in the military, such as drones and other autonomous weapons, was also faced with opposition from military powers. The United States argued that “smart weapons with precision guidance systems have enabled the US military to strike enemy military objectives with less risk to civilians and civilian objects than using dumb weapons” and it was a matter on how the weapons are used.

The UK, Russia, India among others echoed concerns about the resolution encroaching on the territory of the Convention on Conventional Weapons, which is overseeing efforts to come up with international rules that have stalled for over eight years.

Mexico, Paraguay, Pakistan and South Korea counter-argued the need for a study from the human rights body precisely to better understand the crucial role of human control of the weapons.

The commission of inquiry into crimes committed in Ethiopia since 2020 was renewed for a year in a close vote of 21 in favour and 19 against, while countries agreed to extend the fact finding mission on Venezuela despite opposition from Caracas and a few allies. Proposals to extend existing mechanisms on Burundi and Syria were also approved.