Human Rights Council to gather a year into the war in Ukraine

Václav Bálek, Human Rights Council president and ambassador of the Czech Republic, during a press briefing ahead of the council’s 52rd session, at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, 22 February 2023. (Keystone/Martial Trezzini)

One year after Russia invaded Ukraine, the ongoing war will take centre stage at the Human Rights Council as will crises gripping other regions.

This week is expected to be among the busiest in years at the Palais des Nations. Nearly 100 ministers and other high ranking officials will gather at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva for the start of the Human Rights Council, with another 50 speaking by video message.

Three days after the war in Ukraine reached its one year anniversary, Russia’s ongoing invasion is poised to take centre stage at the meeting. But other issues, from the crackdown on protests in Iran to the aid delivery to earthquake victims in Syria and the rise in hunger across the world will also be raised across the five-and-a half-weeks session – the longest since the council’s creation in 2006.

Who’s coming

From Monday to Thursday, heads of state, ministers of foreign affairs and dignitaries will lay out their countries’ views around human rights. The presence of some will generate more waves than others.

A campaign spearheaded by the pro-Israeli group UN Watch, and joined by Iranian civil society, is calling for diplomats to stage a walkout on Monday afternoon during the speech of the Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, in protest of its crackdown on dissent in the country.

Diplomats have pulled similar stunts in the past, including during the speeches of Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov last year and Venezuela’s former foreign minister Jorge Arreaza in 2019.

Asked by reporters in Geneva, several diplomats suggested that a walk out was unlikely to happen, arguing that it should be a tool in the diplomatic toolbox to be used with moderation. They did not deny however the possibility of an act of rejection when Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergey Ryabkov would take to the podium on Thursday.

The council has increasingly come under criticism for polarisation, with certain states viewing it as being taken hostage by political confrontations between rivalling blocks.

The Council’s newly elected president, Czech ambassador Václav Bálek, who had taken part in the walk out during Lavrov’s speech, told reporters on Wednesday that he “was not in a position to tell countries what they should do” but that he would “put on his UN hat” and encourage countries to “preserve the dignity and constructive atmosphere in the council”.

Ukrainian ambassador Yevheniia Filipenko told journalists at an event on Friday organised by the UN accredited press association, Acanu, that Russia did “not deserve” a seat in the Human Rights Council nor in the Conference of Disarmament.

A test for Ukraine

As Ukraine enters its second year since war broke out, this session will also be a test as to how much backing it still has from other countries. On Thursday, 141 UN members voted at the General Assembly in New York in favour of a resolution calling on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine and end the war, with seven voting against and 32 abstaining.

While it still signalled an overwhelming international support for Ukraine, the vote count is slightly less than a few months ago in October when 143 countries backed a similar resolution and five opposed it.

Ukrainian ambassador Filipenko said: “We see an increased understanding that Russian aggression against Ukraine is not only about Ukraine, it's about each and every country in the world. It's about the principles which guarantee the security and stability of every UN member state.”

She said that Ukraine would be tabling a proposal before the Human Rights Council to extend the commission of inquiry on Ukraine for another year. The expert body, created during an emergency session convened by the council last year, said in September that Russia had committed war crimes in territories in Ukraine its forces had occupied.

It is due to present its first full report to the council on 20 March.

Ethiopia probe mechanism on the rope?

There are concerns that this session could see a continuation of Ethiopia’s bid to terminate early the Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, tasked with investigating allegations of abuses committed since 2020 during the conflict in the country’s north.

Ethiopia has already tried in vain to block funding for the commission of three experts in the past. In mid-February, an Ethiopian high level official said that the UN-backed body could “undermine” the peace agreement struck in 2022 between the Ethiopian government and Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

A diplomat in Geneva told Geneva Solutions that any attempt to challenge a UN-backed mechanism would set a dangerous precedent. The commission is due to present its latest findings on 21 March.

Other crises under the spotlight

The council will also hear on the human rights abuses being committed in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Eritrea, South Sudan, Libya, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria, occupied Palestinian territories, Belarus, Iran and North Korea.

UN experts will also report on human rights issues, including food insecurity, disinformation, freedom of religion, children in conflict and Covid-19 vaccines.

On the final day of the gathering on 4 April, the council is due to appoint a UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Russia, with council president Válek proposing Mariana Katzarova for the position. The Bulgarian human rights expert has worked as coordinator for the UN human rights office’s expert mechanism on Belarus as well as its monitoring mission in Ukraine before the war.