Human Rights Council at a 'crucial moment', says president

Federico Villegas, president of the Human Rights Council, at a special session on Ukraine, 12 May 2022 (Credit: UN Photo/Jean Marc Ferré)

The Human Rights Council is at a “crucial moment” after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine heightened the focus on its work as the UN’s protector of human rights – especially now with its independent investigation into alleged war crimes underway, Federico Villegas, president of the council, said.

The Argentinian ambassador, speaking at an event in Geneva on Friday, said there was no more “business as usual” after the war had “imploded” the two world orders – the post-World War II and post-Cold War – underpinned by the UN charter and the rule of law.

In another turning point, he said that the Council was now the UN intergovernmental body with the highest social media presence – its urgent debate session, when members passed a resolution on Ukraine, followed by nine million people online.

“People identify with what we do because, in one way or another, we touch human beings,” Villegas said.

“All of us are impacted by the Human Rights Council, whether because we are addressing a serious situation in the country, but also … the norms that protect us and future generations are created at the Human Rights Council. So what it means is that we are now in a crucial moment.”

From 16 September, the Geneva rights body will also become the only place where Russian citizens can bring human rights-related claims against authorities, he added, after Russia was removed from the Council of Europe and from access to its justice system, the European Court of Human Rights.

Villegas was speaking at a panel with experts from NGOs, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Geneva Academy on the role of the Human Rights Council in investigating war crimes in Ukraine.

At the end of March, Villegas appointed three independent experts to lead the international commission of inquiry into violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in Ukraine, after Human Rights Council members backed the move weeks earlier.

It is the first time a commission of inquiry into human rights abuses has been launched against a permanent security council member, Villegas said.

However, it is not the only monitoring body investigating abuses on the ground.

Investigating war crimes in Ukraine – a crowded field?

Since the war began, several NGOs and other international groups have been working to document human rights abuses and evidence of mass atrocities, including war crimes, in Ukraine as allegations of murder, rape, torture and other violent acts continue to emerge.

The International Criminal Court and several national authorities have also opened criminal investigations. On 23 May, a Russian soldier was sentenced to life in prison by a Kyiv courtroom for killing an unarmed Ukrainian citizen, in the first war crimes trial since Russia’s invasion began.

Despite the different inquiries and investigations underway and concerns of potential overlap this could cause, Villegas said the mechanisms were complementary “because they all want the same thing, which is justice. That’s the real reparation for the victims of these atrocities.”

The investigation mechanism – one of the most powerful mechanisms the Human Rights Council has in its toolbox – is important for gathering evidence that can be used in a court of law.

But what also sets the independent commission apart from other international justice actors is its “public reporting” element, Lucy McKernan, Human Rights Watch’s UN deputy director advocacy, added.

“It’s required to report back to the Human Rights Council about what it’s seeing and this isn’t something we expect the ICC or other players to be doing on a regular basis. So it's a really important element of its mandate which will help to correct the record in terms of the misinformation that’s out there,” she said, speaking at the Geneva Press Club event.

The commission has also said it wants to take a “victim-centred approach”, she added “so really listening to people who have suffered violations, and family members and so on, that the criminal adjudicating bodies won’t necessarily be doing”.

Villegas said the three experts are coordinating with the UN Human Rights Commission’s Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, which has been monitoring the rights situation in the country since 2014, as well as other actors on the ground.

Coordination is especially crucial in ensuring different parties don’t “double up” in their investigations. “It's very unfair for a victim of an atrocity to get five different people to ask her that same story,” he added.

With many actors seeking to collect evidence and bring justice, it has quickly become a “crowded space”, says McKernan, but she also views this as a positive thing.

“There’s no doubt that because of the scale of the abuses that we've seen, that we’re going to need a lot of different actors playing different roles.  The ICC traditionally will take on a couple of cases. They won’t take on hundreds or thousands. So certainly, we’re also pleased to see some states already initiating investigations on the basis of universal jurisdiction.”