UN Human Rights Council takes action on Russia
The UN Human Rights Council’s recent failure to act on China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang was a blow. Soon after, however, the Council made the right decision on Russia, voting to create a new role to monitor Russia’s deteriorating human rights situation. Other steps forward included its recognition of the need to protect journalists’ rights. At the same time, the Council failed to hold other abusive states such as the Philippines to account. The session’s end saw a slew of states with troubling human rights records elected to the Council, pointing to a continuing challenge with the Council’s composition.
There was disappointment for civil society at the latest session of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council in Geneva. What could have been a big step forward – a resolution to debate China’s mass human rights violations in its Xinjiang region – fell, as China used all its muscle to get the resolution defeated.
But the following day saw a breakthrough, when the Council voted to create a new role to monitor the human rights situation in Russia. A UN special rapporteur on human rights in Russia will be joining the ranks of the UN’s assorted independent human rights experts, placing Russia under the same kind of scrutiny as Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea and Russia’s ally and neighbour Belarus.
The new Special Rapporteur will present a report and recommendations at the Human Rights Council in a year’s time, giving civil society – including Russia’s embattled activists – a crucial opportunity to feed evidence of the Russian state’s abuses into the process.
It’s the first time one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council has been subjected to this kind of scrutiny, offering hope that even powerful states can be held to account when they commit blatant and widespread violations.
The resolution on Russia follows on from a previous one, brought in March as a result of civil society pressure, to establish an international commission of inquiry on accusations of war crimes and other human rights violations in the war on Ukraine. In April, Russia was suspended from the Human Rights Council. It’s only the second country ever to be suspended, following Libya in 2011.
But none of these moves reflected a unanimous view about Russia’s blatant abuses. Only 17 Council members voted for the Russia resolution. Six states – Bolivia, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Kazakhstan and Venezuela – voted against, most of them a sadly familiar litany of human rights abusers. But 24 states abstained on this major human rights issue of our time. Among them were Brazil, India and Mexico, as well as 12 African states. Russia’s current focus on building relations with African states appears to be paying off, with not a single one backing the resolution. This enables Vladimir Putin to insist that measures against him reflect a conspiracy among a powerful few, without broad support.
Further steps forward
The latest session brought other welcome news. The Council passed a resolution on the safety of journalists, calling on states to review and change laws and policies to enable journalists to work independently and free from interference. This comes at a time when journalists are under attack in many countries, including as a result of restrictions introduced under the pandemic. The resolution recognises some of the new and growing constraints on journalism, including strategic lawsuits against public participation – legal actions intended to intimidate and exhaust those seeking to hold the powerful to account.
Another positive move came with a resolution on arbitrary detention, which makes clear the need to implement the UN’s Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and calls on states to ensure that protesters, journalists and others standing up for human rights are safe from arbitrary detention.
The Council also hosted a debate on systemic racism and the excessive use of force against Black people by law enforcement agencies in multiple countries. This was enabled by a new role created in 2021, the Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in Law Enforcement.
The Council heard directly from those living with the reality of systemic racism enacted by law enforcement agencies: Collette Flanagan of Mothers Against Police Brutality, whose son, Clinton Allen, was shot dead by US police in 2013, spoke about the need to challenge impunity and stop human rights violations by police forces. The session highlighted the lack of accountability over police killings of Black people and states’ failures to act.
Alongside the debate came a resolution on racial discrimination and xenophobia and a discussion on the legacies of colonialism. The resolution condemns unlawful deportations, excessive use of force and deaths of African and African-descent migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers at the hands of law enforcement officials involved in policing borders and migration. It calls on states to embrace a racial justice approach, including by adopting policies to address structural racism in the management of migration.
Coming in the wake of the global resurgence of demands for Black rights and Black lives unleashed by the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, these debates and resolutions show the value of the Council in responding to emerging debates about realising rights and evolving understandings of their denial.
Mixed results on accountability
Alongside success on Russia and failure on China, there were similarly mixed results in holding other rights-abusing states to account. Vitally, the mandates of the UN’s fact-finding mission on Venezuela and Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan were both extended. There remains a clear and urgent need for both. But on Afghanistan, civil society’s repeated calls to set up an independent mechanism to investigate violations and collect evidence so perpetrators of violations can be held accountable continue to be ignored.
Efforts also failed to bring a resolution on continued scrutiny of the Philippines, where a human rights programme established in 2020, led jointly by the UN and the government, has made minimal impact on the dire human rights situation and, if anything, has provided the government with whitewashing opportunities.
Attempts to revive an independent investigation into crimes in Yemen, shut down by a Council resolution last year following heavy Saudi Arabian lobbying, also came to nothing.
More positively, on Sri Lanka, the Council voted to enhance its operation to collect evidence of gross human rights abuses and possible violations of international humanitarian law in the context of the past civil war – offering hope that one day those who ordered and carried out crimes will be held to account and the victims will receive some redress.
Another year of non-competitive elections
The Council’s session ended in the annual ritual of the election of new members. The Council has 47 member states that serve three-year terms, with around a third elected every year, and with states eligible to stand for a second term. There are set numbers of seats allocated to each of the UN’s five regional blocs: Africa, Asia and Pacific, Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Western Europe and other states.
The trouble is that elections are rarely competitive. States in each regional bloc typically negotiate to put forward as many candidates as seats available. This is a key means by which one of the Council’s great flaws is perpetuated: its member states are meant to uphold the highest human rights standards, but many of them have grim domestic rights records, and so have little interest in promoting international accountability. Several states face the accusation that their chief motivation for joining the Council is not to promote human rights, but rather to protect themselves and their allies from international scrutiny.
The lack of competition reduces the possibility that states’ human rights records will be taken into account when determining membership, something civil society is calling for. Civil society tried to keep up the pressure – Amnesty International and International Service for Human Rights invited representatives of states seeking Council membership to make human rights commitments and face questions – but states broadly dodged the question of their stance on China’s human rights violations, and states with the worst human rights records didn’t bother taking part.
In the latest round, there was competition in only two blocs, and the results were mixed. It was a positive in Latin America and the Caribbean, where two seats were contested by three states, and Venezuela lost its re-election bid, beaten by Chile, placed first, and Costa Rica, which came second. This removed one state with an appalling human rights record in favour of a more democratic one.
A civil society election campaign
In the run-up to the vote, Latin American civil society held information-sharing events and conducted high-level advocacy to prevent the re-election of Venezuela, promoting the candidacies of Chile and Costa Rica instead.
Through media statements and public presentations, local and international civil society groups highlighted Venezuela’s horrific rights record, including possible crimes against humanity, as well as its dismal Council voting history, as part of a group of repressive states that work to shield each other from international scrutiny.
The vote also provided advocacy opportunities towards Chile and Costa Rica, with their human rights situations and past voting records at the Council also examined. Civil society support for their election was far from unconditional: both states were reminded of their past failings at the Council and their domestic human rights debts – including Costa Rica’s failure to ratify the ground-breaking Escazú Agreement on environmental rights after leading the process to develop the treaty.
But in Asia and the Pacific the news was bad. Seven states initially put themselves forward for four available seats. Bahrain pulled out ahead of the vote, dogged by widespread criticism of its crackdown on dissent, which has seen numerous activists detained in dire conditions simply for seeking political and civil freedoms.
But in the vote democratic South Korea lost out, along with Afghanistan, still represented at the UN by diplomats of the ousted government rather than the Taliban regime. Elected instead were two states that systematically abuse rights – Bangladesh and Vietnam – along with two others that impose serious limitations on fundamental freedoms, Kyrgyzstan and Maldives.
Among those joining them are Algeria, where dissent is increasingly repressed, and Sudan, under brutal military rule since last year’s coup. Part of the vital function of the Council is to hear civil society testimony – but seven of the 14 newly elected states have recently been named by the UN Secretary-General for carrying out reprisals against their citizens who have engaged with the UN.
The end of the term of the Marshall Islands, an Oceanic state with a track record for supporting human rights resolutions, also calls into question the Council’s geographic balance: not a single Pacific Island nation now has a place on the Council, while the Caribbean’s sole representative is Cuba’s authoritarian state.
Overall, when the new members start their term in 2023, only three of the Council’s 47 members will have open civic space and 34 – over 70 per cent – are home to serious civic space restrictions, with six having completely closed civic space. This marks a further deterioration compared to the Council as it stood before the election.
Civil society will keep doing everything it can to work with the Council, urge strong decisions on human rights and monitor their implementation. But more commitment is needed to keep the states that most violate human rights away, so the Council’s members will be more willing to take the side of victims and less inclined to turn a blind eye to abuses. Fully competitive elections – with more scope for civil society to ask questions and seek commitments – would be a good start.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The UN must adequately resource the new Special Rapporteur on human rights in Russia and ensure they are fully able to collect evidence and engage with civil society inside and outside Russia.
Regional blocs should be pressured to hold competitive elections to the Human Rights Council and enable civil society scrutiny of the process.
UN Human Rights Council members should commit to not carrying out reprisals against their citizens for engaging with the UN.
Cover photo by Reuters/Denis Balibouse via Gallo Images