A United Nations General Assembly vote on Thursday approved a US-led bid to suspend Russia from the 47-member Human Rights Council over the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine.
The suspension of the council, which is based in Geneva, is a major diplomatic slap for Russia, one of the founding members of the United Nations. The decision to suspend Russia required a two-thirds majority of the votes cast, with abstentions not counted as votes, and is seen as a barometer of global disgust with the apparent atrocities in Ukraine.
The resolution received 93 votes in favour, 24 against, and 58 countries abstained.
Linda Thomas Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, called the vote “an important and historic moment”.
The United States and its European allies have accused Russia of misusing the United Nations program to spread propaganda and divert attention from the devastation its forces have wrought in Ukraine. The United States says some of the Russian military’s actions amount to war crimes and several United Nations officials have called for independent investigations to hold Russia accountable.
“We have worked to ensure that a persistent and serious human rights abuser is not allowed to take up a leadership position in the field of human rights at the United Nations,” said Ms. Thomas Greenfield in her final speech after the vote.
China said before the vote that it would not support the measure, and India, Brazil, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates – all members of the UN Security Council – abstained. Their arguments included that the move might exacerbate the war, and that further investigation of the reported atrocities was needed before the United Nations could take action.
They also said that the United Nations should focus on ending the conflict through diplomatic negotiations. “When the lives of innocent human beings are at stake, diplomacy should prevail as the only viable option,” said Indian Ambassador TS Tirumurti.
Ukraine’s ambassador, Sergei Kiselitsya, said before the vote that suspending Russia was “not an option, but a duty” in order to save lives and prevent the Human Rights Council from collapsing.
Russia described the move as “an attempt by the United States to maintain its hegemony and complete control” and “the use of human rights colonialism in international relations.”
In a surprising but controversial move, Russia announced that it would terminate its membership in the Rights Council after the Council voted to suspend it. The reason given by Russian officials is that the council is “monopolized by one group of countries who use it to achieve their short-term goals.”
The UK representative responded by comparing Russia to someone who resigned after being fired.
The measure to suspend Russia’s membership came in the wake of the indiscriminate Russian bombing of Ukraine and the reported killing and torture of civilians on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, indicating Russia’s guilt. Ukraine, the United States and others have said the actions amounted to war crimes.
Only four countries voted with Russia in two General Assembly resolutions in March that rebuked Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces.
The General Assembly, which elects members of the Human Rights Council, suspended only one country: Libya, in March 2011. But this action, taken after President Muammar Gaddafi launched a fierce crackdown on anti-government protesters, was taken with support. For Libyan diplomats in New York and Geneva who have distanced themselves from the actions of their government.
By contrast, Russia’s suspension comes in the face of its blanket denial of any rights abuses in Ukraine. The Kremlin had warned that it would regard a vote in favor of the resolution or even an abstention as “unfriendly” actions that would have consequences for its relations with those countries.
Rights groups have said that Russia’s suspension is the first time that one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council has lost its membership rights in any UN organization.
Her suspension from the Human Rights Council is of practical significance as well as symbolic.
Russia has been active in council actions that challenge any resolutions critical of specific countries, particularly allies such as Syria and Belarus, and has proposed amendments designed to undermine a wide range of human rights initiatives.
After the General Assembly vote on Thursday, it will remain a member of the Council but is unable to propose resolutions, amend the schedule, or address the Council except in deliberations on cases that have a direct relationship to it.
The suspension will remain in effect until the General Assembly decides to lift it or until the end of 2023, when Russia’s membership period expires.
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