The United Nations General Assembly voted Thursday to suspend the Russian Federation from the U.N. Human Rights Council.
The action was well justified by the overwhelming evidence that Russian forces committed gross and systematic war crimes in Ukraine. Based on these horrible actions, Russia does not deserve to sit on the premier human rights body in the U.N. system.
The U.S. deserves congratulations for leading this effort. Suspending Russia is an unalloyed good outcome. However, we need to also acknowledge that the suspension is only a diplomatic brushback, not accountability for Ukraine.
After the General Assembly action, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken crowed:
By suspending Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council, countries around the world chose to hold Moscow to account today for gross and systematic violations of human rights in its premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified war of choice against Ukraine … Russia has no place in a body whose primary purpose is to promote respect for human rights. As I said earlier today, today a wrong has been righted.
The world is sending another clear signal that Russia must immediately and unconditionally cease its war of aggression against Ukraine and honor the principles enshrined in the U.N. Charter. The international community will continue to hold Russia to account, and the United States will continue to stand with the people of Ukraine as they fight for their sovereignty, democracy, and freedom.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
First, the signal was far from clear. A month ago, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning Russia for the invasion of Ukraine and demanded that Russia “immediately, completely, and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.” That nonbinding resolution was adopted by a vote of 141-5.
Thursday’s resolution suspending Russia from the Human Rights Council was adopted by a vote of 93-24. Thus, when given the chance to do something more than support a rhetorical criticism of Russia, almost 50 nations lost their nerve and abstained from the vote—even after Russian atrocities in Bucha, Ukraine, were revealed to the world.
Worse, the U.N. secretary-general was opposed to this action. His spokesperson warned that it would be a “dangerous precedent”—sentiment echoed by China. What clarity is provided when over half the U.N. membership and the U.N. secretary-general himself can’t muster the nerve to support suspending a gross violator of human rights from the Human Rights Council?
Second, what wrong has been righted? Yes, Russia was suspended from the Human Rights Council. This is a political embarrassment.
The truth is that Russia should never have been on the Human Rights Council in the first place. Neither its past actions in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and earlier invasion of Ukraine nor its poisoning of dissidents around the world and imprisonment of Russian critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin domestically prevented 158 countries from voting to put Russia on the council in 2020.
Sadly, the Human Rights Council too often fails to live up to expectations. Anti-Israel bias is embedded in the body—during the most recent session, the council adopted four resolutions condemning Israel versus only one on Russia. The council fails to address human rights situations in an even-handed manner—China, for instance, has never been condemned by the council.
A key problem is the membership. Over two-thirds of the members of the Human Rights Council are not considered “free” by Freedom House. Is it any wonder that the council is not a beacon for human rights? It reflects its membership.
The suspension of Russia highlights the fact that many other countries that regularly violate human rights sit on the Human Rights Council: China, Cuba, Pakistan, Somalia, and Venezuela, to name a few.
Until the council is reformed, it will continue to underwhelm. But the Biden administration still has not revealed a reform platform or strategy.
Lastly, has Russia been held to account? No.
Kicking Russia off the Human Rights Council is deserved and overdue, but it provides no justice or comfort to the victims in Bucha or other victims of Russian brutalities.
For those hoping that “international justice” will leap into action, bear in mind that the International Criminal Court did not formally launch an investigation into Russia’s alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes during the 2008 war in Georgia until 2016.
The court has yet to open a single case or issue a single warrant. In all likelihood, justice will not be realized unless Ukraine is victorious and will be achieved in Ukrainian courts, not an international tribunal.
The U.S. and the other 92 member states deserve credit for suspending Russia from the Human Rights Council. But much work remains both to fix the U.N. human rights system and to hold Putin and Russia to account for the awful crimes committed in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Let’s not confuse a diplomatic slap for accountability.
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