As the war in Ukraine rages on with increased violence, the idea of excluding Russia from the Human Rights Council (HRC) is gaining momentum. But for some large member states, such a drastic move might weaken the body—and the UN itself.
The idea of expelling Russia was publicly floated on March 1 by Antony Blinken in his video address to the Council, and is now being discreetly discussed in New York and Geneva by the US, Europe, and their partners.
The legal basis exists in the UN General Assembly Resolution that established the creation of the HRC, which states that “the General Assembly, by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting, may suspend the rights of membership in the Council of a member of the Council that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights.”
In 2011, the provision allowed the General Assembly to expel Libya, a few days after the Human Rights Council itself had called for the country’s expulsion.
UN watchers both here and in New York tell The Geneva Observer that the recent vote in the UN General Assembly, which saw 141 countries condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine, was the first sign of Russia’s growing isolation. Also noticeable was the decision by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to insist that the organization now refer to a “war” instead of “conflict” when talking about Ukraine, and drop “military operation” in favor of “invasion.”
Civil society is also mobilizing. In a letter to all the members of the UN, over 40 institutions call on governments to “suspend the Russian Federation as a member of the UN Human Rights Council.” The group includes ARTICLE 19, Conectas Direitos Humanos, International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), Open Society Foundations, and the World Organisation against Torture (OMCT).
"IT IS INDISPUTABLE THAT THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION IS COMMITTING WIDESPREAD AND SYSTEMATIC VIOLATIONS OF INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS LAW."
“Which continues to apply throughout the territory of Ukraine during the armed conflict, both in Ukraine and in Russia,” they claim.
“This includes violations of the rights to life, self-determination, liberty and security of person, freedom of movement, expression, association, and assembly, freedom from arbitrary interference with privacy and the home, protection of the family, and the rights to health, housing, education, sanitation, and water. All this in a context in which the Russian aggression constitutes a flagrant violation of the purposes and principles of the UN Charter,” the letter says.
“The Russian Federation’s continued membership of the UN Human Rights Council is likely to bring the Council into disrepute,” they conclude.
However, countries sympathetic to Russia describe the move as potentially counterproductive, claiming it might weaken the UN, through what a Geneva-based diplomat told The G|O would amount to the “shrinking of the diplomatic space.”