Russia was defeated in its bid to regain a seat in the UN’s premiere human rights body by a significant majority in Tuesday’s election in the General Assembly, which voted last year to suspend Moscow after its invasion of Ukraine.
Russia was competing against Albania and Bulgaria for two seats on the Geneva-based Human Rights Council representing the East European regional group.
In the secret ballot vote, Bulgaria got 160 votes, Albania got 123 votes and Russia just 83 votes.
Russia has claimed that it has support from a silent majority, and even though 83 votes came from less than half the 193 UN member nations, there is certain to be a concern, especially by Ukraine and its Western allies, that Moscow’s support was that high.
“The main phobia of our American colleagues today is electing Russia to the Human Rights Council,” Mr Nebenzia told a Security Council meeting called by Ukraine on last week’s strike by a Russian missile on a Ukrainian soldier’s wake in a small village that killed 52 people.
The US and others sent letters to many of the 193 members of the General Assembly urging a vote against Russia, according to diplomats. Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, was among the non-government letter-writers also urging Russia’s defeat.
US deputy ambassador, Robert Wood told the Security Council that Russia’s re-election to the Human Rights Council “while it openly continues to commit war crimes and other atrocities would be an ugly stain that would undermine the credibility of the institution and the United Nations”.
In April 2022, less than two months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the General Assembly voted 93-24 with 58 abstentions on a US-initiated resolution to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council over allegations that its soldiers in Ukraine engaged in rights violations that the US and Ukraine called war crimes.
New York-based Human Rights Watch urged UN members to deny a seat on the rights council to Russia, saying its forces in Ukraine continue to commit apparent war crimes, including unlawful attacks, and crimes against humanity such as torture and summary executions.
President Vladimir Putin and his children’s rights commissioner are also sought by the International Criminal Court for the unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children, it said.
The Human Rights Council was created in 2006 to replace a commission discredited because of some members’ poor rights records. But the new council soon came to face similar criticism, including that rights abusers sought seats to protect themselves and their allies.
The council reviews the human rights records of all countries periodically, appoints independent investigators to examine and report on issues such as torture and situations in countries such as North Korea and Iran. It also sends fact-finding missions to investigate rights violations, including in Ukraine.
Under the council’s rules, its 47 seats are allocated to regional groups to ensure geographical representation. Members are elected yearly by the General Assembly for staggered three-year terms that begin on January 1.
In Tuesday’s election, the only other competitive race was in the Latin America and Caribbean group where Cuba, Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Peru were competing for three seats. Peru was the loser.
The other regional races were not competitive. China, Japan, Kuwait and Indonesia were elected to represent the Asia group. Burundi, Malawi, Ghana and Ivory Coast were elected to hold four African seats. And France and the Netherlands will take two Western seats.
Human Rights Watch said last week that China’s rights record should disqualify it from the Human Rights Council.
It pointed to last year’s report by the office of the UN human rights commissioner which said China’s discriminatory detention of Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups in the western region of Xinjiang may constitute crimes against humanity,