Kicking Russia Out of the U.N. Human Rights Council Isn’t Enough
Massive reform is needed for the United Nations to retain credibility.
A board shows the passage of a United Nations General Assembly resolution seeking to suspend Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council in New York City on April 7
This month, the United Nations Human Rights Council began a new session. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov began to speak on March 1, hundreds of diplomats stood up and, turning their back on him, walked out of the meeting in protest of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It seemed to be a powerful statement—one followed up by yesterday’s suspension of Russia from the council. But it’s not enough. The very foundations of the Human Rights Council are flawed.
The council’s president, Federico Villegas, Argentina’s ambassador to the United Nations, told U.N. News that the council must “learn from history and find the opportunity for constructive dialogue.” The council will assess more than 100 reports submitted by more than 30 entities, both by human rights groups and experts. The council assessed more than 100 reports submitted by more than 30 entities, both by human rights groups and experts. It also assessed “50 country situations and 40 themes,” according to U.N. News, before April 1.
Villegas said the council is an instrument of humility. No country has a 100 percent perfect human rights record, he said. There is always more to do. The Human Rights Council will address Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as well as the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But this humility is often skin deep. Members are elected by the U.N. General Assembly and include states that flagrantly abuse human rights, most pertinently Russia as well as China, Cuba, and Venezuela. Venezuela’s 2019 election, years into the country’s economic and political degeneration, was notable.
Even with Russia removed from their number, dictatorships and human rights-abusing states still dominate the council. The dictatorships have taken over the Human Rights Council to ensure that it cannot provide any independent censure of their gross violations of human rights at home or aboard: from China’s genocide of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang to Russia’s actions in Syria and now its invasion of Ukraine.
For three years, China was able to halt a United Nations investigation into Xinjiang, China, in part because of its position on the council. In 2019, using the council as its gallery, China was able to respond to a letter signed by 22 states condemning China’s policies in Xinjiang, with a second letter signed by 37 states that supported Chinese state policies.
The 37 letter grew to 50 signees (including an observer member, the Palestinian Authority) when the supportive letter was reissued a couple of months later. Superficially, it looked as though the democracies had been defeated by weight of numbers. Their efforts to investigate and condemn Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang were temporarily outvoted.
In the words of researchers Roie Yellinek and Elizabeth Chen, the Chinese Communist Party had “leveraged its economic and political influence over other voting members at the [Human Rights Council] to advocate for its own positions, and to weaken legal and procedural frameworks of the international human rights regime.” This sort of advocacy is not limited to China.
Two years later in 2021, Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told the council, “I regret that I am not able to report progress on my efforts to seek meaningful access to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” demonstrating that even if the previous incidents had not taken place, the framework the council itself offers for investigation can still be subverted by dedicated state opposition.
If it cannot investigate Xinjiang and other abuses of human rights within countries that are on the council, what does the council do during its sessions? Like the U.N. General Assembly, it spends a disproportionate amount of time condemning Israel. Israel has been condemned more times by the Human Rights Council than every other condemnation it has issued added together.
This is one of the reasons that caused the United States, frustrated by the council’s “bias,” to withdraw its membership in 2018—only to be reversed in 2021, when the new U.S. administration rejoined.
Israel is not without fault, and it should be called out for its human rights abuses. But it is also just one nation among many. To condemn Israel but remain silent on China and other nations’ human rights records seems to demonstrate either partiality or, because many human rights abusers are members of the council, hypocrisy and self-interest.
The Human Rights Council is not an objective forum where human rights abuses are investigated, debated, and condemned. Instead, it is a political forum where human rights-abusing states hold power. They are able to direct debate and orchestrate the condemnation of their enemies. They can duck investigation and condemnation themselves with the imprimatur of a U.N. council, nominally an organization with an international perspective. What can be done about this? The council is elected by the U.N. General Assembly in a process that guarantees human rights-abusing states, especially economically and politically influential ones, positions on this body. It is a process of “backroom deals, closed slates, and secret ballots,” writes Ted Piccone of the Brookings Institution.
For the Human Rights Council to have meaning, gross human rights abusers must not be permitted to sit on the council. The present system cannot prevent that outcome and, in fact, allows biases toward it.
A two-thirds majority vote of the U.N. General Assembly is required to remove states from the council in the case of extreme and systematic abuses of human rights. This has happened only once before the Russian case: to Libya during Muammar al-Qaddafi’s reign. Libya, not yet at peace or whole, is back on the council.
Some commentators have concluded that the only way forward is for the council to be abolished and replaced. But even the secretary-general of the United Nations cannot abolish the council in its current form. Only the U.N. General Assembly—a grouping that suffers from many of the same institutional problems—can do so.
This would be a significant undertaking. It would be unpopular at the United Nations, in the same way that the United States’ absence from the council between 2018 and 2021 was unpopular.
Reform of these institutions is slow and held back by those who benefit from the status quo. But in a time of democratic backsliding, accentuated by Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, changes to long-standing policies are possible.
The democratic world is already organizing itself more concertedly. That battle should be taken to the United Nations. Democratic countries ought to take the lead and table a motion in the U.N. General Assembly to dissolve the council, which was meant to expose and censure the abusers of human rights but is, for the moment at least, run by them. The best possible replacement has already been suggested, notably by U.S. President Joe Biden: a congress of democracies, states representing the free world, that can be made accountable to their electorates.
Diplomats can turn their back on Lavrov and expel Russia itself, but while the council remains as is, kicking out one dictatorship isn’t enough.
(c) 2022, Foreign Policy