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Russia wants to return to the UN Human Rights Council

Russia will seek re-election to the UN’s top human rights body next week in what is seen as a crucial test of Western efforts to maintain Moscow’s diplomatic isolation since 2022.

Amid creeping war fatigue in Ukraine, some diplomats believe Russia has a good chance of returning to the UN Human Rights Council in a secret ballot on Tuesday, 18 months after it was ousted from the US-led post. A senior Asian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told:

I think there is Ukraine fatigue. And second, many people do not want UN bodies to be dominated by Western voices, not to mention overbearing attitudes.

Russia’s critics say its re-election would negatively affect the reputation of the Geneva Council, one of the UN’s most effective bodies. However, Moscow has been active in attracting the voices of African, Asian and other non-Western countries to the 193-member UN General Assembly, combating the hypocrisy and unfair bias of the United States and the rest of the Western world. Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mr Vassily Nebenzia, said on Thursday:

The Human Rights Council must be protected from misuse as a tool for settling political scores and from the practice of double standards. Those are the tactics of certain states… that proclaim themselves to be human rights champions.

Mr Nebenzia was speaking just hours after a missile attack in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region killed at least 52 people. Ukrainian and UN officials blamed Russia. Moscow has not commented this accusation but it denies deliberately targeting civilians.

Russia is competing with Bulgaria and Albania for two Eastern Europe seats. Each of the winning candidates needs a majority – at least 97 votes – to win a three-year term beginning on 1 January. Mr Richard Gowan of the International Crisis Group, said:

There is a chance that UN members who want to avoid supporting Russia openly will help Moscow out this time. However, Western countries are known for being able to work out how states voted so I think the Russian bid may still fizzle.

The General Assembly mustered the necessary two-thirds majority to remove Russia from the Human Rights Council in April 2022 – almost halfway through its three-year term and shortly after Ukraine recaptured the town of Bucha and accused Moscow of large-scale atrocities. Russia has denied the allegations.

The council has no legally binding powers, but its meetings are of high interest and it can authorise investigations to document violations that sometimes become the basis for war crimes prosecutions.

In March 2022, the Council launched an investigation into the war in Ukraine and accused Russian troops of violations that could be classified as crimes against humanity. The Council also appointed an investigator to examine the human rights situation in the country. Russia denies these accusations.

The UN Human Rights Council is based in Geneva and has 47 members, each elected for a three-year term.

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