Oppose Putin’s bid for U.N. human rights council seat

GENEVA, October 10, 2023 — Russia is leveraging grain and arms to pressure countries to vote today in support of its candidacy for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. If Moscow’s prior bids are any guide, it has an 80% chance of winning.

“Electing Russia as a guardian of human rights would be a travesty of justice,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, an independent non-governmental human rights group based in Geneva.

The organization addressed the 47-nation council on Monday, a day before the vote, to urge them to oppose Russia’s bid.

Moscow’s abuses are detailed in a joint NGO report that was published ahead of the October 10th vote by UN Watch, Human Rights Foundation and the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights, NGOs based in Switzerland, the U.S. and Canada.

“Electing war criminal Vladimir Putin as a UN judge on human rights is like making a pyromaniac into the town fire chief,” said Neuer.

“When Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya was made chair of the former, discredited U.N. Human Rights Commission in 2003, that proved its death knell. If Vladimir Putin wins next month, while he’s wanted for arrest in The Hague for war crimes, its successor body may meet the same fate.”

From the joint NGO report published by UN Watch, Human Rights Foundation and the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights:

Russia’s Human Rights Record

Russia commits serious human rights violations, including:[1] aggression against Ukraine; extrajudicial killings; enforced disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities; pervasive torture by government law enforcement officers that sometimes resulted in death; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons; arbitrary arrest and detention; political and religious prisoners and detainees; transnational repression against individuals located outside the country; severe arbitrary interference with privacy; providing support to an armed group that recruited or used child soldiers; severe suppression of free expression and media; severe restrictions on internet freedom; severe suppression of the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; refoulement of refugees; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; severe limits on participation in the political process; widespread government corruption; serious government restrictions on domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence and violence against women; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of ethnic and religious minority groups; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting LGBT persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting persons with disabilities; and the worst forms of child labor.

Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, launched in February 2022, is ongoing. As of mid-July, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (“OHCHR”) reported over 25,000 civilian casualties in Ukraine, including more than 9,000 killed and more than 16,000 injured.[2] The numbers are likely considerably higher. At the time of the invasion Russia was a member of the UNHRC, but in April 2022, the UN General Assembly voted to expel Russia from the Council. Reelecting Russia to the Council now, while its war on Ukraine is still ongoing, would be counterproductive for human rights and would send a message that the UN is not serious about holding Russia accountable for its crimes in Ukraine.

Russia also illegally occupies Crimea and parts of Georgia and has committed war crimes in Syria, according to a UN report.[3]

Even aside from these egregious international law violations, Russia is not qualified for Human Rights Council membership. Vladimir Putin, who has served as the President of Russia since 1999, crushes all dissent through political assassinations, assassination attempts, and criminal prosecutions and convictions of opposition leaders, making it impossible to have free and fair elections. Moreover, Putin effectively controls the security forces, the judiciary, the legislature, and the media, and government corruption is widespread.[4]

The two main opposition leaders—Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza—are currently serving lengthy prison terms following convictions in unfair trials on trumped up charges. Alexei Navalny was arrested in 2021 after returning from Germany where he had been treated for poisoning. Russian internal security agents were implicated in that poisoning attack. Navalny is currently serving a nine-year sentence for parole violations, fraud, and contempt of court, but is now facing new charges of creating an extremist network and financing extremist activity which could extend his sentence by up to 30 more years.[5] In April 2023, one year after being arrested, Vladimir Kara-Murza was convicted of treason for having publicly denounced Russia’s war in Ukraine. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He had survived two past poisoning attempts attributed to Russian agents.[6]

Since invading Ukraine, Russia heightened its crackdown on civil society and the media, including through new laws criminalizing “fake war news,” resulting in tens of arrests and the closure of most independent media outlets. Many human rights defenders also fled the country out of concerns for their safety.[7] In the first six months of 2023 alone, at least 43 people were charged with treason. Thirty-one-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter and U.S. citizen Evan Gershkovich was arrested in March 2023 on espionage charges which could lead to a 20-year sentence in a penal colony.[8]

Religious minorities in Russia and Russian occupied parts of Ukraine face persecution and harassment, including use of vague legislation to oppress religious communities and imprison members for peaceful activities, arrests and torture of religious leaders, and attacks on religious buildings.[9]

Violence against women is widespread in Russia. Twenty percent of women have suffered physical abuse by a partner and 14,000 women die of domestic violence each year. In 2017, Russia’s parliament decriminalized domestic violence that does not cause “significant injury,” i.e., hospitalization.[10]

In addition, Russia is notorious for its terrible record when it comes to protecting the LGBT community. In recent months, the Russian parliament has been pushing legislation that prohibits sex-change surgery. Putin has also signed a law banning “LGBT propaganda, pedophilia and gender reassignment” and authorized creation of an institute to study LGBT people as part of the country’s federal psychiatric unit.[11]

UN Voting Record

Negative: As noted above, Russia was expelled from the Council in April 2022, mid-way through its last term due to its aggression in Ukraine. While on the Council it opposed resolutions speaking out for human rights victims in Iran, Nicaragua, and Burundi. It also supported counterproductive resolutions that undermined individual human rights or addressed issues beyond the competency of the Council.

At the General Assembly, Russia opposed resolutions that spoke out for human rights victims in Iran and Syria. Russia also supported counterproductive resolutions that undermined individual human rights by elevating vague and undefined rights such as the “right to peace” above universally recognized individual human rights and shielded human rights abusers through a resolution denying the right to sanction such regimes, and opposed a resolution on the responsibility to prevent genocide.

[1] 2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Russia, U.S. State Department (March 20, 2023), https://www.state.gov/reports/2022-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/russia/.

[2] Ukraine: Civilian casualties from 1 to 16 July 2023, OHCHR (July 17, 2023), https://www.ohchr.org/en/news/2023/07/ukraine-civilian-casualties-1-16-july-2023.

[3] UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria: Unprecedented levels of displacement and dire conditions for civilians in the Syrian Arab Republic, OHCHR (March 2, 2020), https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2020/03/un-commission-inquiry-syria-unprecedented-levels-displacement-and-dire?LangID=E&NewsID=25638.

[4] Freedom in the World 2023: Russia, Freedom House (March 2023), https://freedomhouse.org/country/russia/freedom-world/2023.

[5] Alexei Navalny: Putin critic facing decades in prison as new trial begins, BBC (June 19, 2023), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-65946891.

[6] Top Kremlin critic convicted of treason, gets 25 years, AP (April 18, 2023), https://apnews.com/article/russia-kara-murza-sentence-b9d389feeb468ca3d19171d0440faa7d.

[7] Russia: UN experts condemn civil society shutdown, OHCHR (July 13, 2022), https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/07/russia-un-experts-condemn-civil-society-shutdown.

[8] Russia: Gershkovich’s arbitrary detention is an attack against independent journalism, say UN experts, OHCHR (July 17, 2023), https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2023/07/russia-gershkovichs-arbitrary-detention-attack-against-independent.

[9] USCRIF Releases New Reports on Russia’s Religious Freedom Violations, USCRIF (July 5, 2023), https://www.uscirf.gov/news-room/releases-statements/uscirf-releases-new-reports-russias-religious-freedom-violations.

[10] Russia’s Leaders Won’t Deal with a Domestic Violence Epidemic. These Women Stepped Up Instead, Time (March 3, 2021), https://time.com/5942127/russia-domestic-violence-women/.

[11] Why is Russia ramping up attacks on LGBT rights during the Ukraine invasion? Euronews (June 29, 2023), https://www.euronews.com/2023/06/29/why-is-russia-ramping-up-its-attacks-on-lgbt-rights-during-the-ukraine-invasion.

UN Watch