Russia is seeking re-election to the United Nations’ top human rights body next week in what is seen as a crucial test of Western efforts to keep Moscow diplomatically isolated over its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
Amid creeping signs of Ukraine war “fatigue”, some diplomats say Russia has a reasonable chance of getting voted back onto the U.N. Human Rights Council in Tuesday’s secret ballot, 18 months after it was ousted in a U.S.-led drive.
“I think there is Ukraine fatigue. And second, many people do not want U.N. bodies to be dominated by Western voices, not to mention overbearing attitudes,” a senior Asian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.
Critics of Russia say its re-election while the nearly 20-month war in Ukraine still rages unabated would wreck the credibility of the Geneva-based Council, one of the more effective U.N. bodies.
But Moscow is actively canvassing the votes of African, Asian and other non-Western countries in the 193-member U.N. General Assembly by attacking what it sees as the hypocrisy and unfair bias of the United States and its allies.
“The Human Rights Council must be protected from misuse as a tool for settling political scores and from the practice of double standards,” Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, said on Thursday.
“Those are the tactics of certain states … that proclaim themselves to be human rights champions,” he told a subdued diplomatic reception at Russia’s U.N. mission in New York, in a clear swipe at Western nations.
Nebenzia was speaking just hours after a missile attack in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region killed at least 52 people. Ukrainian and U.N. officials blamed Russia. Moscow has not commented but denies deliberately targeting civilians.
Russia is up against Bulgaria and Albania for two Eastern Europe seats. The successful candidates each need a majority – at least 97 votes – to win a three-year term starting on Jan. 1.
“There is a chance that U.N. members who want to avoid supporting Russia openly will help Moscow out this time,” said Richard Gowan, of the International Crisis Group.
But Western countries are known for being able to work out how states voted, he added, “so I think the Russian bid may still fizzle”.
The General Assembly has overwhelmingly denounced Russia’s war in Ukraine several times and Moscow has struggled to win several U.N. elections.
The General Assembly mustered the required two-thirds majority to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council in April last year – nearly halfway through its three-year term and shortly after Ukraine recaptured the town of Bucha and accused Moscow of large-scale atrocities. Russia denied the accusation.
The council does not have legally-binding powers, but its meetings raise scrutiny and it can mandate investigations to document abuses that have sometimes formed the basis for war crimes prosecutions.
Britain’s foreign minister James Cleverly described Moscow’s re-election bid as “farcical”. Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Yevheniia Filipenko, called it “beyond any comprehension and absurd”.
Although countries with questionable rights records have been elected in the past, observers say that never in the council’s 17-year history has a state so widely accused of egregious crimes as Russia gained voting rights.
Western nations also note that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is wanted by the International Criminal Court on accusations of war crimes in Ukraine.
“It would obviously be disastrous for the council’s credibility, but also for the U.N.’s credibility in the eyes of people – especially victims – around the world,” said Marc Limon, executive director of Universal Rights Group.
Last March, the council opened an investigation into the Ukraine war and has accused Russian forces of violations that may constitute crimes against humanity. It also appointed an investigator to examine Moscow’s domestic rights record.
Russia denies the accusations.
Unlike the U.N. Security Council in New York, where Russia is one of five veto-wielding permanent members, none of the 47 rights council members has a veto. But vote margins for launching politically sensitive probes are increasingly narrow.
“I don’t see a reason why Russia should not be on the council,” a senior African diplomat told Reuters. “Maybe the Ukraine war, but Russia should still be considered. It has made a lot of contributions.”