Russia’s candidacy did not come as a surprise. The government in Moscow has long been eager to return to the forum, from which it was dropped nearly four years ago. In February, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov used a speech in front of the council to excoriate Western democracies for “meddling in the domestic affairs of sovereign states” and imposing “highly dubious ‘values’ . . . unilaterally invented by the West.” Distinctly Soviet in style, Lavrov’s address included accusations of human rights abuses directed at Russia’s democratic neighbors, including the Baltic states.
The Kremlin has also been trying to play up its own record. The position paper drafted by Lavrov’s ministry reads like a novel from George Orwell. Asserting “promotion and protection of human rights” as one of its “overarching priorities,” the Russian government commits to ensuring “strict compliance by states with their international human rights obligations”; “involv[ing] civil society institutions in addressing international issues”; and “enhanc[ing] cooperation with . . . human rights organizations.” As proof of its compliance, the ministry points to “over 150 responses” it has sent to U.N. monitoring bodies, and to the fact that it “actively engages with regional human rights institutions and mechanisms, in particular . . . the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.”
Sadly for the Kremlin, such claims can be easily checked against the public record. Here is one telling example. In January 2019, U.N. mandate-holders sent a joint communication to the Russian government about the murders of three Russian investigative journalists working to uncover the activities of the shadowy Wagner mercenary group and its patron, top Kremlin confidant Yevgeniy Prigozhin, in Africa. Among other things, the rapporteurs specifically requested the Russian authorities “to investigate any link or involvement of the Wagner Group . . . in military operations in the Central African Republic.”
Weeks later, the Russian government sent a vague bureaucratic nonresponse that left this and other key requests unaddressed. Does Lavrov count this among the “over 150 responses” his officials sent to Geneva? Often, the Kremlin doesn’t even go to this much trouble. In November 2018, the U.N. Working Group on arbitrary detention requested that the Russian government “immediately” release its longest-held political prisoner, Alexei Pichugin, whose detention was found contrary to international law. This time, the response was silence.
Perhaps the most bizarre of all was the Kremlin’s reference to its “active engagement” with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe. Both of these organizations tried to conduct oversight into the investigation of the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov — and both were stonewalled by Russian authorities. The OSCE rapporteur was denied access to the case files on the ground that they are protected by the law concerning state secrets. The Council of Europe rapporteur was banned from entering Russia altogether.
The reason for establishing the U.N. Human Rights Council to replace the defunct (and widely discredited) Human Rights Commission was to avoid the offense of the top human rights watchdog being led by human rights abusers. Sudan’s uncontested election to the commission shortly after the beginning of the genocide in Darfur was among the deciding arguments. In setting up the new body, the United Nations mandated that “members elected to the Council shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.”
But even a quick glance at the Putin government’s record shows that it falls well short of the acceptable minimum. It holds hundreds of political prisoners. It blacklists civic groups as “undesirable organizations.” It holds elections “without real competition” and conducts crackdowns on peaceful protesters. And that’s not even mentioning the indiscriminate bombing of civilians during its military operations in Syria, or its wholesale annexation of Crimea from neighboring Ukraine. Indeed, if there ever were an embodiment of the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse, it would be Putin’s regime regaining a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council.
“When the U.N. . . . ends up electing human rights violators to the Human Rights Council, it indulges the very of culture of impunity it is supposed to combat,” noted Irwin Cotler, a prominent human rights advocate and former Canadian justice minister. “Democracies must join in the preservation and protection of the Council’s mandate, and not end up accomplices to its breach.”
The council rightly earns its share of criticism (just take its inexplicable obsession with Israel, for example). Yet it is an important institution: It provides much-needed oversight for all U.N. member states, not just its own members, and gives civil societies an opportunity to directly confrontdictatorships that they rarely get at home. Democratic nations must at least make an effort to defend the council’s core mission. Keeping Putin’s regime out would be a good place to start.