Russia is seeking election to the United Nations’ top human rights body in a vote next week that will offer the latest test of international support for the Western-led diplomatic isolation imposed on Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine.
Russia is hoping it can deflect attention from its assault on Ukraine and regain its seat on the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council after the General Assembly voted to suspend it in April 2022, two months after the start of its full-scale invasion.
Observers say the vote, scheduled for Tuesday in the 193-member General Assembly, is too close to call, in part because Russia maintains support among some countries of the global south for its opposition to what it calls Western hegemony.
Independent human rights groups have greeted Russia’s candidacy with disbelief, describing it as an extraordinary display of diplomatic chutzpah.
“Russia is manifestly unfit for membership of the Human Rights Council,” Felix Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, wrote in a letter to diplomatic missions in New York on Oct. 4. The letter drew attention to credible reports of widespread Russian war crimes in Ukraine and political repression domestically. On Thursday, Ukrainian officials accused Russian forces of bombarding a village away from the front line in eastern Ukraine where people had gathered for a wake, killing more than 50 people.
In the first half of this year, Russian bombardments of Ukraine killed six civilians a day and wounded 20 others on average, U.N. monitors in Ukraine reported this week. The U.N. said it had documented nearly 10,000 civilian deaths since the start of the invasion in February 2022, and believes the actual number is far higher.
An international commission’s report to the Human Rights Council last month detailed wide-ranging and systematic torture of prisoners of war by Russian forces in Ukraine. A separate report by a U.N. human rights expert last month documented arbitrary arrests, beatings and prison terms handed out by Russian courts to crush political dissent.
Russia’s suspension last year was only the second time that a nation had been kicked off the 47-member Human Rights Council and was a humiliation for the country, one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. China, Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea and Syria were among the 24 member states that opposed Russia’s removal.
Human rights groups argue that restoring Russia’s membership would damage the credibility of the council, which is mandated by the U.N. General Assembly to uphold and promote human rights around the word.
Russia will be competing with Albania and Bulgaria for two seats open to Eastern European countries. Despite its isolation from the West, the Kremlin retains support among some countries in the global south because of its attacks against what it calls U.S. and NATO hypocrisy, its promotion of so-called traditional values over L.G.B.T.Q. rights and its resistance to Western calls for accountability for human rights abuses.
The West’s focus on Ukraine, some observers say, is causing consternation among some U.N. member states, including in Africa, that are more worried about conflicts closer to home, global economic challenges and climate change.
“There is a real risk that the West and its allies are sleepwalking into a situation where Russia can be elected,” said Marc Limon, the head of the Universal Rights Group, a Geneva research institute that monitors human rights developments. “That would be catastrophic for the Human Rights Council.”