Skip to main content

Advertisement

Advertisement

Explainer: Why was Russia suspended from the UN Human Rights Council, and what does it mean?

SINGAPORE — The United Nations (UN) General Assembly voted on Thursday (April 7) to suspend Russia from its human rights body over allegations of war crimes committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine, only the second time a member state has had its membership of the council suspended. 

The vote on the resolution to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council at the UN General Assembly in New York on April 7, 2022.
The vote on the resolution to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council at the UN General Assembly in New York on April 7, 2022.
Follow us on Instagram and Tiktok, and join our Telegram channel for the latest updates.
  • The United Nations Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental 47-member body, through which states discuss human rights conditions for its member states
  • Academics and experts who spoke to TODAY said that the move to suspend Russia was largely symbolic and intended to signal disapproval over Russia's alleged war crimes
  • Singapore's decision to abstain its vote but, at the same time, take a strong stance against Russia's invasion of Ukraine comes from an unwillingness to agree to a set of universal human rights values, said several academics

SINGAPORE — The United Nations (UN) General Assembly voted on Thursday (April 7) to suspend Russia from its human rights body over allegations of war crimes committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine, only the second time a member state has had its membership of the council suspended. 

The vote saw 93 countries voting in favour of the suspension of Russia from the UN Human Rights Council and 24 countries voting against it. The remaining 58 countries, which included Singapore, abstained. 

This was a significantly lower figure than a resolution passed by the UNGA on March 2 when Singapore joined 140 other member nations in voting to condemn Russia's military aggression and demanding an end to its invasion of Ukraine.

The same resolution condemned “all violations of international humanitarian law and violations and abuses of human rights”.

The suspension of Russia from the council was led by the United States over reports of "gross and systematic violations and abuses of human rights" in Ukraine.

Following the vote, Russia's Deputy UN Ambassador Gennady Kuzmin called the decision "an illegitimate and politically motivated step with the aim of demonstratively punishing a sovereign member state of the UN". He then announced that Russia had decided to quit the council altogether. 

TODAY takes a closer look at what the suspension means for Russia and why Singapore abstained from voting on the resolution. 

WHAT IS THE UN HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL? 

The UN Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental 47-member body, through which states discuss human rights conditions for its member states. 

The council, established in 2006, is "responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them". 

The UN Human Rights Council holds at least three regular sessions in a year, where members discuss thematic or country-specific human rights issues and work on resolutions, which can later be drafted and adopted or rejected. 

The council's members are elected by the majority of members in the UN General Assembly through a direct and secret ballot, and is based on equitable geographical distribution.

This means that seats are distributed among regional groups: Africa, Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Caribbean, and Western Europe and other states. 

Russia, which is one of the six eastern European member states, had been due to retire its seat in 2023, while the US was elected to join the council in October last year. 

WHAT DOES RUSSIA'S SUSPENSION FROM THE UN HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL MEAN?

Academics and experts who spoke to TODAY said that the move was largely symbolic and intended to signal disapproval over Russia's alleged war crimes. 

This is not the first time a member state has been suspended from the council. 

In 2011, Libya was suspended following the crackdown on anti-government protests by the Muammar Gaddafi government. 

Assistant Professor Dylan Loh from Nanyang Technological University's Public Policy and Global Affairs division said the suspension meant that Russia would not have been able to officially speak and vote at council meetings, though they would have been able to attend meetings. 

He said: "The Human Rights Council can investigate and report on alleged human rights abuses through its ‘special procedure’ and meetings but no real enforcement mechanism exists." 

The Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council are independent human rights experts with mandates to report and advise on human rights.

However, while the move was largely symbolic, there is still "power in symbolic moves", said Asst Prof Loh. 

"It demonstrates outrage, underlines moral positions and allows for international criticism to take place," he added.

BUT RUSSIA ALSO QUIT THE BODY, SO... 

In response to Russia's decision to quit the body, Ukraine's UN Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya said: "You do not submit your resignation after you are fired." 

Russia was in its second year of a three-year term and under the resolution, the UNGA could have later agreed to end the suspension. However, because Russia quit the council, the termination of Russia's suspension cannot happen.

This was what happened in 2018, when the Trump administration announced that the US would withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council over what it called a "chronic bias against Israel" and a lack of reform.

The US was later re-elected to the council after a three-year absence. 

When asked about Russia's decision to leave the council, former Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) permanent secretary Bilahari Kausikan told TODAY that the move was intended as a means of "face-saving". 

He added that Russia's underlying message was that: "You can't fire me because I quit." 

It is also unlikely that Russia will see its membership restored soon. 

Asst Prof Loh said: "I do not think that this will be on the agenda for the foreseeable future as long as the war is taking place."

Some also raised concerns about the potential polarising effect on the UN and global governance institutions. 

Dr Frederick Kliem, a research fellow and lecturer at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), said: "There is an increasing binary pressure on global governance to choose a side. Global governance would become increasingly ineffective if a permanent split between the US and its supporters on one (side), and Russia, China and their partners on the other side entrenches." 

Global governance would become increasingly ineffective if a permanent split between the US and its supporters on one (side), and Russia, China and their partners on the other side entrenches.
Dr Frederick Kliem, a research fellow and lecturer at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies

WHY DID SINGAPORE ABSTAIN FROM THE VOTE? 

Academics who spoke to TODAY said that Singapore's decision to abstain from voting but, at the same time, take a strong stance against Russia's invasion of Ukraine comes from an unwillingness to agree to a set of universal human rights values.

When asked about what Singapore's decision to abstain signalled, Dr Kleim said: "It means that countries reserve the right to not choose a side — for various reasons that range from strategic autonomy to good bilateral relations with or even dependence on a certain country."

Dr Alan Chong, Associate Professor at the RSIS, said: "Singapore has taken the position which shows that you cannot force human rights standards universally and according to one measure. 

"When this vote was taken, it is aligned with the interpretation from the US, which virtually all UN members share. Singapore uses a middle of the road position, where human rights needs to be taken into context." 

Singapore is currently not a member of the UN Human Rights Council but according to the MFA website, Singapore remains "firmly committed to creating a new process of dialogue and cooperation in this new body, based on respect and tolerance for differences and diversity".

Among the 10 member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, all countries abstained, except Vietnam and Laos, which voted against the resolution, and Myanmar and the Philippines, which voted for it.

Asst Prof Loh said that the vote remains an important one as it allows the international community to "build consensus around what is considered immoral or abhorrent actions".

He added that it is "also useful in helping us understand the complex calculations each country has to take in its own judgement of what is its national interest — such is the case for Singapore." 

Related topics

Russia Ukraine United Nations General Assembly UN Human Rights Council

Read more of the latest in

Advertisement

Popular

Advertisement

Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.