Even as Moscow Presses Unjust Ukraine War, It Maneuvers To Regain Human Rights Seat

‘Electing Vladimir Putin’s Russia to a world human rights council is like making a pyromaniac into the town fire chief,’ UN Watch’s executive director, Hillel Neuer, tells the Sun.

AP/John Minchillo
Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, serving as president of the UN Security Council, gavels in a meeting April 24, 2023, at United Nations headquarters. AP/John Minchillo

Undeterred by several setbacks at the United Nations, Russia is planning to secure a seat next year on the world body’s top human rights organ, several diplomats are telling the Sun. 

Moscow sees its UN status as one of its most powerful diplomatic tools, a remnant of past superpower glory. Its foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, was at Turtle Bay this week, running several meetings as the Security Council’s monthly president. He was a natural in an arena where he once held formidable sway as Russia’s UN ambassador.  

Yet, the situation is more perilous these days. Following its Ukraine invasion, Russia suffered humiliating defeats at the UN as America, European countries, former Soviet republics, and others joined human rights activists and opposition leaders in diminishing Moscow’s influence at the world body. 

The Geneva-based human rights council, meanwhile, has long been a haven for rights violators. Yet, as Russia’s atrocities at home and abroad grew, it became a pariah even there. Beyond Ukraine, Russia has been known to assassinate and jail President Putin’s opponents. It also imprisons foreigners, including, most recently, a Wall Street Journal reporter, Evan Gershkovich.  

This year Russia was defeated in contests for seats in three prominent UN bodies, and last April Moscow suffered its most humiliating Turtle Bay defeat: a couple of months into the assault Moscow launched in Ukraine, the General Assembly voted to suspend Russia’s membership on the UN Human Rights Council.    

Rather than admit defeat, the Kremlin is now trying to re-enlist in the Geneva-based council. “Despite the unprecedented pressure on Russia, we intend to take part in the upcoming elections to the Council,” Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said at Geneva in March. 

In a mid-October vote, the General Assembly will choose candidates for a three-year stint on the rights council among prospective members from the body’s regional blocs. Three diplomats confirmed to the Sun this week that Moscow is in the running for one of two seats allocated to the eastern European bloc.    

As the Czech Republic and Ukraine end their council terms, Albania and Bulgaria are expected to compete with Russia in that bloc. “We will oppose Russia’s candidacy, and we believe that members of the eastern European group will push back as well,” a senior Western ambassador to the UN told the Sun.   

A Geneva-based human rights organization, UN Watch, is launching a campaign to lobby countries to block Russia from taking a council seat. The campaign is expected to include several high-profile exiled critics of the Kremlin’s policies.  

“Electing Vladimir Putin’s Russia to a world human rights council is like making a pyromaniac into the town fire chief,” UN Watch’s executive director, Hillel Neuer, tells the Sun. “This is a regime that slaughters innocent citizens in neighboring countries, and that poisons its own journalists and dissidents.”

On Wednesday a jailed opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, was seen in public for the first time since reports surfaced that he is being held in horrid conditions, has little access to food and medicine, and that he may have been poisoned by a slow-acting substance while in a Russian prison. 

Facing new, trumped-up charges of extremism and terrorism, Mr. Navalny said in a video shot in his prison cell that he expected to face two new trials that will extend his two-plus-year sentence to life in prison. Another high-profile Russian journalist and activist, Vladimir Kara-Murza, was imprisoned last April for publicly opposing the Ukraine war. He too is unlikely to be released as long as Mr. Putin is in power. 

At the same time, Mr. Lavrov has been at Turtle Bay, where he maintains some following among those who remember his long stint here. Still commanding the respect of diplomats, reporters, and hangers-on, Mr. Lavrov’s image nevertheless has been much diminished. 

On Tuesday the Israeli UN ambassador, Gilad Erdan, left the Security Council’s room in protest as Mr. Lavrov presided over a monthly debate on the “Palestinian question.” Despite Israel’s request to respect its national memorial day honoring its fallen soldiers and terror victims, Mr. Lavrov refused to reschedule the debate, in which the vast majority of participants routinely condemn Israel.   

Prior to his dramatic walk-out, Mr. Erdan turned to Mr. Lavrov and asked: “What would you do if this council was convening to single out and condemn the Russian Federation and your soldiers on the 9th of May, on Victory Day over the Nazis?” That date has long been marked by Russia as one of its most solemn national days.  

Mr. Erdan was spared Mr. Lavrov’s scalding later on, when he alleged Israeli violence in the West Bank, condemned occupation there, and warned of the threat its actions pose to international peace. That lecture would have rung much truer if directed, instead, at Russia’s presence in Ukraine. 

The New York Sun

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