Ouster of Russia From UN’s Human Rights Council Emerges as a Pyrrhic Victory

There is a sense among some at the UN that America would have done better quitting the Geneva-based body — and taking the rest of the democracies with it.

A completed resolution vote tally to affirm the suspension of the Russian Federation from the United Nations Human Rights Council April 7, 2022. AP/John Minchillo

The ouster today of Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council will be retailed in Washington as a success for the Biden administration, whose envoy to the world body, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, led the effort. Yet there is a sense among some here at the UN that America would have done better quitting the Geneva-based body — and taking the rest of the democracies with it. 

It’s no small thing that Ms. Thomas-Greenfield was able to put together a vote in the General Assembly of 93 to 24, with 58 abstentions, to suspend Russia’s membership in the Human Rights Council. “This is an important and historic moment,” Ambassador  Thomas-Greenfield told the General Assembly.

“Today the international community took one collective step in the right direction,” she said. “We ensured a persistent and egregious human rights violator will not be allowed to occupy a position of leadership on human rights at the UN.”

Russia reacted with a classic “you can’t fire me, I quit” maneuver. It  announced shortly after the vote that it is resigning from the council. By that time, however, the die was cast: Despite its warning of a “dangerous precedent,” Russia suffered the same fate as Libya, which was suspended from the UNHRC in 2011.

To pass the resolution, two-thirds of the UN members voting either yes or no were needed. Both America and Russia lobbied hard with all ambassadors. Moscow’s threats of retaliation led to abstentions of most Arab and a number of African countries dependent on wheat and other imports from Russia. 

Publicly Moscow announced that abstentions would be considered a hostile act, but its ire was mostly directed at those who supported the American drive to inflict diplomatic humiliation on the Kremlin. 

The culmination of the American lobbying campaign took place in an unlikely event on the eve of the vote. On Wednesday the Israeli ambassador here, Gilad Erdan, invited some 50 colleagues to a pre-Seder event. The ambassadors were videotaped holding hands, singing the traditional “Dayenu” — a song of thanks for delivering the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

Seated to the right of Mr. Erdan was Ukraine’s envoy at the UN,  Sergiy Kyslytsya. To his left was Ms. Thomas-Greenfield, who seemed to know the song well from past Seders. By the end of the night, the American ambassador urged all participants to support the resolution. Most — including Israel — did. 

As the Israeli foreign minister, Yair Lapid, made clear today in a statement, though, support of Russia’s expulsion did not amount to Israeli support of the UN council. That council, he said, is “extremist, morally flawed, biased, and in its very essence an anti-Israel body that has been exploited as a political tool since its establishment by the world’s main human rights violators.”

Just watching the list of speakers before today’s vote would suffice to make Mr. Lapid’s point. Standing by Russia’s side in opposing the resolution were current, past, and future members of the Council — rights violators like Kazakhstan, Venezuela, North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba, and Communist China. 

Some 68 percent of the current Geneva-based Council members are non-democracies, UN Watch’s executive director, Hillel Neuer, who launched the drive to expel Russia shortly after it invaded Ukraine last month, says. 

“This a rare day of moral clarity at the UN and its human rights body,” Mr. Neuer told the Sun after his drive led to today’s vote. Specifically, he added, Russia’s expulsion represents an “effective abandonment of a long-held European position that justifies the election of dictatorships to human rights bodies under a ‘big tent’ theory.”

So what about America? 

Foreseeing the problematic structure of the Geneva-based Council when it was founded in 2006, President George W. Bush refused to join. It was established in an attempt to reform its flawed predecessor, the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, but criteria for membership in the Council was even more lax than the Commission’s.

President Obama nevertheless decided to lend credibility to the new Council by joining. He vowed to reform it from within. President Biden rejoined the Council after President Trump left it, vowing reform and a renewed drive to defend Israel against bias. 

Yet, even as last week the Council ended a session by adopting four resolutions to condemn Israel, and only one resolution on Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine, Secretary of State Blinken issued a statement, calling it a “great session.” When the Council gathered for a session last May to condemn Israel’s war of defense against Hamas in Gaza, the American ambassador failed to even show up.

America, in other words, did not join the Human Rights Council to reform it from within or to defend Israel. Rather, it joined to go along and get along. Suspending Russia’s membership is a good first step, but it has a pyrrhic feature — in that it will not change the realities in Ukraine nor make a dent in the Council’s own record.

Correction: Libya was suspended from the UNHRC in 2011. An incorrect country was listed in an earlier version of this article.

The New York Sun

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