The United Nations General Assembly held the Human Rights Council elections on October 28, 2016, a monumental day for human rights accountability across the globe. The Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental body within the United Nations, which is comprised of 47 states. Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, states that “All victims of human rights abuses should be able to look to the Human Rights Council as a forum and a springboard for action.” However, these words are too optimistic. In fact, it is common for states in the UNHRC to not uphold this mission.
This was illustrated in Geneva when Russia was rejected for re-admittance into the Council. This is a rare occurrence, as it is viewed as nearly impossible for a Security Council member to lose an election or a bid of any type. The only similar occurrence happened in 2001 when the United States lost a seat in the Human Rights Commission, a predecessor of the Council. In this particular election, Russia lost its seat to serve in the Eastern European region of the Human Rights Council to Hungary and Croatia. Besides Russia, Guatemala was the only other state to lose the election for a seat on the Council. This then begs the question, what led to this substantial loss?
There are believed to be two main reasons for Russia’s failure to regain their seat in the United Nations Human Rights Council; Russia’s intensive domestic human rights abuses and Russia’s interference in Syria.
The 19th session of the Human Rights Council, by UN Geneva
Russian domestic abuses are widely known across globe, and are beginning to impact their world standing. These domestic abuses are largely focused on Crimea, an area annexed by Russia in 2014 after the ousting of Ukraine’s president. Since the beginning of the occupation, Russia has been accused of intimidation, arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial killings, and the denial of basic human rights such as the freedom of speech. These abuses are specifically targeted at political opponents of the Russian Federation and/or those who do not support the enforced Russian legislation and citizenship in Crimea.
The Russian government has also continually contributed to human rights abuses on the mainland. One of the largest issues to date is the lack of freedom of speech and the continuous censorship of the media and the internet, with many independent outlets and journalists being harassed if they publish any information not deemed appropriate by the Russian government. In addition, the right to freedom of assembly has been consistently blocked, and protests curtailed. LGBTQ communities in Russia are facing the brunt of the abuse, often getting fined or being detained for engaging in peaceful protests. In addition, LGBTQ laws are often bypassed in court, and LGBTQ organizations’ public pleas are viewed as 'propaganda.' These are only a few of the abuses that occur against Russian citizens on a daily basis.
While Russian human rights offenses are undermining the safety of its citizens at home, its interference in the Syrian Civil War is also causing severe damage. Since the beginning of the war in September 2015, Russia has been supporting Syrian President Assad’s regime. This is because Russia has a keen interest in protecting their naval facility at the port of Tartous in Syria, the sole Mediterranean base for Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Russia also maintains air forces in Latakia, a Shia ruled region. Because of Russia’s slowly declining military power, it is imperative to the state to ensure these forces in Syria are safe and contained.
A Russian plane attacking an 'enemy position' in Syria, by the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation
Russia has claimed that their involvement in Syria is to prevent terrorism in the region. However, their military intervention has been consistently aimed at Western forces, and those opposed to Assad’s regime. This gives Russia a few advantages: it can claim it intervened while the West has largely remained absent, and maybe more importantly, Russia will be able to gain control of Damascus when the opportunity arises. This would give Russia a crucial hub in the Mediterranean.
Russian intervention in Syria has included regular air strikes since September 2015 and the deployment of ground troops. In March 2016, it was recorded that these airstrikes have killed 4,408 people (including 1,733 civilians). The number has only risen since that date. Russia is currently involved in a bombing campaign on the city of Aleppo and, in October, Russia vetoed a United Nations Resolution to stop the siege of Aleppo, an offensive that has trapped 275,000 people within the city limits. Russia justified the veto by claiming the resolution would shield and protect terrorists within the city, however their political persuasiveness is no longer adequate in the international community.
The doubt that Russia has created amongst the other United Nations members is mirrored in the denial of Russia’s bid to rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council. Louis Charbonneau, the UN director at Human Rights Watch, has exemplified this point by stating, “In rejecting Russia’s bid for re-election to the Human Rights Council, UN member states have sent a strong message to the Kremlin about its support for a regime that has perpetrated so much atrocity in Syria.” What then does this refusal mean to the international community and the United Nations? We can hope that Russia’s failure represents the beginning of a trend within the United Nations to fight back against states who systematically violate human rights. While there remains a considerable number of human rights abuses around the world, we can only hope that Russia is used as an example for the rest of the international community, and will persuade states to rethink some of their own domestic and international campaigns. However, this will be a long and tenuous road as we wait to see the effect that this snub has truly had on the international political climate and Russian policies at home and abroad.