UN to appoint Special Rapporteur to investigate human rights abuses in Russia

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistFriday 28 October 2022

On 7 October, the UN Human Rights Council passed a historic resolution to appoint a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Russian Federation. The move marks the first time the UN body will examine the rights record of one of the so-called P5 members that hold permanent seats on the UN Security Council.

The resolution outlined grave concerns over the marked increase in the mass arbitrary arrest, detention and harassment of Russian civilians, including peaceful protesters, political opponents, civil society representatives, human rights defenders, journalists and minority groups.

Seventeen Council members voted in favour of appointing a special rapporteur. A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) told Global Insight that the resolution sent ‘a strong message from the international community not only to people in the Russian Federation but to those around the world whose human rights have been suppressed and violated.’

Six members – Bolivia, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Kazakhstan and Venezuela – voted against the resolution and 24 states abstained. Among the abstentions were Brazil, India and Mexico, as well as 12 African states. The OHCHR said despite the ‘differing views during the negotiations and voting on the resolution’, that the mandate had been approved by the Council and deserved the ‘full respect and cooperation of all stakeholders.’

Mark Stephens CBE, Co-Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute Council and a partner at Howard Kennedy, believes appointing a special rapporteur to monitor human rights in Russia marks a significant ‘inflection point’ in international relations. ‘There have been unrelenting domestic attacks on human rights in Russia,’ he says. ‘Some of the diminishing human rights protections have aided Russia's war on Ukraine and ongoing violations of the UN Charter. We must ensure that human rights work in Russia can continue. It's vital that victims have a place to turn, and that those who help those victims are part of a world community with irreducible minimum standards and norms.’

It’s making a very strong statement that even though the focus is on the war in Ukraine, that there are grave human rights violations going on in Russia itself

Professor Rosa Freedman
Chair of Law, Conflict and Global Development, University of Reading

In April, the UN Human Rights Council suspended Russia’s membership following its continued aggression in Ukraine. On 18 October, the UN published the findings of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, which concluded that ‘an array of war crimes, violations of human rights and international humanitarian law have been committed in Ukraine.’

The move to appoint a country-specific rapporteur to examine human rights in Russia is hugely significant at this time, says Professor Rosa Freedman, Chair of Law, Conflict and Global Development at the University of Reading and an expert in human rights bodies and the special procedures of the UN Human Rights Council.

‘It’s making a very strong statement that even though the focus is on the war in Ukraine, that there are grave human rights violations going on in Russia itself,’ she says. ‘That statement is very different to suspending Russia from the Human Rights Council. That was a statement being made about Russia's human rights abuses in Ukraine. This is making a statement about the domestic side.’

Sternford Moyo, IBA President and senior partner of Scanlen & Holderness in Zimbabwe, says the creation of this new mandate denotes the severity of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the willingness of the international community to challenge this aggression. ‘Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, has seriously abused its power to commit crimes against humanity and to defy the dictates of international law and the rule of law,’ he says. ‘Russia enjoys special powers and privileges including veto power. Unless special measures are taken against it, a lasting impression that those with veto power enjoy impunity will be created.’

Freedman says the resolution also shows the country’s waning influence at the UN. ‘Russia now doesn't have any way of doing what it previously would have done – and what lots of powerful countries do – which is leaning on its allies to make sure that resolutions don't get tabled or don't get passed. This is why we’ve seen the special rapporteur role being created.’

There are significant doubts over whether the mandate holder will be given access to Russia in the current geopolitical climate. Following a rigorous selection and appointment process, a candidate is expected to be approved at the next Council session in late March 2023, meaning they are unlikely to be in office much before early April. In the meantime, Freedman says the OHCHR will be doing everything in its power to ensure the appointed candidate can ‘hit the ground running’.

Freedman believes the new mandate to examine the human rights of a P5 member also marks a significant shift in UN dynamics. ‘What's happened is the Security Council clearly is impotent right now to do anything,’ she says. ‘The General Assembly has really stepped up and the Human Rights Council recognises its role as an intergovernmental body.’

The resolution has also cast a spotlight on the human rights track records of other P5 members, namely China. The day before the vote on the Russian special rapporteur mandate, a resolution to debate China’s mass human rights violations against the Uyghurs and other Muslim groups in the Xinjiang region failed as the country employed its political muscle to have the resolution defeated. Although 17 members voted in favour, 19 voted against the resolution and 11 abstained.

However, Freedman says the debate itself already indicates progress in holding China to account. ‘What China doesn’t want is a debate on the report in the Human Rights Council being live webcast around the world,’ she says. ‘But the fact that this report – which has been many years in the making and many years in the blocking by China – got produced this summer is, again, another step forward in terms of P5 countries receiving scrutiny.’

Image credit: Police officers in riot gear block street during an opposition protest rally in Moscow. Young men hold a flag of Russia. AdobeStock.com

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