Russia-Ukraine conflict enters the UN Human Rights Council

Ukraine's ambassador Yevheniia Filipenko speaks at the opening of the 49th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, 28 February 2022. Keystone / Fabrice Coffrini / Pool

The Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) decided on Monday to hold an urgent debate on the deteriorating rights situation in Ukraine following Russia’s attack.

This content was published on February 28, 2022 - 16:15

Twenty-nine of the 47 council members voted in favour of the meeting requested by Ukraine. Among those supporting the proposal were Ukraine, the US, and European countries. Russia, China, Cuba, Eritrea, and Venezuela voted against the session. There were 13 abstentions.

The urgent dialogue on Ukraine is expected to be held on Thursday. Council members will discuss a resolution calling for an investigation into alleged rights violations in the conflict that opposes Ukraine and Russia since 2014, when the Kremlin annexed Crimea. HRC resolutions are not binding but carry moral weight.

Addressing a room of ministers and top officials ahead of the vote, Yevheniia Filipenko, Ukraine’s ambassador in Geneva said the Russian aggression ongoing since last Thursday “was an attack not only on Ukraine.” It is also “an attack on every UN member state, on the United Nations, and on the principles that this organisation was created to defend.”

The HRC began its main annual session on Monday with a three-day high-level segment during which foreign ministers and diplomats address the council to share their progress and voice their worries about human rights situations at home and abroad. The HRC meeting in Geneva runs until April 1.

Gennady Gatilov, Russia’s ambassador in Geneva, said Ukraine’s call had nothing to do with “true concerns” for human rights in the country. In line with Moscow’s official stance, he criticised Western members of the council for not addressing over the past eight years what he claimed has been the “targeted destruction of completely innocent people” by Ukraine in the Donbass region.

According to Gatilov, the Russian invasion into Ukraine is a “special operation” with the aim “to stop the tragedy” in Ukraine and has not targeted civilians.

Over 100 civilian deaths

Michelle Bachelet, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the council her office had so far recorded 406 civilian casualties in the conflict (102 killed – including seven children – and 304 injured). “The real figures are, I fear, considerably higher,” she said during the session.

Also addressing the HRC, Swiss President Ignazio Cassis, who is also responsible for the foreign ministry, expressed “great compassion” for the conflict’s victims and said Switzerland “condemns in the strongest possible terms the attack by the Russian Federation on Ukraine, which constitutes a flagrant violation of international law.”

Switzerland is currently not a member on the HRC and therefore could not vote on the urgent debate.

“We must give ourselves the means to ensure that those who commit serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law are held accountable. In this respect, Switzerland supports the call for an urgent debate,” Cassis said.

Many UN and country officials have taken the opportunity of the high-level segment of the council’s main annual session to condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine and to demand that it ends its aggression. They have also called for council members to overcome polarisation and work together to protect human rights.

“The escalation of military operations by the Russian Federation in Ukraine is leading to escalating human rights violations. […] Conflict is the utter negation of human rights across the board,” said António Guterres, the UN secretary general.

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