United Nations votes to SUSPEND Russia from human rights council

  • The UN General Assembly (UNGA) has voted in favour of a US-initiated resolution to suspend Russia from the world body’s Human Rights Council.
  • Of the 193 members of the UN assembly, 93 voted in favor of Russia’s suspension while 24 voted against and 58 abstained.
  • Ukraine has urged citizens in the country’s east to flee as Moscow refocuses its offensive on the Donbas region.
  • President Alexander Lukashenko says Belarus must be involved in any deal brokered to end the war.
  • Russia’s prime minister says attempts to isolate Moscow from the global economy will fail as Western powers roll out new sanctions.

The United Nations General Assembly on Thursday suspended Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council over reports of “gross and systematic violations and abuses of human rights” by invading Russian troops in Ukraine.

More than 90 countries voted to kick Moscow off the council after an American-led drive, while 24, including the despotic regimes of China, Syria, Belarus and Zimbabwe – all Russia’s closest allies – voted against the measure. Nearly 60 countries including India, which continues to buy weapons from Russia, abstained.

A two-thirds majority of voting members – excluding abstentions – was needed to suspend Russia from the 47-member council.

Suspensions from the council are rare. Libya was suspended in 2011 because of violence against protesters by forces loyal to then-leader Muammar Gaddafi. 

The vote followed allegations that Russian troops systematically executed civilians in Bucha, a town north-west of Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv, and amid other reports of human rights abuses since President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion on February 24.

Russia voiced regret at its suspension from the council but vowed to defend its interests.

‘We’re sorry about that,’ Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an interview with Britain’s Sky News. ‘And we’ll continue to defend our interests using every possible legal means.’ 

The resolution adopted by the 193-member General Assembly draft expresses ‘grave concern at the ongoing human rights and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine,’ particularly at reports of rights abuses by Russia in the town of Bucha and others.

Russia had threatened countries that a yes vote or abstention will be viewed as an ‘unfriendly gesture’ with consequences for bilateral ties.

The country denies attacking civilians in Ukraine. U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said on Tuesday that while Bucha was under Russian control ‘not a single civilian suffered from any kind of violence’ – despite swathes of evidence on the contrary.

Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya introduced the U.S.-initiated resolution before the 193 members of the General Assembly vote.

He urged members of the UN to suspend Russia, saying it has committed ‘horrific human rights violations and abuses that would be equated to war crimes and crimes against humanity.’

‘Russia’s actions are beyond the pale,’ he said. ‘Russia is not only committing human rights violations, it is shaking the underpinnings of international peace and security.’

China was one of the 24 countries to vote ‘no’, with China’s ambassador to the United Nations Zhang Jun saying: ‘We oppose double standards and oppose exerting pressure on other countries in the name of human rights.’ 

Earlier, the G7 and Ukraine urged the council to vote to remove Russia.

‘We are convinced that now is the time to suspend Russian membership of the Human Rights Council,’ G7 foreign ministers from CanadaFrance, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain and the United States said in a statement.

Ukrainian officials are currently gathering evidence from Bucha and other cities, amid signs Moscow’s troops killed people indiscriminately before retreating.

Ukrainian authorities said the bodies of least 410 civilians were found in towns around Kyiv, victims of what President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said was a Russian campaign of murder, rape, dismemberment and torture.

Some victims had apparently been shot at close range and some were found with their hands bound.

Zelensky has also previously called for Russia to be expelled from the UN Security Council ‘so it cannot block decisions about its own aggression, its own war.’ 

The G7 foreign ministers, who have been meeting on the sidelines of a NATO gathering in Brussels this week, said those responsible for ‘heinous acts and atrocities, including any attacks targeting civilians and destruction of civilian infrastructure’ would be held accountable and prosecuted.

‘We welcome and support the ongoing work to investigate and gather evidence of these and other potential war crimes and crimes against humanity,’ they said.  

The ministers also called for Russia to suspend its offensive in Ukraine immediately and warned against the use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

‘We underline our unwavering support for Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders and express our readiness to assist further, including with military equipment and financial means,’ they said.

Ahead of the vote, Russia’s deputy ambassador Gennady Kuzmin urged members to vote ‘no,’ with the Kremlin saying an abstention or not voting would be considered an unfriendly act and would affect bilateral relations.

‘What we’re seeing today is an attempt by the United States to maintain its dominant position and total control,’ he said. ‘We reject the untruthful allegations against us, based on staged events and widely circulated fakes.’

In its so-called ‘non-paper’ obtained by The Associated Press, Russia said the attempt to expel it from the Human Rights Council is political and being supported by countries that want to preserve their dominant position and control over the world. 

Kyslytsya responsed to Russia’s complaints about the proceeding saying: ‘We have heard, many times, the same perverted logic of the aggressor trying to present itself as the victim.’

And his message to those who would abstain: He quoted the late Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel: ‘Indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor – never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten.’

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield made the call for Russia to be stripped of its seat on the 47-member Human Rights Council in the wake of videos and photos of streets in the town of Bucha strewn with corpses of what appeared to be civilians.

The deaths have sparked global revulsion and calls for tougher sanctions on Russia, which has vehemently denied its troops were responsible.

‘We believe that the members of the Russian forces committed war crimes in Ukraine, and we believe that Russia needs to be held accountable,’ Thomas-Greenfield said Monday. ‘Russia’s participation on the Human Rights Council is a farce.’

General Assembly spokeswoman Paulina Kubiak said the assembly’s emergency special session on Ukraine would resume Thursday morning, when the resolution ‘to suspend the rights of membership in the Human Rights Council of the Russian Federation’ will be put to a vote.  

More than 11 million people have been displaced since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Scenes of carnage that Ukrainian officials have accused retreating Russian troops of leaving behind in towns including Bucha have sparked outrage and led to a wave of fresh sanctions against Moscow. 

Journalists over the weekend found corpses in civilian clothes, some with their hands bound, in the town of Bucha outside Ukraine’s capital after Kyiv’s forces retook it from Russia’s army.

The Kremlin has denied Russian forces killed civilians, and alleged that the images of dead bodies in Bucha were ‘fakes.’

Meanwhile on Thursday, Ukraine urged its residents in the east of the country Thursday to take their ‘last chance’ to flee mounting Russian attacks, after devastation around the capital Kyiv shocked the world.

Six weeks after they invaded, Russian troops have withdrawn from Kyiv and Ukraine’s north and are focusing on the country’s southeast, where desperate attempts are under way to evacuate civilians.

The retreat from Kyiv revealed scenes of carnage, including in the town of Bucha, that Ukraine said were evidence of Russian war crimes, and which triggered a fresh wave of Western sanctions against Moscow.

Mr Zelensky has accused Russia of interfering with an international investigation into possible war crimes by removing bodies and trying to hide other evidence in Bucha, north west of Kyiv.

‘We have information that the Russian troops have changed tactics and are trying to remove the dead people, the dead Ukrainians, from the streets and cellars of territory they occupied,’ he said during his latest video address. 

‘This is only an attempt to hide the evidence and nothing more.’

Switching from Ukrainian to Russian, Mr Zelensky urged ordinary Russians ‘to somehow confront the Russian repressive machine’ instead of being ‘equated with the Nazis for the rest of your life’.

He called on Russians to demand an end to the war ‘if you have even a little shame about what the Russian military is doing in Ukraine’. 

Since Bucha, a chorus has resounded at the highest levels of Western political power calling for accountability, prosecution and punishment for war crimes in Ukraine.

On Monday, Zelensky denounced the killings as ‘genocide’ and ‘war crimes,’ and U.S. President Joe Biden said Putin was ‘a war criminal’ who should be brought to trial.

But the path to holding the Russian president and other top leaders criminally responsible is long and complex, international lawyers caution.

‘Certainly, the discovery of bodies which bear signs of executions – such as gunshot wounds to the head – presents strong evidence of war crimes,’ said Clint Williamson, who served as U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues from 2006 to 2009.

‘When victims are found with their hands bound, with blindfolds and bearing signs of torture or sexual assault, an even more compelling case is made. 

‘There are no circumstances under which these actions are permitted, whether the victims are civilians or military personnel who had been taken prisoner.’  

Meanwhile, a US defence official said on Wednesday that Russia had pulled all of its estimated 24,000 or more troops from the Kyiv and Chernihiv areas in the north, sending them into Belarus or Russia to resupply and reorganise. 

They are expected to return to fight in the east of the country, where Russia has said it intends to focus its military efforts in a new phase of the invasion.

Growing numbers of Vladimir Putin’s troops, along with mercenaries, have been reported moving into the Donbas.

‘Later, people will come under fire,’ Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in urging civilians to evacuate from the mostly Russian-speaking industrial region, ‘and we won’t be able to do anything to help them’.

Ukrainian forces have been fighting Russia-backed separatists in the Donbas since 2014. Ahead of its February 24 invasion, Moscow recognised the Luhansk and Donetsk regions as independent states.

Another Western official said it may take Russia’s battle-damaged forces as much as a month to regroup for a major push on eastern Ukraine.

In his nightly address on Wednesday, Zelensky also warned Russia’s military is gearing up for a new offensive in the east. 

Ukraine too was preparing for battle, he said.