Last Friday, October 28, Russia lost its seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in a vote prompted by the country’s foreign policy toward Syria. According to The Guardian, it was the first time since the UNHRC’s creation a decade ago that one of the Security Council’s five permanent members failed to be elected to the council.
Last Monday, October 24, more than eighty international human rights organizations and NGOs issued a joint statement urging the UN to strip Russia of its seat on the UNHRC. Overwhelmingly, media outlets described Russia’s continuous bombing of civilian targets in Syria as the main reason for the decision to remove it from the council.
Since the Russian military intervention in Syria began on September 30, 2015, it has dramatically changed the situation on the ground, seriously weakening the opposition and helping the Assad regime regain control over swathes of territory. It has also led to significant civilian deaths. In August 2016, The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented “2549 civilians including 647 children and 374 women” killed as a result of attacks allegedly carried out by Russian forces. The monitoring group Airwars has recorded 3600 civilian deaths caused by Russian bombing, since its military intervention began.
Given these numbers, as well as Russia’s continuous airstrikes campaign, its exclusion from the UNHRC is justified. It is, however, unlikely to create any significant change in Russian foreign policy toward Syria. Instead, it may further fuel already tense relations between Russia and the West, particularly the United States, and worsen the human rights situation in Russia itself.
Pro-Kremlin pundits have already seized on the development to expose the West’s bias toward Russia. Indeed, Russia’s ousting from the UNHRC is inconsistent with Saudi Arabia’s successful reelection to the council. In addition to its appalling domestic human rights record, Saudi Arabia’s air campaign in Yemen, which has lasted for sixteen months, has resulted in 3700 civilian casualties, according to Human Rights Watch’s Senior Iraq Researcher Belkis Wille.
Russia is also using the UNHRC removal to undermine human rights as an international norm, and bolster its own rights crackdown at home.
The human rights situation in Russia has deteriorated significantly over the past several years, thanks to a number of repressive laws. Since 2012, the “Foreign Agents” law has substantially altered rules governing the registration and operation of domestic NGOs that receive funding from international groups. In 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed follow up legislation called “The Law on Undesirable Organizations,” which has generated severe consequences for leading Western human rights groups operating in Russia. In December 2015, the country adopted yet another law that allows the Russian Constitutional Court to overturn the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights.
These laws underscore the Kremlin’s efforts to smear human rights as a tool of Western intervention and convince Russians to turn a blind eye towards the dismantling of rights and liberties at home.