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23 May 2018
The UN, Human Rights and Russia: Part II
By: UNA-NCA Human Rights Committee

This is Part II of a IV-Part Series which will be released on a weekly basis, and will detail Russia's human rights record in the United Nations.

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) considered Russia’s human rights record through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process during the week of May 14th. This review will take place as part of the UNHRC’s third cycle of reviewing all Member States’ implementation of international human rights commitments through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism established after the 60thanniversary United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) summit. Most of the issues discussed in the remainder of this paper are not so much about the human rights situation in Russia itself but about the interplay between Russia and the UN’s human rights system. If you missed the previous part of the post please read it here

Russian and the UN Human Rights System 


What has been the role of the Government of the Russian Federation (and previously the USSR) with regard to the evolution of the UN human rights framework, what are its official positions today, and how does it employ its diplomatic and other tools to advance, hinder or shape the UN's human rights work? 

Russia (and previously the USSR), as a major world power and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, has played a key role in shaping the UN approach to human rights throughout the world. As the state recognized internationally as the legal successor to the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation inherited both a set of international legal obligations in the field of human rights and a complex historical / diplomatic legacy for dealing with human rights issues in multilateral settings.

On the legal side, in the first instance, the USSR was a founding Member State of the United Nations that agreed (albeit reluctantly) that its purposes and principles would include “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion” (UN Charter, Article 1, paragraph 3). Moreover, the USSR was an active participant in the drafting and Russia has taken over the USSR’s status as a state party to almost all the international human rights instruments negotiated through the UN system. 

One part of the legacy inherited by the Russian Federation, however, is that the USSR was one of only two Member States that did not vote in favor of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 (it abstained, along with its closest allies and South Africa). Another is that the USSR, after accepting the UDHR in principle and supporting the adoption of legally binding instruments to further define human rights obligations, was constantly among those states most actively seeking to limit the scope of those obligations and increase the number of permissible limitations which could be imposed on the exercise of human rights by individuals. The USSR was also among the states most opposed to the establishment of any independent oversight bodies at an international level that would have investigative powers or a mandate to deal with matters deemed by the state concerned to be “essentially within [its] domestic jurisdiction”.[1]

The Soviet Union was also always at the forefront of efforts to deflect attention from individual civil and political rights, where it was clearly at a disadvantage, while placing emphasis on economic and social rights or collective rights. The USSR also gave lip service to the right of peoples to self-determination in the context of decolonization (while rejecting its applicability to territory and peoples under Soviet domination) and to “security” (including the rights to life, peace, and development). Soviet and then Russian approaches to human rights in the UN system must be seen as part of a continuum, not only because of the legal continuity of Russia as the USSR’s successor state but also due to a large degree of continuity among personnel and policies from the Soviet period into the present day. Many of the positions taken by Russian diplomats at international meetings in the second decade of the 21stcentury are quite similar to those taken by Soviet diplomats in the early 1980s.

At the same time, it must be recognized that first Soviet and then Russian policy toward these issues evolved radically in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at least rhetorically accepted international norms on human rights, openness and electoral democracy. The radical shift from traditional “hardline” Soviet policies perhaps culminated in Russia’s support for the outcome of the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights. On that historic occasion, Russia joined the broad international consensus that agreed among other things on the establishment of a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (which the Soviet Union had consistently opposed) along with the transformation of the historically weak UN Human Rights Centre in Geneva into a more robust Geneva-based Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

The Russian statement at the conclusion of the Vienna Conference on Human Rights included the following remarkable passage:

“The final document has confirmed that every individual belongs to the human family in general and is neither the property nor an instrument of the State and that human rights are therefore not the internal affair of any one country. In the past it was precisely our country, the former Soviet Union, which initiated the sad tendency to evade control or criticism by invoking sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs. We spread this cunning idea throughout the world, pressing it on many. Unfortunately our resourceful disciples are still numerous and active. We therefore feel a special responsibility and are particularly satisfied that we have been able to record, in the final document, that the defence of all human rights is a subject of legitimate concern to the international community and that, notwithstanding the specific circumstances of different States, every one of them has a responsibility, notwithstanding those specific circumstances, to promote and defend all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”[2]

PutinSubsequently Russia agreed to many innovative mechanisms within the UN system and the rapid expansion of OHCHR. Nevertheless, by the early 2000s Russia began to revert to a position which was more critical of – in some cases hostile toward – much that the UN human rights machinery was doing. This tendency could perhaps be correlated quite roughly with the election of a new Russian president in the year 2000, although this would be an oversimplification; Russia had already strongly opposed the concept of humanitarian intervention, for example, as advocated by Western countries in the context of the 1999 Kosovo crisis. Russia’s opposition to robust UN action on human rights has become more pronounced over the past decade, however; it has been particularly strident since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, intervention in Eastern Ukraine, and active military involvement in the Syria conflict. 
*Photo Credit: PRI
 
Russia expressed a particularly dim view of the UN Security Council (UNSC) delving deeper into human rights issues during a recent thematic debate chaired by the United States, when the Russian representative:

“Shared the concerns of those who feared that human rights might be used as a means to exert power over other countries.  He went on to say that it would be impossible to guarantee respect for human rights without first guaranteeing peace and security, stressing that preventing and settling armed conflicts were the main prerequisites for correcting human rights violations, and not vice versa.”[3]

This position has been expressed in recent years not only through opposition to UN resolutions relating directly to Russia and its interventions in Ukraine but also to vetoes of multiple Western-led efforts to expand the human rights focus of the UNSC (specifically including vetoes of draft UNSC resolutions addressing human rights, for example, in Myanmar and Syria).[4]

Several sources have documented what they describe as an increasing alliance of Russia with other leading human rights violators, including China, to thwart UN actions perceived as threatening to national sovereignty.[5]It would be inaccurate to suggest that such efforts have always been successful or cost-free, however. The Russian Federation failed to gain election to the UNHRC in 2016, when the UNGA decided by secret ballot to seat other candidates from the Eastern European Group of States rather than the Russian Federation. This was the first and thus far only case in which a UNSC permanent member sought but was not elected to the UNHRC. In fact, it was a rather rare case of a permanent member failing to be seated in any UN subsidiary body to which it was a candidate. Most observers attributed Russia’s failure in this case to its position on Syria, which drew opposition not only from Western and other states with strong human rights records but also from a broad group of Arab and other Islamic countries.[6]



[4]http://www.cnn.com/2017/04/13/middleeast/russia-unsc-syria-resolutions/index.html; While generally resistant, Russia has not consistently blocked the UNSC from taking any action on these human rights matters; for example, had Russia objected, the UNSC President would not have been authorized to issue a strong statement “on behalf of the Council” on the situation Myanmar on 6 November 2017 (see S/PRST/2017/22