Home :: News & Events :: News :: The UN, Human Rights and Russia: Part IV
07 June 2018
The UN, Human Rights and Russia: Part IV
By: The UNA-NCA Human Rights Committee 

This is Part IV 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 at its May 2018 session. This review took 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 (LINK).  

UNOHCHRHow have different parts of the UN human rights system (including the OHCHR, treaty bodies and special procedures as well as the Human Rights Council and other intergovernmental bodies) reacted to the information and inputs they have received from various sources, including the authorities as well as civil society groups and individuals, about alleged human rights violations in Russia? How has the Russian Government interacted with different parts of the UN human rights system? 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 Part III of the post please read it here

The recent UPR discussions of Russian human rights performance and ongoing consideration of the Crimea human rights case are relatively unusual instances of the UN’s formal intergovernmental machinery devoting detailed attention to allegations of human rights violations in the Russian Federation or previously in the Soviet Union. Prior to 2014, for example, neither the USSR nor Russia was ever the subject of a UN human rights resolution specifically referring to developments which Moscow considered to fall under its sovereign authority. (The UN did repeatedly if indirectly condemn Soviet human rights violations in Afghanistan following the USSR’s 1979 invasion of that country, and on at least one occasion the UN Commission on Human Rights adopted criticism of human rights violations in Poland when it was a Soviet ally.)

While the UN’s intergovernmental bodies have for largely political reasons been unable to adopt many human rights decisions relating directly to Russia or the USSR, the performance of Russia (and previously the USSR) has regularly been reviewed both by treaty bodies established through the main UN human rights instruments.  In more recent years, Russia has occasionally been scrutinized by ad hoc or special mechanisms and procedures established to consider specific human rights issues (torture, involuntary disappearances, religious intolerance, freedom of assembly and association) and in a few cases Russia even invited those with such special mandates to visit their country. 

The history of interactions between UN human rights bodies and Russia is summarized on OHCHR’s website, which also contains links to reports from these bodies (some of which have been quite critical).[1]In line with its standard practice, in advance of the May 2018 UPR Working Group session on Russia, the OHCHR also prepared a compilation of all UN information on Russia’s human rights situation that has been issued by UN bodies over the past several years.[2]UN treaty bodies have played a quite active and serious role in examining and commenting on Russia’s record. For example, the latest report of the UN Human Rights Committee (the treaty body overseeing implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ICCPR)[3]provides a very thorough and critical survey of key concerns and makes extensive comments / recommendations about Russia’s human rights performance (including its responsibility for violations in occupied areas of Ukraine and in the North Caucasus, as well as a range of thematic issues including torture and violations of the rights of LGBTI persons).[4]

It is notable, however, that Russia’s voluntary cooperation with UN “special procedures” has been limited and is now almost non-existent. For example, a UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges visited Russia in 2008 and 2013, issuing fairly direct and substantive reports, and a number of other mandate holders paid visits to Russia prior to 2014. However, the only recent UN human rights mandate holder allowed to visit Russia has come to address the issue of “Unilateral coercive measures” – a human rights “special procedure” opposed by Western countries, because it is intended mainly to criticize the alleged human rights impact of punitive sanctions (such as those imposed against Russia for its annexation of Crimea). Russia is not one of the 118 UN Member States that have issued standing invitations for any of the special procedures to visit their country without limitation;[5]in recent years Russia has either rejected or failed to respond to requests to visit the country issued by a range of UN mandate holders on such topics as torture, freedom of assembly, disappearance, human rights defenders, extrajudicial executions, and arbitrary detention.[6]

Finally, one indicator of Russia’s evolving approach to UN human rights machinery may be the evolution of its willingness to accept a long-term OHCHR presence in the country. The OHCHR website tells a story of expanding cooperation and even a joint program of activities between the OHCHR and Russia as late as 2007-2016, involving the presence in Russia of a Senior Human Rights Advisor and a small office representing OHCHR. The Russian Government advised the OHCHR in 2016, however, that the services of its office were no longer needed. The OHCHR reports, without comment, that “the function of the Senior Human Rights Adviser was discontinued in May 2016”.[7]