The election of Russia to the board of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) on October 13, 2020, notwithstanding the concerns expressed by human rights advocacy groups, comes as a shock to those affected by the crimes of the Syrian regime. Waad al-Kateab, a Syrian activist and filmmaker, in disbelief about the votes of 158 UN member states allowing Russia to enter the council, commented on her Twitter account: “Am I stupid? Or is this the mad world we live in?”
About the UN Human Rights Council
The Human Rights Council was established in 2006 to seek the protection and promotion of human rights and facilitate the discussion and investigation of urgent matters (Smith, 2016). As a replacement for the defunct former UN human rights body, the Commission on Human Rights, the new UN body’s purpose is to exclude human rights abusers from UN interventions concerning human rights breaches. Several new rules regarding the election of members to the HRC were introduced. However, the contested principle of allocating a fixed number of seats to each geographic region remained the same.
Now, the election of Russia to the Human Rights Council causes outrage among national and international human rights organisations. Next to Russia, Saudi Arabia, China, Cuba and Pakistan were potential candidates to be elected to the HRC. The Geneva-based monitoring group UN Watch compared letting these countries join the Human Rights Council with “allowing five convicted arsonists to join the fire brigade”. While Saudi Arabia failed to be elected to the HRC, the other four countries have been admitted as members to the UN body. Once elected, a country holds its seat in the 47-member council for a three-year term. The council membership of each of the countries just mentioned could and should be scrutinized critically with respect to the human rights violations committed in or by these respective states.
Without denying the gravity of the ballot decision about membership to the Human Rights Council in the other three cases, I focus on the implications of Russia becoming a member. Russia’s seat at the HRC can be debated taking into account various arguments, including concerns such as the country’s political prisoners, blacklisting of civic groups, crackdowns on peaceful protesters, and the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, or most recently the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Navalny . This article concentrates on the involvement of Russia in the Syrian war and the consequences Russia’s Human Rights Council membership could now have for the plights of Syrians for the international community’s compliance in ending the grave human rights abuses towards the Syrian people, committed largely (but not only) by the Russian- and Iran-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Ongoing war in Syria
Unspeakable violence was used by the regime to halt the momentum of the peaceful uprising that started in Dara’a in March 2011 and soon spread throughout the country. Ultimately, the regime’s crackdown on supporters of the Syrian revolution resulted in civil war. Despite the ceasefire agreed on in March 2020, bombings on the Idlib governorate, which is the last opposition-controlled region in Syria, have intensified during the last few weeks. Forced disappearances and torture in detention constitute a significant part of the atrocities committed against the Syrian people. Used by the Assad regime as a systematic (but never fully successful) strategy to crush the revolution, the disappearance of their family members still haunts many Syrians. The fates of many of the more than 100,000 disappeared in Syria remain unknown to their families as of today.
Movements like Families for Freedom continue to mobilise against the unlawful practices of the Assad regime and to express demands to the international community. In a briefing to the UN Security Council on July 23, 2020, Syrian activist and journalist Wafa Ali Mustafa explained that the Syrian regime still uses detention as “a weapon to terrorize civilians”. She criticized that no progress had yet been made. Emphasizing the added urgency of the Covid-19 pandemic, Wafa Ali Mustafa expressed demands including the immediate release of the names of all people in detention along with their locations, ceasing torture in the detention facilities immediately, allowing routine contact of detainees with their families, and providing the families of those deceased in detention with details of the circumstances and the burial locations (source: UN News).
Russia’s involvement in Syria
Analysts stated that Russia’s military campaign in Syria was crucial to keep Assad in power after he seemed to be losing the war in 2015 (Wilson, Czuperski, Herbst, Higgins, Hof & Nimmo, 2016). Various accusations of deliberately targeting civilians and humanitarian institutions such as hospitals were levelled against Russia. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, a panel appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, stated in March 2020 that Russia had committed war crimes in Syria by carrying out airstrikes against civilian targets. Russia did not respond to the accusation of the commission directly. In other instances, Russian authorities repeatedly denied that Russia had carried out indiscriminate attacks against civilians. Moreover, there is the accusation that Russia actively undermined UN investigations into bombings of hospitals in Syria which were carried out by Russia under the guise of liberating areas from jihadists.
What follows from Russia’s HRC membership? Next to the significant loss of credibility of the Human Rights Council resulting from the election of Russia to the same UN body that six months ago accused the country of committing war crimes in Syria, there could be more grave consequences. Russia might use its newly gained position in the council to further hinder the investigation and prosecution of human rights violations in the context of the Syrian civil war. Following Russia’s past veto at the UN Security Council against plans of setting up an international tribunal for Syria, fears arise that other attempts to hinder the prosecution of the Syrian regime and its allies are likely.
With the involvement of Russia in the Syrian war and its efforts to subvert inquiries into war crimes in mind, the votes of 158 countries appointing Russia as a member to the UN Human Rights Council in fact raises the impression of living in a world gone mad. Against the backdrop of the current inaction of the UN and the international community in addressing the crimes against humanity committed by the Syrian regime and its allies, listening to Syrians who remain active against the regime becomes even more pressing. As the recent court proceeding of Syrian regime officials in Germany under the principle of universal jurisdiction shows, there are pathways towards justice for those affected by the crimes of the Russian-backed Syrian regime. To abide by the moral obligation to put the perpetrators of crimes against humanity on trial, other countries should follow the example of Germany. To overcome its current inaction, the international community needs to push for international independent monitors to be allowed into Syria.
[Image source: Omar Almasri via The Syria Campaign]
Smith, R. (2016). Criminological issues and the UN Key issues and trends. In
The Routledge International Handbook of Criminology and Human Rights, edited by Leanne Weber, et al., Taylor & Francis Group, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central. Retrieved October, 15, from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/kentuk/detail.action?docID=4658717.
Wilson, D., Czuperski, M., Herbst, J., Higgins, E., Hof, F., & Nimmo, B. (2016). DISTRACT DECEIVE DESTROY: Putin at War in Syria (pp. 1-2, Rep.). Atlantic Council. Retrieved October 15, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep03651.3