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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


 
Delta Phi Epsilon Annual Symposium
Join the Delta Phi Epsilon Foreign Affairs Council for its inaugural Symposium, a day-long conference on international politics, security, and trade. This year’s theme, “Assessing Shifts in the International Order” will explore the impact of revisionist powers, non-state actors, and technology on global and domestic affairs alike. Panel and debate topics include the future of American global leadership; cryptocurrency in the international financial system; the future of international institutions; and countering terrorism and violent extremism.

Where: Elliott School of International Affairs, 1957 E Street NW, Washington DC

When: April 6, 2018

Cost: Varies. Registration required.

Learn More and Register Here
 
The UN, Human Rights and Russia: Part I
By: Human Rights Committee

This is Part I 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.

Part I: 
The Impact of Russian Diplomacy on the UN System for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, and the Role of the UN System in Addressing Human Rights in Russia

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is considering Russia’s human rights record at its May 2018 session. This review is taking 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 60th anniversary United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) summit. UNHRC scrutiny of Russia at a 2013 session produced more than 225 recommendations from other Member States, over 160 of which Russia undertook to implement in full or in part.[1]

Russia is also the subject of a series of UNGA resolutions adopted since Russia’s 2014 occupation and illegal “annexation” of Crimea. These resolutions all condemn human rights violations in Crimea and call on Russia as the occupying power to address these abuses. Most recently, in December 2017, the Assembly adopted A/RES/72/190, “Situation of human rights in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol (Ukraine)” by vote of 70 to 26, with 76 abstentions. In so doing, the Assembly urged the Russian Federation to uphold all its international legal obligations as an occupying Power and requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare a second thematic report by the end of the current session.[2]

The regular review of Russia’s human rights record through the UPR process and the unprecedented attention to Russia’s responsibility for human rights abuses in occupied Crimea make it timely to consider the broader context in which these developments take place. In particular, given the scrutiny that Russia’s record is now receiving, it may be of interest to review the role that Russia and the Soviet Union have played over the years in shaping the evolution of the UN system for the promotion and protection of human rights. Similarly, to place the most recent developments in historical context, we may consider how the human rights performance of Russia (and previously the USSR) has itself been scrutinized by UN machinery.

Without extensively addressing the substance of particular human rights violations in Russia, we can proceed from the premise that very serious and large-scale violations of human rights were systematically perpetrated in the Soviet Union, that serious abuses continued to take place in the Russian Federation throughout the post-Soviet period, and that such abuses have again become much more widespread and systematic over the past several years.[3] In its final report on the September 2016 parliamentary elections in Russia, for example, a mission fielded by the leading regional multilateral human rights and democracy institution noted that “democratic commitments continue to be challenged and the electoral environment was negatively affected by restrictions to fundamental freedoms and political rights, firmly controlled media and a tightening grip on civil society.” [4]

pic1cap2Most objective observers suggest that the situation continued to deteriorate in 2017 and early 2018 in the run-up to the 18 March 2018 presidential elections which President Vladimir Putin won in a landslide. As the most prominent anti-Putin politician and well-known blogger Alexander Navalny called on fellow citizens to take a stand against corruption, galvanizing them by the release of a documentary focusing on Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s alleged abuses, widespread protests were met with disruption and large-scale detentions. The lack of freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly is an issue that the people of Russia have learned to deal with by being creative with their dissent. But with the limited action taken by the government to fix the issues that the people see to be the most important, these dissenters are taking their anger and frustration to the streets. The authorities have responded, in turn, with increasingly draconian measures allegedly targeting “extremism” and “foreign agents” but actually designed to limit the space for political and social dialogue. An International Election Observation Mission deployed for the March 2018 Presidential elections concluded that “restrictions on the fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression, as well as on candidate registration, have limited the space for political engagement and resulted in a lack of genuine competition.”[5]

Most of the issues discussed in the remainder of this piece 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. Some of the key questions which remain to be answered are to what extent the UN human rights system can serve as a valuable vehicle to address human rights violations in Russia (or any other country) and how effective the UN system can be in addressing such abuses, at a minimum to draw attention to serious concerns and if possible to encourage actual improvements in the situation faced by individual victims of human rights abuse.
 
Sustaining Access to Clean Water in Haiti
Thank you for your interest in joining us.  Unfortunately, registration for this event is now closed.

Sustainable access to clean water is a major challenge for the Haitian population. According to USAID Haiti, only 58% of Haitians have access to an improved water source and only 28% of Haitians have access to improved sanitation. The 2010 cholera epidemic have caused nearly 10,000 deaths. In October 2016, following Hurricane Matthew, the number of suspected cholera cases rose to about 40,000. The lack of access to potable water and improved sanitation services have led to high levels of diarrhea and other infections among the population.


The panel discussion will focus on the response to the cholera epidemic and ongoing Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) projects in Haiti. The panel will feature representatives from Non-Profit Organizations (NGOs) involved in clean water projects in Haiti. 

Speakers: 

Farah Faroul 
(Moderator), UNA-NCA Sustainable Development Committee
Dr. Maryse Pierre-Louis
, Former Public Health Cluster Leader, Health Nutrition and Population Central Department, The World Bank Group
Charissa Zehr
Legislative Associate for International Affairs, Mennonite Central Committee U.S.
Skyler Badenoch
Chief Executive Officer, Hope for Haiti 
Jeffery Sejour, Treasurer, International Action

When: Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018 from 5:00 pm to 8:00pm 
Where: University of the District of Columbia Law School - Moot Court Room, 4340 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008
Cost: Members & Students: FREE | Non-Members: $10
*Students, please email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it to redeem discount code 

Register Here!

 
#MappingForward from Violence Against Women
Thank you for your interest in our event.  Unfortunately, registration has now closed.

We are #MappingForward from violence against women in DC through a grant won from the UNA-USA “Stand Up for Human Rights” partnership with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Whether you have a #MeToo story of your own, know someone with a #MeToo moment, or want to see an end to violence against women, come learn about this innovative, grassroots project that maps stories onto places. Following the introduction of the project, hear from experts in a panel discussion featuring

  • Heather Hill (moderator), Chair, UNA-NCA Human Rights Committee
  • Rachel Moynihan, Advocacy & Communications Specialist,  UN Population Fund - DC Office (UNFPA)
  • Elisabeth Olds, Expert Consultant, The DC Sexual Assault Victims Rights Act (SAVRAA)
  • Rachel Friedman, Deputy Director, Men Can Stop Rape
  • Lindsey Silverberg, Director of Advocacy & Case Management, Network for Victim Recovery of DC (NVRDC)
WHEN: Thursday, May 10th, 2018 AT 6:00PM
WHERE: Capitol Visitor’s Center, Room 217, Washington DC  
COST: Free, but registration is required


 
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