Home :: News & Events :: News :: The UN, Human Rights and Russia: Part III
31 May 2018
The UN, Human Rights and Russia: Part III
By: The UNA-NCA Human Rights Committee

This is Part III 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

The UN’s Universal Periodic Review of Russian human rights performance 

UPR_InfographicHow have various stakeholders, including human rights defenders and other civil society groups, attempted to use the UN human rights system (especially the Universal Periodic Review mechanism) to draw attention to the human rights situation in Russia? How has the Russian Government reacted?

The UN Universal Periodic Review is a procedure instituted after 2005 to ensure that the human rights performance of all UN Member States is reviewed on a regular schedule (roughly every four to five years), with ample opportunity for the state concerned to present its “case” and for other UN Human Rights Council members to ask questions and make recommendations to the state under review. The state concerned must then decide whether or not to accept the recommendations and undertake to implement them. In the ongoing third cycle of the Universal Periodic Review,[1]Russia’s record was considered by the Human Rights Council’s UPR Working Group on May 14 and the Working Group adopted its report on Russia on May 17. The Russian Government submitted a report outlining its official view of the way that Russia is meeting its international obligations and the way it has addressed recommendations from prior UPR sessions in 2009 and 2013, when Russian Government officials participated actively[2](In both 2013 and 2018, Russia’s large delegation was headed by its Minister of Justice.)[3]

The deadline for “other stakeholders” such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and regional organizations to present their views on Russia’s human rights record through the UPR process was October 2017 and many NGOs – both from inside and outside Russia – prepared their own submissions which are posted on the OHCHR website.[4](A separate document summarizes information on Russia’s record from various official UN bodies.) The engagement of Russian NGOs is consistent with a pattern established already during the first and especially second UPR sessions; an OHCHR summary[5]and the full texts of the 36 "stakeholder submissions" from the second session (many of them submitted jointly on behalf of multiple NGOs) are also available on the OHCHR website. They detail the full panoply of abuses allegedly committed by the Russian Federation up through late 2012.[6]

Thus it is clear from past experience and the recent discussions in Geneva that relevant Russian NGOs have a strong interest in highlighting concerns about Russia as well as capacity to engage with the UN human rights machinery through the UPR process. While NGOs do not themselves participate in the “UPR Working Group” session where Russian officials present and defend their record, they do have the opportunity to make “general comments” in the UPR plenary session where the outcome of the UPR process is discussed. Several Russian and international NGOs took advantage of this opportunity in 2013, and the analogous session for the May 2018 review will take place at the UNHRC’s next session, in the autumn of 2018.[7]  It is also clear from the recommendations made by many Member States to Russia both in 2013 and 2018 that they have drawn extensively on information and documentation prepared by NGOs. Records of the UPR proceedings indicate that the Russian authorities devoted considerable attention to defending themselves and explaining / justifying their actions, directly in response to questions / criticisms / recommendations from other Member States but indirectly also in response to such “other stakeholders” as the Russian human rights NGO community. 

During the UPR Working Group’s May 2018 session on Russia, which can be viewed on the OHCHR website, 115 delegations took the floor and made 317 recommendations for Russia to improve its respect for human rights.[8]

Some of the recommendations, especially from Russia’s close friends and allies, were mundane or even somewhat ridiculous, along the lines of “the Russian Federation should keep up its wonderful work.” For example, Cuba advised Russia to “continue efforts to strengthen the legislative framework of the national system for the promotion and protection of human rights” and Venezuela urged Russia to “oppose the politicization of human rights and their use to interfere in internal affairs of sovereign countries.”

On the other hand, many of the comments and recommendations from European countries, the United States, Canada and other democracies were extremely critical and concrete; these countries made recommendations that add up to a roadmap for addressing Russia’s failings in such areas as respect for freedom of assembly, association, and expression as well as discrimination on grounds of religion, political views and sexual orientation. For example, Spain urged Russia to “repeal the law on foreign agents” and ensure that “freedoms of assembly, association, expression, demonstration and press are not limited” while the U.S. called for Russia (among many other things) to “relinquish de facto executive control over the media, parliament, and courts...” Several delegations made direct reference to Russia’s obligations to respect human rights in illegally occupied Crimea and in territories where it exercises effective control such as southeastern Ukraine (the Donbass region) and occupied regions of Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia). Some delegations also framed their recommendations to address very specific human rights abuses, such as New Zealand’s call on Russia to investigate allegations of “abductions, secret imprisonment, torture and other ill-treatment, and killings of gay men in Chechnya.”[9]

In response, while diplomatically thanking other delegations for their input and pledging continued Russian cooperation with the UN on human rights issues, the Russian delegation essentially rejected critical comments about its increasingly poor record by blaming them on misinformation or claiming that allegations were baseless. Russia exercised its right to review the recommendations before deciding which ones it will accept (which it is only obligated to do, under UNHRC procedures, by the next UNHRC’s 39thsession in the fall of ,2018).  However, the Russian delegation immediately rejected all recommendations related to territories outside its formal jurisdiction, claiming that it has no responsibility for the human rights situations in Russian-controlled areas of the Donbass, Abkhazia or South Ossetia. Conversely, while taking full responsibility for the situation within Crimea (citing the “referendum” in which people supposedly expressed their “right to self-determination”), the Russian delegate claimed that no human rights abuses are taking place there. He also summarily rejected allegations of abuses related to discrimination, politically motivated prosecutions, religious freedom, LGBTI rights, classification of civil society organizations as “foreign agents”, or the decriminalization of domestic violence. Parroting comments offered by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov regarding abuses against gay men in Chechnya, he claimed that Russian Government inquiries found neither abuses nor any LGBT community in Chechnya at all. He concluded by pledging that the Russian Federation will continue to perfect its work to guarantee human rights and claimed that “no country is more interested in human rights that the Russian Federation itself.”

Opinions will certainly vary about the value and especially the effectiveness of the UPR process and other UN engagement on the actual enjoyment of human rights in Russia. What is beyond doubt, however, is that the UPR review provides a rather unique forum both for official delegations and NGO critics to document human rights abuses by Russia (and every other UN Member State) through a formal multilateral process in which Russia officially participates. While Russian authorities may choose not to accept and are unlikely in the foreseeable future to implement the most substantial recommendations offered through the UPR process, the UPR background documents and records of the proceedings represent a serious effort to highlight gaps between the country’s international human rights obligations and the real situation on the ground.

[4]The OHCHR compilation of civil society and “other stakeholder” submissions and links to all of the submissionsfor the 2018 session can most easily be accessed from the website of the NGO “UPR-INFO.” For some specific examples, see reports submitted by Article 19, PEN International, SOVA Centre, Roskomsvoboda, Mass Media Defence Centre, and OVD-InfoAnti-Discrimination Center "Memorial" and the Russian LGBT NetworkCivicus.org,Cultural SurvivalRussian Alliance against Sexual Exploitation of Children

[9]The Working Group’s report, in draft as of this writing, is in UN Document A/HRC/WG.6/30/L.11