The UN General Assembly votes to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Photo: Government of Brazil

After the symbolic vote on Russia’s suspension from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) last Thursday, it is fair to say that the noble cause of defending human rights has been perverted at the behest of a geopolitical agenda and, as the UN secretary general’s spokesman Stéphane Dujarric rightly warned, a “dangerous precedent” has been established.

This hypocritical instrumentalization of the noble principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to score political points is part of the wider psychological and informational war against any country that dares to challenge the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Blackmailing nations into submission

Although the official reason behind the US proposal to suspend Moscow provided last Monday was a response to Ukraine’s allegations of atrocities committed by Russian troops on the civilian population in the town of Bucha, it is worth noting that the idea in fact emerged a week earlier, when a bipartisan group of members of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee signed a letter to the US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, with the same request.

“It is our belief that Russia should not have a seat on what is supposed to be the premier international human-rights body. Russia should not have an opportunity to continue to block, stifle, and otherwise distract from important conversations on the situation of human rights in Ukraine,” reads the correspondence that was made public on March 29, urging that “swift action must be taken.”

After receiving the seal of bipartisan approval, Thomas-Greenfield came to a conclusion, which was verbalized during her visit to Romania last week, that “Russia’s participation on the Human Rights Council is a farce,” and encouraged “140 countries who have courageously stood together” to “match their words with action,” while referring to “the images of Bucha.”

On the same day, UK Foreign Minister Liz Truss voiced similar concerns and called for Russia’s suspension from the UNHRC.

“Given strong evidence of war crimes, including reports of mass graves and heinous butchery in Bucha, Russia cannot remain a member of the UN Human Rights Council,” Truss wrote on her Twitter account.

To keep the momentum before Thursday’s vote, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky requested during his speech before the UN Security Council that it bring the Russian military allegedly responsible for what he called the “genocide” in Bucha to justice.

What was the result?

The US-led campaign to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council during a special session last Thursday garnered a total of 93 votes in favor, 24 countries voted against the motion and 58 abstained from the vote – in a situation where two-thirds of votes in the 193-member General Assembly in New York was needed to get this outcome.

Notably, the countries that voted “no” included Russia, Belarus, China, Iran and Syria. Brazil, Thailand, India and Mexico were among the countries that abstained.

The low support points to the fact that many countries were reluctant to jump to far-reaching conclusions without being provided with the results of an independent investigation before making their decision on Moscow’s membership in the UNHRC.

This conviction was best vocalized by Mexico, Saudi Arabia and China, with Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun criticizing the move as risking “politicization or instrumentalization of human-rights issues.”

As a result, Russia’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, Gennady Kuzmin, called the outcome “illegitimate and politically motivated” and announced that his country, which was in its second year of a three-year term, would terminate its membership in the UNHRC – similar to the move made by the US in 2018 over “bias against Israel and a lack of reform.”

While Russia can re-apply for membership in 2024, the current decision has proved to have a counterproductive effect, as the country’s Justice Ministry announced on Friday that it had revoked the registrations of foreign organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW).

In a situation where the US casts the first stone while having committed a lot of rights-related sins around the world, and the Ukrainian president calling for Nuremberg-like trials, this apparent hypocrisy and double standards bring to mind Noam Chomsky’s speech in 1990, which teasingly states, “If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every postwar American president would have been hanged.”

We would demur here to the extent that presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter did not have much of an opportunity to start aggressive wars or commit war crimes and crimes against humanity, although the Pentagon and the US military-industrial complex were eager to bomb Iran and other countries. 

This hiatus was promptly closed during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H W Bush, Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

If ‘human rights’ had any meaning …

If the International Criminal Court had any moral authority and credibility, it would start investigations into the aggressions committed by NATO countries against Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia etc. It would investigate the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in those countries, including the systematic practice of torture at Abu Ghraib, Bagram. Guantanamo and countless CIA and MI6 “black sites.”

It would investigate the use of depleted-uranium weapons in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq, and the alleged use of chemical weapons, cluster bombs, and white phosphorus in Fallujah and elsewhere.

If the ICC took the Statute of Rome seriously, it would have to investigate and subsequently indict those responsible for the use of disproportionate force contrary to the Geneva Red Cross Conventions, attacks on dams and water supplies, indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and the enormous “collateral damage” caused by drones, tens of thousands of deaths

Hitherto the ICC has refused to investigate US crimes and has concentrated on indicting and prosecuting ousted African leaders or military personnel. Even if it cannot indict Israelis because Israel is not a state party to the Statute of Rome, it would at least have to investigate the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Israeli forces as documented by UN Special Rapporteurs John Dugard, Richard Goldstone, Richard Falk, Michael Lynk and William Schabas.

Even Amnesty International, which has questionable credentials and has frequently cuddled up with the US geopolitical establishment, accused Israel in 2009 of war crimes in connection with Operation Cast Lead, which left more than 1,400 Palestinians dead – at the expense of 13 Israeli lives. 

In its lengthy report, AI charged Israeli forces with wanton destruction of thousands of Palestinian homes, and uncovered evidence of Israeli soldiers using Palestinian civilians as human shields. A UN Fact Finding Mission confirmed AI’s findings.

Far worse than the crimes allegedly committed by Russian forces in Ukraine are those committed by Azerbaijan from September to December 2020 during its barbaric blitzkrieg against the hapless Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, the deliberate bombardment of civilians, widespread torture and execution of Armenian prisoners of war, and the destruction of ancient churches and monasteries. HRW has extensively documented these crimes.

Even worse than Azerbaijan’s aggression on Nagorno-Karabakh is the Saudi onslaught against the people of Yemen, where egregious war crimes have been committed against the civilian population, resulting in widespread famine and what the United Nations has called the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today.

The mainstream media are not reminding us of these facts, which everyone can learn about by going on the Internet and consulting “alternative” media including the Grayzone’s Pushback, Consortium News, Counterpunch, Truthout etc.

The mainstream media systematically disseminate “fake news,” suppress alternative narratives, whitewash the crimes of Ukrainian extremists, the killing of Russian journalists or Ukrainian journalists perceived as friendly to Russia, and uncritically echo whatever Washington wants.

Indeed, the so-called “quality press” is complicit in the brainwashing of the public and the division of the world into the “good guys” (the West) and the “bad guys” (the Rest).

More than anything else, we need access to reliable information and pluralistic views. We need more WikiLeaks and more courageous whistleblowers who will reveal what machinations preceded the vote at the General Assembly, what schemes are being concocted at NATO headquarters in Brussels and at the ICC in The Hague.

If there were a good whistleblower in the White House, we would probably learn that the idea of expelling Russia from the Human Rights Council was cooked up much earlier, and that the US was only waiting for the appropriate moment.

But let us not shed too many tears over the Human Rights Council, which in any event lacks authority and credibility, because it is perceived in much of the world as being under the control of the Western powers.

What is urgent is to achieve a sustainable peace agreement in Ukraine that will ensure stability in the region based on a European security architecture that takes into consideration the national-security needs of all countries, including Russia and Belarus. Pax optima rerum!

Alfred de Zayas

Alfred de Zayas is professor of international law at the Geneva School of Diplomacy, former secretary of the UN Human Rights Committee, and the UN's independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order from 2012 to 2018. You can follow him on Twitter @Alfreddezayas.

Adriel Kasonta

Adriel Kasonta is a London-based political risk consultant and lawyer. He is former chairman of the International Affairs Committee at the oldest conservative think tank in the UK, Bow Group. His work has been published in Forbes, CapX, National Review, the National Interest, The American Conservative, and, to name a few. Kasonta is a graduate of London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). You can follow him on Twitter @Adriel_Kasonta.