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Russia Says Champions Human Rights At United Nations

Vitaly Churkin

Vitaly Churkin

Russia's permanent representative to the United Nations

“Russia actively promotes at the UN a positive human rights agenda. In the past year, our priorities were defense of the rights of children, the disabled, national, religious and language minorities and expansion of the rights and opportunities of women, as well as support of the family and recognition of its role in society.”

Partially True
...Moscow's actions on Syria largely discredit Kremlin's claim as human rights champion.

While Moscow has backed human rights related initiates at the United Nations as Churkin claims, Russia’s voting record at the global body puts in serious doubt his portrayal of Russia as a global human rights champion.

In particular, various resolutions that Western countries attempted to pass at the Security Council condemning air strikes on civilians in Syria were blocked or vetoed by Russia.

Russia denied striking a UN aid convoy in September 2016 in which at least 20 relief workers and civilians were killed, although Western governments brought forward significant allegations and there were major holes in the Kremlin's narrative.

A UN commission of inquiry was established to investigate the incident but was unable to confirm the allegations, in part because it was denied access to the site of the bombing, a fact the Russian state media failed to mention. Yet the inquiry pointed out that the United States could not have committed the atrocity, leaving the only other possibilities to be Syria and Russia.

It was for this disregard of civilian lives as well as other bombing incidents in Syria that more than 100 NGOs petitioned the members of the UN Commission for Human Rights (CHR) not to re-elect Russia to that body. In October 2016, Russia lost the election to Hungary and Croatia.

Even the human rights initiatives Moscow has backed at the UN are not without controversy.

For example, Churkin’s claim that Moscow is support UN efforts on “expanding the rights of women” is misleading, because in fact it is referencing support for a controversial resolution on the “Protection of the Family.” The proposal was drafted by Egypt and cosponsored by Russia, China, Belarus, and more than a dozen Muslim and African countries. But it was opposed by the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland and other Western European countries. Opponents of the resolution said traditional definitions of the family could undermine already-existing rights covenants and resolutions defending women’s and LGBT rights. Russia claimed its opponents were “politicized” and were trying to “impose alien concepts and values on member-states.”

Russia's UN voting record at first glance might seem passable, if it were not for the controversial nature of some of these resolutions. For example, Russia voted for the long-standing Cuba-sponsored resolution on mercenaries, which is aimed at Western soldiers of fortune, although there are multiple reports of Russia's own use of mercenaries.

Like its Soviet predecessor, Russia voted for the "right to development" resolution but abstained on another economic rights resolution to safe drinking water. It also abstained on transitional justice, important to countries turning to democracy after periods of authoritarianism. Russia voted against a resolution sponsored by Mexico on protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism; perhaps that’s because annually, Russia summarily executes hundreds of suspected Islamists, mainly in the North Caucasus. A basic resolution at CHR on Syria also got a "no" from Russia, as did those on Belarus, Ukraine, Burundi and South Sudan and still others on civil society, human rights defenders and the right to peaceful protest -- all areas subject to brutal crackdowns in Russia in recent years. With its anti-LGBT cultural and legislative positions at home, Russia voted against a resolution to protect LGBT against violence.

To be sure, Russia voted in favor of a resolution against arbitrary detention. Russia also abstained on the issue of the death penalty, although it has abolished it at home since joining the Council of Europe.

Churkin specifically referenced Russia's vote on the family resolution in 2014, supported by some Arab and African countries. The US, UK, Ireland and other Western countries voted against the resolution because it specified only the traditional role of women as wife and mother and defined "families" only as those established by a man and a woman, without regard to LGBT rights.

Russia has also not cooperated with the UN rapporteur system as other countries even with worse records have done, and has not issued an invitation to the Special Rapporteur on Summary Executions since 2000, nor to the Special Rapporteur on Torture and others in years.

At home, Russia’s recent legislative initiatives have also undermined its claims abroad to be promoting human rights. This month, the Russian parliament has passed in the first reading a law that would decriminalize some forms of domestic violence. In December 2016, President Vladimir Putin signed another law authorizing force, including firearms to be used on prisoners.