On 3 and 4 March 2022, in the context of the 49th session of the Human Rights Council, which opened on Monday 28 February, an urgent debate was convened on the ‘situation of human rights in Ukraine stemming from the Russian aggression’.
The urgent debate was requested through an official letter from H. E. Ms Yevheniia Filipenko, Permanent Representative of Ukraine, addressed to the President of the Human Rights Council, H.E. Mr Federico Villegas, on 24 February 2022.
Urgent debates can be initiated during a regular session of the Human Rights Council to tackle urgent situations requiring a rapid response from the Council. The Council approved the request to adjust the programme of work and include the urgent debate by a vote of 29 in favour, 5 against and 13 abstentions.
Past UN action on the situation of human rights in Ukraine
Since the creation of the Human Rights Council in 2006, six resolutions have been adopted by the Council under Agenda Item 10 on ‘cooperation with and assistance to Ukraine in the field of human rights’. The first resolution on Ukraine was adopted at the 26th Regular Session in June 2014 — following the 2014 annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and the beginning of the Donbas armed conflict — with the most recent one being adopted at the 47th session in June 2021.
All six resolutions have been tabled by Ukraine itself, and have had very similar vote results with an average of 21 votes in favour, six votes against and 20 abstentions. The 2014 resolution received the most favourable vote result (23-4-19), while the least favourable result was obtained in 2021 (19-8-20). European countries have systematically voted in favour of the resolutions, while States voting against the resolutions have also largely remained the same, i.e. Bolivia (Plurinational State of), Cameroon, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Philippines, and Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of). African and Middle-Eastern member States have tended to systematically abstain from the vote.
On 14 March 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) was deployed by OHCHR as part of the UN Secretary-General’s Human Rights Up Front initiative. HRMMU is responsible for monitoring and reporting on the human rights situation in Ukraine, with a particular focus on the conflict area of eastern Ukraine and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Ukraine, occupied by the Russian Federation. The Mission has documented over 600 cases of torture and ill-treatment of conflict-related detainees.
As of February 2022, the Mission has released 33 periodic reports, three updates and eight thematic reports that are publicly available on the OHCHR website. In HRMMU’s most recent update, covering the period August-October 2021, the Mission reported an increase in civilian casualties in the conflict zone, as well as forcible recruitment of adult men by armed groups on both sides of the conflict. The update also documents violations of the rights to family life, social security, employment and healthcare, use of arbitrary detention, and allegations of torture and ill-treatment in the self-proclaimed ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’. The update further highlights restrictions on freedom of expression and attacks on media workers, cases of discrimination against persons without identification documents and Roma by the Ukrainian government, as well as discrimination against Crimean Tatars by the Russian Federation. The latest regular report of the HRMNU, which covered the period from 1 November 2019 to 31 October 2021, provides a brief overview of the situation concerning civic space and the situation of human rights defenders in the territory controlled by the Ukrainian Government, the territory controlled by self-proclaimed ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ and ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, occupied by the Russian Federation.
In parallel to the resolutions adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, a further six resolutions have also been adopted by the United Nations General Assembly’s Third Committee on ‘the situation of human rights in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol in Ukraine.’ The first resolution on Ukraine was adopted at the 71th Session of the General Assembly in 2016, while the most recent one was adopted at the 76th session in 2022. All draft resolutions were tabled by Ukraine and had very similar vote results, with an average of 68 votes in favour, 24 votes against and 80 abstentions (68-24-80). The 2016 resolution received the most favourable vote result (73-23-76), while the least favourable result was obtained in 2020 with 63-22-85.
Furthermore, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted two resolutions concerning Ukraine. In particular, in 2014, the UNSC condemned the downing of Malaysia Airline flight MH17 and called for an investigation into the crash. In 2015, the UNSC attempted to act as a mediator between the two States by endorsing the “Package of measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements” signed on 12 February 2015. Since 2014, the UNSC has conducted over 40 meetings on the issues of “territorial Integrity of Ukraine”, the “problem of the militarization of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Ukraine, as well as parts of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov”, or “the situation in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine”.
An urgent debate by the UN Human Rights Council on ‘the situation of human rights in Ukraine stemming from Russian aggression’ was requested by Ukraine following the Russian invasion of its territory, on 24 February 2022. Tensions had been on the rise for months, as so-called large-scale military exercises by the Russian Federation had seen significant amounts of troops and military equipment amassed along its border with Ukraine, including to the east, north (from Belarus) and south (from annexed Crimea). Following several weeks of tense negotiations, in which the Russian Federation sought guarantees from the West, notably that Ukraine would never become a member of NATO, on 21 February 2022, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, officially recognised the self-proclaimed ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ and ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ as independent States. The same day, the Russian President ordered the deployment of Russian troops onto the territory of the newly recognised (by Russia) republics. Wary of a potentially larger Russian military incursion – particularly in light of repeated warnings by the United States of credible intelligence reports that Russia had plans to invade Ukraine – the Ukrainian government declared a 30 day state of emergency. On 24 February, the Russian government ordered an invasion of Ukraine by Russian Armed Forces, which was followed by airstrikes and cyberattacks. Subsequently, the Ukrainian government declared martial law on 24 February.
In the context of the rising tensions, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Michelle Bachelet, had already commented on the escalating situation in Ukraine, on 22 February, stating that she was “deeply concerned that any significant escalation in military action creates a heightened risk of serious human rights violations as well as violations of international humanitarian law.” This was followed, on 24 February 2022, by an additional statement from the High Commissioner urging for an immediate halt to the Russian Federation’s military action against Ukraine. “This military action clearly violates humanitarian law and puts at risk countless civilian lives. It must be immediately halted. States that fail to take all reasonable measures to settle their international disputes by peaceful means fall short of complying with their obligation to protect the right to life.” The High Commissioner also called for full respect for international humanitarian law and international human rights law. The following day, the Spokesperson for the High Commissioner declared that OHCHR was receiving increasing reports of civilian casualties and restated that the military action by the Russian Federation violates humanitarian law. OHCHR also condemned the multiple arbitrary arrests of anti-war demonstrators in Russia, which constitute a deprivation of their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
On 31 January 2022, the United States proposed to hold a first UNSC on the situation along the Russia-Ukraine border, arguing that it posed a threat to international peace and security and calling for de-escalation of tensions. The meeting was held despite opposition from China and the Russian Federation voted against the meeting, the Security Council members called for the end of military buildup. On 21 and 23 February, the UNSC held emergency sessions to discuss the recognition of the “independence of certain areas of Ukraine” and the “special military operation” by the Russian Federation, respectively. On 25 February, the UNSC met under the Russian Federation’s Presidency, which it held for the entire month of February 2022, to discuss and eventually vote on a resolution to call for an end to the Russian Federation’s military offensive. The draft, submitted by Albania and the United States, garnered 11 votes in favour from UNSC member States and the support of 87 UN member States (as of 27 February) but was vetoed by the Russian Federation. The UNSC members, who were favourable to the draft resolution, deplored the Russian Federation’s aggression as being in violation of Article 2.4 of the UN Charter (i.e. the obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State).
The draft resolution, if adopted, would have decided that the Russian Federation should immediately cease its use of force against Ukraine and immediately and unconditionally withdraw all its military forces. Following the vote, the Russian Federation’s delegate explained that his delegation voted against the draft, as it contravenes the interests of the Ukrainian people — who have experienced a tragedy over the last eight years and emphasised that his country’s troops are not bombing cities nor targeting civilians. China’s representative said his country abstained because the Council’s response should be taken with great caution, with actions to defuse and not add fuel to the fire. Ukraine should be a bridge between the East and the West, not an outpost for major Powers, he added.
On 27th February 2022, the UNSC did call for an Emergency Special Session (ESS) of the UN General Assembly on the situation in Ukraine, under the powers conferred by the “Uniting for Peace” resolution, which provides that “if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to Members for collective measures, including in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression the use of armed force when necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security.” The vote to refer the situation to the General Assembly could not be vetoed by the Russian Federation since it was deemed to be a procedural matter requiring ⅔ majority of UNSC member States.
In the past, Emergency Special Sessions have mainly led to the establishment a UN peacekeeping mission and strong recommendations for member States to sanction and isolate a State politically, militarily, financially and culturally. Others have set up commissions of inquiry or called for humanitarian assistance. De facto, the resolution could be used to invalidate President Putin’s justification for the war by stating there was no imminent danger to justify pre-emptive self defence. The General Assembly resolution that came out of the ESS received 141 votes in favour, 5 against and 34 abstentions. The General Assembly recognised that the military operations of the Russian Federation inside the sovereign territory of Ukraine are on a scale that the international community has not seen in Europe in decades and that urgent action is needed to save this generation from the scourge of war.
The Urgent Debate
After introductory remarks by the President of the Human Rights Council, H.E. Federico Villegas, a series of keynote addresses were delivered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Michelle Bachelet, and Victor Madrigal-Borloz, Chair of the Coordination Committee of UN Special Procedures.
H.E. Ms Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed her concern that the Russian Federation’s military attack on Ukraine opened a new and dangerous chapter in world history and echoed the Secretary-General’s characterisation of the crisis as ‘the most serious global peace and security crisis in recent years’. She stressed the massive impact the attack was having on the human rights of millions of people in Ukraine, as well as the risk to all humanity posed by the elevated threat levels for nuclear weapons. The High Commissioner highlighted that, as of March 1, her Office had recorded and confirmed 752 civilian casualties, including 227 killed, 15 of them children. She cautioned, however, that the real figures would be far higher, as numerous casualties are pending confirmation and information has been delayed due to intense hostilities. She further lamented that 1 million people are estimated to be internally displaced according to the UNHCR, while over a million have sought safety in neighbouring countries.
While welcoming the reception Ukrainian refugees have received, she stressed that welcome had to be extended regardless of citizenship, ethnicity, migration or other status and cautioned that her Office would be closely monitoring the situation. She stressed that full access for the delivery of humanitarian assistance across the entire country must be enabled and echoed the General Assembly’s ‘powerful call’ for an immediate resolution of the conflict through peaceful means. Ms. Bachelet took note that the International Court of Justice had been seized on a request for provisional measures and that the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court had opened an investigation. She highlighted that the Council would have the opportunity to decide on establishing, in accordance with its established practice, an independent, international commission of inquiry to widen accountability. In conclusion, the High Commissioner reiterated the Secretary-General’s words that the UN Charter has always “stood firm on the side of peace, security, development, justice, international law and human rights – and time after time, when the international community has rallied together in solidarity, those values have prevailed” and stressed that ‘it is vital they prevail today, in Ukraine – and elsewhere’.
Mr. Victor Madrigal Borloz, Chair of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures recalled the inextricable connection between armed conflict and human rights violations. He welcomed the UNGA’s landmark decision to deplore in the strongest terms the Russian aggression and highlighted the joint statement by 63 human rights experts (Special Procedure mandate holders and Chairs of UN treaty bodies) condemning the attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Mr. Madrigal denounced the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area, which constitute a violation of the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks, as well as the destruction of vital infrastructure that will have catastrophic effects for generations to come. He described a massive flow of refugees and internally displaced within Ukraine and recalled the threat posed to the environment by the armed conflict, given the significant number of nuclear power plants in Ukraine. Mr Victor Marigal urged the Russian authorities to uphold their obligations under international human rights law and humanitarian law, urging the government to cease violations of freedom of expression, information and peaceful assembly and calling for those detained for voicing dissent and participating in peaceful actions to be immediately released.
He saluted the announcement of the opening of an investigation by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, as well as ongoing proceedings before the international Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights and called on the Council to take concrete measures to ensure accountability by preserving and analysing evidence of the manner in which this unprovoked attack impacts human rights. He further called on the international community to uphold the principle of non-discrimination while providing support and shelter to the people fleeing the country and to ensure that women are included in the decision making process with regard to negotiation processes and humanitarian responses. He also called on businesses, including technology companies, those with factories in a conflict setting and the financial sector, to engage in heightened human rights due diligence. Ultimately, he urged the Russian Federation to hear the unanimous call of the international community condemning their unacceptable military actions.
The delegations of Ukraine and the Russian Federation, as the two countries concerned, delivered statements respectively welcoming and rejecting the holding of an urgent debate.
During the ensuing debate, 36 member States, 66 observer States, 3 international organisations and 29 civil society organisations took the floor to discuss the human rights situation in Ukraine stemming from the Russian aggression.
H.E Mr. Gennady Gatilov, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations Office in Geneva, opposed the holding of the urgent debate and its associated resolution arguing they had no added value. Mr. Gatilov condemned the declarations of alleged human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests, torture and repression of journalist and opposition activists, claiming them to be the expression of hate speech. He argued that in spite of its 45 reports on the Donbas region, OHCHR had made no improvement in the situation, while the Russian military operation, on the other hand, aimed to free the Ukrainian people from a nazi government. The Russian Federation condemned the inaction of the OHCHR and its decision to support Ukraine as well as the EU for providing lethal weapons to Ukrainian civilians.
H.E. Ms Emine Dzhaparova, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, stressed that the Council had gathered to discuss the existential threat posed by a permanent member of the Security Council’s flagrant breaches of the most fundamental principles of human rights and the most fundamental tenets of international law. She argued that recent events clearly pointed to the fact that Russian troops had carried out blatant abuses and violations of human rights and stressed that the Human Rights Council had a key role to play in uniting efforts to ensure the Russian Federation is held to account for its crimes. To this end, Ms. Dzhaparova declared that the Council would consider a resolution to establish a commission of inquiry into violations of human rights and international humanitarian law stemming from Russia’s aggression and further called for the suspension of the Russian membership of the Human Rights Council. She also highlighted the importance and complementarity of the work of the OHCHR, the International Court of Justice, and the European Court of Human Rights in this regard.
France, on the behalf of the EU, condemned the unjustified and violent attack of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, arguing it constitutes a flagrant violation of international law and an attack against international peace. France argued that this premeditated escalation has already led to numerous violations and abuses of human rights, fuelled by a campaign of manipulation of information by the Russian Federation. France also urged Belarus to respect its international obligations and the Russian Federation to proceed to the immediate withdrawal from the internationally recognised territory of Ukraine. France called on the international community to continue providing humanitarian assistance and urged the Human Rights Council to create a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the alleged violations.
Côte d’Ivoire, on the behalf of the African Group, urged the international community to promote dialogue and called on all parties to the conflict to fully respect humanitarian law and immediately implement a ceasefire. Côte d’Ivoire expressed its deep concern at reports of discrimination suffered by third country nationals fleeing the Ukrainian territory and called on the international community to provide support, regardless of nationality or ethnicity.
China called on all parties to the conflict to ease the tensions in order to avoid any further casualties and recalled the importance of respecting States’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. China opposed the politicisation of human rights issues and the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine. China stressed that this would only fuel tensions, worsen confrontation between the parties and prevent resolution of the conflict through peaceful and diplomatic means.
The United States of America expressed its solidarity with Ukraine and its concern regarding the daily reports of casualties. They thanked States providing humanitarian assistance and welcoming refugees and recalled that they must be treated equally, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, origin or status. The USA stressed that the Russian people are not the enemy and saluted the peaceful demonstrators, imprisoned for contesting the war. They called on every member State of the Human Rights Council to vote in favour of the resolution and to stand up against human rights violations by ensuring accountability.
Mexico condemned the violations and abuses of human rights committed in Ukraine and called for an immediate ceasefire, expressing concern at OHCHR reports of civilian casualties, including amongst children, women and people in a situation of vulnerability. Mexico stressed the need for the Human Rights Council to remain informed of the situation, monitor developments, and take steps to prevent and document violations. Mexico called for respect for the principle of non-refoulement and for continued maintenance of diplomatic channels to resolve the situation through dialogue.
Costa Rica condemned the invasion of Russia, which necessarily results in grave human rights violations, especially the right to life. They regretted the lack of safe access for humanitarian organisations and called for all parties to the conflict to fully respect the Geneva Conventions and its first Additional Protocol as well as customary international humanitarian law.
Libya commended efforts taken to find a peaceful resolution of the conflict and reiterated the need to coordinate cooperation between countries to evacuate people and provide shelters, without any discrimination. Libya recalled that Russian mercenaries are still active on its territory, leading to destruction and death of many civilians. For this reason, the State will support the resolution.
South Africa remained concerned about the escalation of the conflict and expressed its belief in its peaceful settlement through diplomacy and dialogue. They encouraged all parties to respect humanitarian law and called on the UN Secretary General to use his good offices to help find a long lasting peaceful solution.
Marshall Islands condemned the invasion of Ukraine in the strongest possible terms, stressing that the age of imperialism must come to an end and recalling that aggression is a crime against sovereignty and against people. Marshall Islands stressed that it could not tolerate the nuclear threat posed, especially when coming from a member of the Human Rights Council. Marshall Islands argued that the people of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions cannot be used as a pretext for invasion and called on the Human Rights Council to take action.
Singapore stressed that it always stands for the full respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity of every State and therefore found this unprovoked attack unacceptable. It strongly called upon the Russian Federation to cease fire, withdraw troops from Ukraine, and proceed to a peaceful settlement in accordance with the UN Charter and humanitarian law.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) called for the violence to end and for all parties to respect international law. UNDP is working closely with the rest of the UN system, governmental entities, civil societies and human rights institutions in Ukraine. The UNDP recalled the essential nature of this support as these institutions are the frontline. It declared that it will continue to support accountability and promote peace-building through local development.
UNICEF highlighted its concern at reports that hospitals and schools were being targeted by the armed forces and that explosive weapons had been used in populated areas. UNICEF appealed for the suspension of ongoing violence, the establishment of humanitarian corridors, and called for the full respect of civilian infrastructure.
Human Rights House Foundation condemned the Russian invasion, as well as human rights violations both in Ukraine and in Russia. It expressed its firm support for the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry and called for it to be provided with all necessary resources for its timely and effective functioning. The Foundation also called for the creation of a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Russia to monitor and hold Russian authorities accountable for human rights violations taking place in the country, especially violations of the right to freedom of association, peaceful assembly, and expression, resulting from the crackdowns on peaceful anti-war protests.
Article 19 supported all documentation and investigation processes while condemning the restrictions and attacks on news outlets and information infrastructures. They recalled the right of journalists to cover the situation and stressed that they should never be the target of military operations. Article 19 urged parties to guarantee access to the Internet in Ukraine and Russia and called for the suspension of Russian membership from the Human Rights Council.
The recording of the voting process for draft resolution 49/L.1 on the ‘Situation of human rights in Ukraine stemming from the Russian aggression’ can be found here.
In the draft resolution, the Human Rights Council ‘condemns in the strongest possible terms the human rights violations and abuses and violations of international humanitarian law resulting from the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine’ (OP1), ‘reaffirms its strong commitment to the sovereignty, political independence, unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine’ (OP1bis) and ‘calls upon the Russian Federation to immediately end its human rights violations and abuses and violations of international humanitarian law in Ukraine’ (OP2). The Human Rights Council further ‘calls for the swift and verifiable withdrawal of Russian Federation troops and Russian-backed armed groups from the entire territory of Ukraine, within its internationally recognized borders, and stresses the urgent need for the immediate cessation of military hostilities against Ukraine’ (OP3). It ‘urges immediate, safe and unhindered humanitarian access to ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches all those in need’ (OP4).
The Human Rights Council ‘encourages relevant thematic special procedure mandate holders, within their respective mandates, to pay particular attention to the situation of human rights in Ukraine’ (OP7) and ‘stresses the importance of ensuring accountability for violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law’ (OP8).
Most significantly, the resolution ‘decides to urgently establish an independent international commission of inquiry, constituted by three human rights experts, to be appointed by the President of the Human Rights Council for an initial duration of one year, complementing, consolidating, and building upon the work of the HRMMU’ (OP9). The mandate of the Commission will be ‘to investigate all alleged violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law, and related crimes, in the context of the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine, and to establish the facts, circumstances, and root causes of any such violations and abuses’ (OP9a).
Furthermore, the Commission has a strong mandate to facilitate legal accountability, as the resolution requests it to ‘collect, consolidate and analyse evidence of such violations and abuses, including their gender dimensions, and to systematically record and preserve all information, documentation and evidence, including interviews, witness testimony and forensic material, consistent with international law standards, in view of any future legal proceedings’ (OP9c). As such, it will work ‘to identify, where possible, those individuals and entities responsible for violations or abuses of human rights or violations of international humanitarian law, or other related crimes, in Ukraine, with a view to ensuring that those responsible are held accountable’ (OP9e).
Finally, the Human Rights Council requests ‘the immediate operationalization of the mandate’ (OP10).
Ukraine introduced the draft resolution, stressing that it is the common duty of the Human Rights Council to ensure accountability by mandating the documentation and verification of Russia’s crimes and the identification of those responsible. “This is the only way to ensure that such blatant dereliction of human rights values, which we deeply cherish, will never repeat itself in any place of the world.” Thus, Ukraine declared that there are 98 co-sponsors and called for other delegations to support the resolution.
The Russian Federation noted the unilateral character of the resolution and decried its lack of practical use. The delegation argued that the creation of a new mechanism is a major waste of limited resources, which could be better used to help civilians in Ukraine.
The draft resolution was adopted by a vote of 32 in favour, 2 against and 13 abstentions.
The full text of HRC resolution 49/L.1 can be read here.
Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights during urgent debate on the “situation of human rights in Ukraine stemming from the Russian aggression”. 3 March 2022. UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré
Emine Dzhaparova, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine (video message) during urgent debate on the “situation of human rights in Ukraine stemming from the Russian aggression”. 3 March 2022. UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré.
Gennady Gatilov, Permanent Representative of Russian Federation to the United Nations Office at Geneva during urgent debate on the “situation of human rights in Ukraine stemming from the Russian aggression”. 3 March 2022. UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré
Bathsheba Nell Crocker, Permanent Representative of United States of America to the United Nations Office at Geneva during 49rd regular session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. 4 March 2022. UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré
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