oDR: Analysis

UN takes important first step to supporting human rights in Russia

The Human Rights Council voted to appoint a special rapporteur, sending a message of support to Russian civil society

Dave Elseroad
7 October 2022, 1.30pm

Riot police attack protesters in Moscow in January 2017


Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Photo

Sixteen years ago today, on 7 October 2006, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in her apartment building in Moscow, a shocking crime in a country that had started to become accustomed to politically motivated reprisals.

Politkovskaya had been known as a fearless journalist and human rights defender, who reported on the atrocities committed during the Second Chechen War in the early 2000s – atrocities she attributed squarely to the Russian authorities.

It is sadly fitting that today, on the anniversary of her death, the UN Human Rights Council has voted to establish a special rapporteur to monitor and report on the human rights situation in Russia.

In the early years of the 21st century, the international community failed to respond in any meaningful way to credible reports of human rights violations in Russia. In 2002, 2003, and 2004, the UN Human Rights Commission considered but ultimately voted down resolutions on Russia. Since that time, the commission and its successor, the Human Rights Council, have failed to condemn Russian human rights violations or establish formal reporting mandates in response to unprecedented crackdowns inside of Russia.

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Yet, no country should be immune from scrutiny of its alleged human rights violations and today the council has finally underscored this point, with 17 members voting in favour of appointing a special rapporteur and six against, with 24 abstaining.

For two decades, a growing chorus of Russian civil society and human rights defenders have demanded action in response to the efforts by the Russian authorities to stifle dissent, attack human rights, and silence independent media and journalists.

Over the past two years, Russian human rights defenders have crisscrossed Europe to push for council action. In the most recent statement, issued three weeks ago, dozens of Russian human rights organisations highlighted a deepening crisis and urged action by the international community.

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A special rapporteur is not going to solve Russia’s immense human rights crisis. No single mandate or mechanism will accomplish this. But, Russian civil society and human rights defenders will need international support and protection as they work to promote human rights inside of Russia. The special rapporteur will be a bridge between them and the international community – this vote sends a clear message to Russian civil society that they are not alone.

The council’s work on Russia is not done. Council members will need to approve the appointment of an individual to serve as special rapporteur. The high commissioner, council president, and member states must respect the agency of Russian civil society and provide formal and informal opportunities for meaningful consultation during the selection process. The success of the special rapporteur will rely, in no small part, on whether or not Russian civil society sees the mandate holder as a credible partner.

The special rapporteur mandate will also require resourcing. While whoever is appointed will have formal reporting requirements to the council and General Assembly, they must also respond in a timely manner to existing and emerging human rights violations and trends in Russia. Such a role is vitally important; timely responses to human rights violations are critical for those arbitrarily deprived of liberty and other victims of human rights violations.

Writing on the 12th anniversary of Anna Politkovskaya’s murder, Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievitch reflected on the hardliners who, in 1991, had tried unsuccessfully to seize power in the Soviet Union. She wrote that “the years that we have lived without you have clearly shown that the coup had only hidden for a while, taken other forms, only to come back victorious.”

In establishing a special rapporteur for Russia, the Human Rights Council has thrown a lifeline to Russian civil society and human rights defenders. But it won’t be enough. The council and the international community more broadly, must maintain a fixed view on Russia and stand prepared to fully support Russian civil society and human rights defenders in promoting and protecting human rights in their country.

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