oDR: Opinion

The UN wants to tackle Russia’s human rights crisis. Will it?

OPINION: The UN’s new special rapporteur on Russia is a significant step. But there are limits to their power

Violetta Fitsner Daria Korolenko
21 December 2022, 10.33am
Russian civil rights organisations hope the new monitor can push international action over repressions in Russia
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CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Scott Beale. Some rights reserved

In October, the United Nations appointed a special rapporteur to monitor the human rights situation in Russia. This followed a year of advocacy work by Russian human rights organisations, including our own organisation OVD-Info, which monitors political persecutions in the country.

A UN special rapporteur is an independent expert with a team of assistants who are authorised to inform and advise on human rights in a given country. To appoint one against a powerful state like Russia is an unprecedented move.

Russians regularly face violations of their constitutional rights, and the war on Ukraine has only exacerbated the situation. Even before the invasion, thousands of people were detained or arrested on politically motivated charges every year. Now the regime’s conveyor belt of repressions has picked up pace, shutting down all attempts at protest.

But what does having a special rapporteur mean for Russian civil society? Can this mechanism really stop the Kremlin’s repressions?

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We believe it can – in the long term.

Calls to protect human rights in Russia

Russian civil society – groups such as charities, campaigners and NGOs – first started calling on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to take action to protect human rights in Russia in 2021, in the wake of protests in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Discussions about the need for a UN monitor continued throughout that year, along with rapidly growing repressions inside the country, where individuals, organisations and media were declared “foreign agents”, and Russia’s oldest human rights organisation, Memorial, was liquidated.

By the beginning of 2022, there was no sector of Russian society that had not been affected by repression. After the invasion of Ukraine and a new wave of police action aimed at suppressing anti-war protests, the removal of Russia from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the isolation of Russian society as a whole, it became obvious that a new mechanism for protecting human rights in Russia was even more necessary.

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Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine to secure control over the country - and over Russia

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(c) Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

In spring, we began an active phase of the campaign in support of a UN special rapporteur – the only realistic and achievable mechanism we could find.

The motives of Russian human rights organisations are simple. After the authorities’ destruction of the Russian judicial system, it is vital to be able to communicate with the international community through a UN representative, and also to ensure centralised monitoring of human rights violations and an independent assessment of repression within Russia.

Another goal is to emphasise the connection between long-standing human rights violations by the Russian authorities and Russia’s war against Ukraine.

What are UN special rapporteurs?

Special rapporteurs belong to the UNHRC’s “special procedures” mechanism: independent human rights experts with mandates to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective. As of October 2022, there are 45 thematic and 14 country-based mandates, including on Russia.

Special rapporteurs are independent in their recommendations and actions, and are not subordinate to any higher authorities or international officials. This independence has allowed UN experts to achieve reforms of repressive legislation in Japan, Lebanon and Moldova, as well as the release of human rights activists and journalists in Albania, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

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UN Human Rights Council meets in Geneva

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CC BC NC ND 2.0 / UN Photo / Pierre Albouy. Some rights reserved

Special rapporteurs can influence the decisions of national constitutional courts and set human rights standards by issuing reports on, for example, disinformation during military conflicts and how to deal with it at international and national levels (media bans are not a solution, the report concluded).

Monitoring violations

A UN monitoring mechanism such as a special rapporteur performs an important function: in the context of daily growing repression, information about what is happening is important for international actors – both for making decisions (now and in the future) and for officially documenting violations.

By centralising the monitoring of violations, it is easier to verify what is happening. What’s more, the UN’s perceived credibility as a source of information is higher than that of other sources.

Special rapporteurs can report violations that have occurred and refer to international treaties prohibiting certain actions. Such information is already helping international institutions and other states to understand how the mechanics of repression operate, and work to prevent it in other countries.

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Nearly 20,000 people have been detained in Russia over anti-war protests since February 2022

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(c) Georgy Dzyura / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Russians have lost important human rights mechanisms after Russia’s exclusion from the Council of Europe and related institutions such as the ECHR. Therefore, the role of UN mechanisms in the work of Russian human rights defenders has increased significantly (although it is worth recognising that the UN Human Rights Committee and other treaty bodies do not have enough resources to replace the ECHR – this is another problem that Russian NGOs are currently dealing with).

In the future, the results of the special rapporteur’s work could become the basis for the transformation of Russia into a state that follows the rule of law; a state where human rights and civil liberties are valued as fundamental principles that cannot be exchanged for economic or political benefits.

Unwelcome moves

The Russian authorities have not welcomed the move to appoint a special rapporteur.

Despite Russia’s regular communication with thematic special rapporteurs, the Russian authorities opposed both the discussions concerning the mandate of the special rapporteur and the vote on its adoption.

This year, the Russian delegation refused three times to attend a review of its human rights obligations under a UN treaty

Russia’s official representative spoke harshly about the special rapporteur during discussion of the UN resolution, claiming the latter was “built on the well-known insinuations of the United States and its allies”. It would be a “channel for obtaining information from those institutions of Russian civil society that are known to exist on Western grants,” he said.

This kind of rhetoric over Russia’s international obligations is not new for the country’s authorities. This year, the Russian delegation refused three times to attend a review of its human rights obligations under a UN treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Voting on the special rapporteur

Legally, the procedure for establishing a special rapporteur is relatively simple: a resolution is put to the UNHRC, which the council’s participating countries then vote on. In reality, however, setting up a mechanism to monitor a permanent member of the UN Security Council is an unprecedented and politicised issue.

Moreover, a resolution will not be submitted to the UNHRC unless it is likely that it will be adopted. In the entire history of the Human Rights Council, there has been only one occasion when a resolution submitted for voting was not adopted.

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Hostomel, Ukraine

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(c) Hennadii Naumov / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

European Union states spent a long time discussing whether a special rapporteur on Russia was necessary. Hungary vetoed the idea of the EU itself introducing the resolution; as a result, the Luxembourg delegation presented it to the UN, with support from all of the other 26 EU countries.

The final vote also highlighted how politically sensitive the issue was: out of a total of 47 countries, 17 voted in favour, six voted against, and 24 abstained.

What happens next?

The special rapporteur on Russia will begin work next year, after a team has been selected (like all processes at the UN, the procedure for approving and appointing a rapporteur is slow).

It is highly likely that the Russian authorities will refuse to engage in any way. The mandate of special rapporteurs includes in-country visits to assess what is happening and talk directly to human rights defenders and victims of violations, but Russia has never allowed such experts to visit the country, despite repeated requests.

Russian civil society organisations, which will likely become principal sources of information and data, expect that the special rapporteur team will interact with them actively, including through personal meetings. The team must have an excellent knowledge of the history of systematic human rights violations in the country and understand how the repressive machine works in Russia.

A complete picture of the authorities’ actions, verified by a UN mechanism, will make it harder for Russia to avoid accountability from international bodies

But even the most experienced expert, fully immersed in the Russian context, will not be able to cope with this task if they do not have enough resources. This was shown in the case of the special rapporteur on Belarus, who we have been told by international colleagues experienced difficulties in processing the huge number of complaints following the brutal crackdown on mass protests in the country in 2020.

The special rapporteur on Russia will need sufficient office assistants. If team members speak Russian, this will further increase the effectiveness of the mandate.

If these criteria are met, Russian civil society will gain a useful mechanism for monitoring systematic human rights violations in the country.

But don’t expect too much – the rapporteur will not be able to put an end to repressions in Russia and bring officials to justice. The mandate simply does not have such powers.

Instead, the reaction of the rapporteur to what is happening and their quick public statements can at least draw international attention to the problems – and perhaps, by so doing, prevent Russia’s repressive machine from working at full capacity. Victims of human rights violations will have an additional opportunity to draw international attention to the illegal actions of the state through the filing of individual petitions.

A complete picture of the authorities’ actions, verified by a UN mechanism, will make it harder for Russia to avoid accountability from international bodies.

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