Russia isolated as UN council votes to probe rights abuses in Ukraine

Russia appeared more isolated than ever following a historic vote at the UN Human Rights Council on Friday to trigger an investigation into violations committed in Moscow’s Ukraine war.

“The message to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin has been clear: You’re isolated on a global level and the whole world is against you,” Ukrainian ambassador Yevheniia Filipenko told reporters after the overwhelming vote.

Thirty-two of the council’s 47 members voted to establish the highest-level probe possible, in a bid to hold perpetrators responsible.

Only Russia itself and Eritrea voted against, while 13 countries abstained, including Moscow’s traditional backers China, Venezuela and Cuba.

The heavy blow to Russia came after the UN General Assembly in New York on Wednesday issued its own powerful rebuke, with a 141-5 vote to deplore Moscow’s invasion and demand an immediate withdrawal.

The council in Geneva also condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the violations “resulting from the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine”.

The text, presented by Kyiv, called for the “swift and verifiable withdrawal of Russian Federation troops and Russian-backed armed groups from the entire territory of Ukraine”.

Most importantly, Friday’s vote opens the way to create an independent international commission of inquiry “to investigate all alleged violations and abuses… in the context of the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine.”

– ‘Russia stands alone’ –

It calls for the appointment of three investigators to “establish the facts, circumstances, and root causes of any such violations and abuses,” and to gather evidence “with a view to ensuring that those responsible are held accountable”.

The International Criminal Court in The Hague has already begun investigating possible war crimes in Ukraine.

“I thank all those who voted for the right cause,” Filipenko said, calling for the investigation to start “as soon as possible, given the urgency of the situation”.

“This will be an important body to complement the work of the ICC,” she said.

Flanked by many of her counterparts from across the globe, Filipenko celebrated that “the whole world is standing by Ukraine”.

Some of Kyiv’s backers echoed her sentiment.

“The vote was a powerful condemnation of Russia’s actions,” US ambassador Sheba Crocker said.

“Members of the international community stand with Ukraine, and it is clear that Russia stands alone.”

Her British colleague Simon Manley hailed the “unprecedented show of unity of the international community.”

– Hold perpetrators accountable –

Russian ambassador Gennady Gatilov however said he did not believe Friday’s council vote reflected “all the nuances” of the positions of countries who voted in favour or abstained.

“I wouldn’t say we are isolated,” he told reporters in Geneva.

“A number of countries were heavily pressed by the US and their Western allies.”

Eritrea, Moscow’s sole overt backer, decried those trying to create a “unipolar world order” through the “encirclement and containment of Russia”.

“Ukraine is sadly a victim and has been scapegoated in their overarching scheme of tightening the noose on Russia,” the foreign ministry in Asmara said in a statement.

Filipenko however hailed Friday’s “historic” resolution, stressing that “those from Russia directing and committing violations against my people should be paying attention”.

“The evidence is going to be collected. You’re going to be identified and you’re going to be held to account.”

Friday’s decision was considered an extremely strong one by the rights council, which has never before passed a resolution directly targeting Russia. 

Nonetheless, rights groups suggested the text should have gone further, and called for the investigation to extend to widespread abuses inside Russia itself. 

A number also called for the text to include a request for the General Assembly to consider revoking Russia’s membership of the Human Rights Council, with some countries seeming to back the idea.

Asked about it, Filipenko stressed to reporters that “nothing is off the table”.

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