Explainer: What to Expect As UN Votes on West's Move to Remove Russia from UNHRC

There are two likely scenarios: one is obviously that there will be enough 'yes' votes for the resolution to be approved without any controversy. The second one is messier.

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New Delhi: The United Nations General Assembly will vote on a resolution pushed by the US to suspend Russia’s membership from the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council in New York on Thursday.

The draft resolution expresses concern at the “gross and systematic violations and abuses” by Russia in its “aggression” against Ukraine.

Here is The Wire’s primer on how the voting on the resolution could play out and what will the considerations behind India’s voting position.  

How can a country be removed from the UNHRC? 

The 47 member states of the Council are elected for a three-year term by the UN General Assembly through a secret ballot. The UNHRC’s founding resolution, 60/251, empowers the General Assembly to suspend the membership of a country that “commits gross and systematic violations of human rights”.

According to OP8 (60/251), the UN General Assembly “[d]ecides that the membership in the Council shall be open to all States Members of the United Nations; when electing members of the Council, Member States shall take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto; the General Assembly, by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting, may suspend the rights of membership in the Council of a member of the Council that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights”.

Russian Army military vehicles drive along a street, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in the town of Armyansk, Crimea, February 24, 2022. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

What is the likely outcome of voting in UNGA?

To make a reasonable forecast, let’s cast an eye back on the two resolutions passed by the UNGA following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24.

The first resolution on March 2 was approved by 141 member states. The second one on March 24, which focussed on the humanitarian aspect while condemning Russian acts, got 140 votes in favour. Both the resolutions had only five negative votes. The number of abstentions increased slightly from 35 to 38 between the two resolutions.

This means that it technically looks feasible for a resolution to sail through the UNGA that will suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council. However, the numbers belie the actual complexities.

Also read: India Abstains on the Second Resolution on Ukraine in UN General Assembly

A substantive part of the developing world, many of them part of the non-aligned movement (NAM) bloc, had supported the two resolutions that condemned Russia, but they will likely hesitate from taking a step that will punish Russia in concrete terms.

The International Crisis Group had also cautioned that the seeming international solidarity could crack open if the UK and EU officials don’t listen carefully to the rising anxieties of their Asian, Latin American and African counterparts over food security and development aid in the wake of the Ukraine war.

That’s a critical reason that the West had, till now, not pushed for a resolution to suspend Russia, a P5 country, from UNHRC. The devastating images from the Ukrainian town of Bucha, with civilian dead lying on the street, changed the calculations. The momentum of the worldwide outrage persuaded the West that there might be enough numbers to pass the resolution.

There are two likely scenarios. One is obviously, which the West hopes, is that there will be enough ‘yes’ votes for the resolution to be approved without any controversy.

The second one is messier.

According to the UNGA’s rules on the method of voting, the General assembly shall vote by replying “yes”, “no”, or “abstention” when the country’s name is called out in a roll-call. Usually, the voting is by show of hands or by standing, but a representative can request a roll-call. Therefore, according to Rule 87, abstentions are counted as a ‘vote’.

(a) The General Assembly shall normally vote by show of hands or by standing, but any representative may request a roll-call. The roll-call shall be taken in the English alphabetical order of the names of the members, beginning with the member whose name is drawn by lot by the President. The name of each member shall be called in any roll-call, and one of its representatives shall reply “yes”, “no” or “abstention”. The result of the voting shall be inserted in the record in the English alphabetical order of the names of the members.

But, Rule 86 muddies the water by stating that “present and voting” does not include abstentions.

For the purposes of these rules, the phrase “members present and voting” means members casting an affirmative or negative vote. Members who abstain from voting are considered as not voting.

It means that even if higher than the number of yes votes, abstentions will not be counted as ‘votes’ under Rule 86. This rule is undoubtedly likely to be invoked by Western countries if the number of ‘yes’ votes is less than required for two-thirds of the countries present at the General Assembly. Then the argument would be that the number of ‘yes’ votes is two-thirds of the total number of ‘affirmative’ and ‘negative’ votes.

Has any country been thrown out of Human Rights Council? 

In March 2011, the UN General Assembly suspended Libya from the Human Rights Council using the provisions of resolution 60/251. Until now, it is the first and only time that a country was removed from the UNHRC.

The move began after the government of Moammar Qaddafi cracked down on anti-government protests as the Arab spring movement spread across the region.

On February 25, 2011, the UNHRC’s one-day special session passed a resolution that recommended that the General Assembly “consider the application of the measures foreseen in paragraph 8 of General Assembly resolution 60/251”, that is, suspend Libya from its membership of the Council.

Taking note of the UNHRC’s resolution, General Assembly suspended Libya from Council membership on March 1. A month after Qaddafi was killed, Libya’s suspension was lifted in November 2011.

The critical difference between the past and the current scenario is that both the resolutions at the UNHRC and UNGA suspending Libya were passed by consensus, that is, there was no voting. This was a result of the resolution being supported technically by Libya. The entire Libyan permanent missions in New York and Geneva had ‘defected’ and expressed support for the resolutions in both the UN bodies. Therefore, the Libya precedent cannot be applied to the latest move to throw out Russia in the wake of reported human rights violations during the Ukraine war.

What will be India’s position?

India has, so far, cast abstention votes at all the resolutions condemning Russia for invading Ukraine, passed in the UN General Assembly, UN Security Council and UN Human Rights Council.

At the UNSC meeting on April 5, India condemned the civilian killings in Bucha and called for an independent investigation. Indian official sources stressed that India’s call for a probe echoed the suggestion of UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres for an international investigation. In New Delhi, the statement was not perceived as a significant shift, especially since the statement did not name Russia as the perpetrator of the Bucha killings.

Also read: At UN General Assembly, India Abstains From Resolution Criticising Russian Actions in Ukraine

Unlike the previous resolutions on Ukraine, the move to throw out Russia from Human Rights Council is viewed by South Block officials to have repercussions that go beyond the current crisis.

India has a long-standing position that it does not support a specific resolution criticising a country for human rights violations. Therefore, it will undoubtedly be difficult to vote in favour of a resolution to throw out Russia from UNHRC. While it has a long-standing technical stance, India will take a call based on political considerations, just like other countries.

A negative vote by India will be challenging to explain to Western capitals, most of whom had been persuading New Delhi to not dilute the economic pressure on Moscow by increasing the purchase of Russian fuel.

At the end of previous UNGA votes on March 2 and March 24, Russia had commended countries who had voted against the resolution, as well as those who had abstained, for staving off US pressure. This time, Russia has made it clear that abstention or non-participation in the voting will be “seen as an unfriendly gesture” since the West is largely aiming to get two-thirds among the counted ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes.

When the UNHRC recommended the suspension of Libya in 2011, there was no vote, but India did make a statement.

While India stated that it had taken note of the concerns of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on violations, the statement also said that the Council should not take a “politicised decision”.

“The credibility and legitimacy of the Council will be enhanced when the council is seen to be dealing with similar situations in a similar manner, and not sacrificing concern for human rights at the altar of political expediency and strategic opportunism,” said India at UNHRC’s special session on February 25, 2011.