For the first time since its inception in 2006, Russia will not be a member of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) after being narrowly beaten by Croatia in a vote. Saudi Arabia was successfully re-elected, despite criticism from human rights organizations.
The 47 places on the council are distributed on a regional basis, with staggered ballots seeing a third of the body re-elected each year. Russia had finished its three-year term, and was running against Hungary and Croatia for the two available seats from Eastern Europe.
With Hungary far ahead, Croatia received the votes of 114 of the 193 member countries, and Russia was selected on 112 ballots.
Saudi Arabia sailed through the Asian ballot with 152 votes, and will represent the region on the UNHRC alongside China, Japan and Iraq for the next three years.
The elections took place against a backdrop of criticism from non-governmental human rights organizations, who say that the body has been hijacked by oppressive regimes looking to deflect criticism and drive their own agendas.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International produced a joint statement earlier this year condemning Riyadh for “an appalling record of violations” in Yemen, where it has conducted a bombing campaign against Houthi rebels since 2015, which has resulted in the deaths of up to 4,000 civilians. The two organizations called for Saudi Arabia, a member of the UNHRC since it was created in 2006, to be suspended – to no avail.
Saudi Arabia used its power in the council to block an outside inquiry into the campaign last month, while leading a successful resolution that placed the responsibility of investigating human rights abuses in the hands of its allies, the exiled Yemeni government.
Saudi Arabia carried out 157 executions domestically last year – the highest number in two decades, and is on pace to match the number this year. Critics of the regime have often faced detention, while women do not enjoy autonomy and equal status before the law.
Riyadh has repeatedly refused visits from UNHRC rapporteurs looking to investigate the justice system, incidences of torture, and discrimination.
In its official campaign brochure, published ahead of the vote, Saudi Arabia boasted about its human rights record, claiming, for example, that it supports “the empowerment of women at all levels” in compliance with “Sharia law, which guarantees fair gender equality.”
Ahead of this year’s vote Russia came under concerted pressure from human rights organizations.
A petition signed by 80 NGOs, including Human Rights Watch and Refugees International, asked the voting countries to “question seriously whether Russia’s role in Syria which includes supporting and undertaking military actions which have routinely targeted civilians and civilian objects renders it fit to serve on the UN’s premier inter-governmental human rights institution.”
Russia dismissed the petition, published this week, as “cynical” and “dishonorable,” and said the accusations were motivated more by politics than by concern for human rights. Moscow, which has been conducting airstrikes in the country over the past year, says that it is acting legally, following an official call for assistance from the Syrian government, and insists that its war efforts are targeted at terrorists.