The United Nations General Assembly has voted to suspend Russia from the global body’s Human Rights Council – currently chaired by Argentina – as punishment for its invasion of Ukraine and the atrocities committed in that country since February 24.
The high-profile rebuke of Moscow marked only the second ever suspension of a country from the council – Libya was the first, in 2011 – and it earned praise from Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky and other world leaders.
A vote of two-thirds of the General Assembly was needed to suspend Russia’s membership of the UN Human Rights Council and that was clinched, although the decision will be subjected to the corresponding review.
Argentina was among 93 countries that voted in favour of the resolution suspending Russia from the Council of Human Rights “for grave and systematic violations of those rights" and "violations of international humanitarian law" committed by the Russian Federation during its invasion of Ukraine, expressing its "grave concern" though government officials.
In total, 58 nations abstained and 24 UN members voted against, including three Latin American countries: Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua, historic allies of the Vladimir Putin government. Venezuela, which has lost its right to vote due to payment arrears with the UN, urged a vote against. Elsewhere in the continent, Brazil, Mexico and El Salvador abstained.
Other countries voting against included China, a Moscow ally which has steadfastly abstained from criticising the invasion, and Iran, as well as Russia itself, Belarus and Syria.
Russia’s suspension prevents it from speaking or voting on the UN body, although its diplomats may still attend debates.
“They will probably still try to influence the Council via their representatives,” said a diplomat based in Geneva.
Earlier in the week, Foreign Ministry sources had anticipated to the press that Argentina would join the vote to suspend Russia, citing its military invasion of Ukraine in general and the shocking images of an alleged massacre in Bucha in particular with hundreds of corpses found in a common grave outside that city, all shot in the back of the head.
Ministry sources said that Foreign Minister Santiago Cafiero had been instructed to do so by President Alberto Fernández himself.
Fernández’s government previously condemned the invasion of Ukraine at the UN on March 1, calling on Russia "to immediately cease the illegitimate use of force, as well as military operations in Ukrainian territory."
In a searing statement, US President Joe Biden reacted to the expulsion by saying it confirmed Moscow as an "international pariah." He denounced "horrifying" images from Ukrainian towns like Bucha, where Russian forces are accused of atrocities against civilians.
"Russia's lies are no match for the undeniable evidence of what is happening in Ukraine," declared the US leader. "The signs of people being raped, tortured, executed – in some cases having their bodies desecrated – are an outrage to our common humanity."
Zelensky, who has longed called for a tougher international position against Moscow, applauded the UN move as "an important step," describing it on Twitter as "another punishment for [Russia's] aggression" against Ukraine.
Russia swiftly rejected the suspension, with the Foreign Ministry in Moscow blasting the move as "illegal and politically motivated, aimed at ostentatiously punishing a sovereign UN member state that pursues an independent domestic and foreign policy."
The UN Human Rights Council was founded in 2006 and is composed of 47 member states chosen by the General Assembly.
Washington argues that suspending Russia from the Geneva-based organisation that is the UN's main human rights monitor is more than symbolic, and in fact intensifies Russia's isolation after the assault on Ukraine that began February 24.
Zelensky has also called for Russia to be expelled from the UN Security Council "so it cannot block decisions about its own aggression, its own war."
Washington has admitted there is little anyone can do about Russia's position on the Security Council, where it holds veto power.
The world has been outraged by images of civilians apparently executed and left in the streets or buried in mass graves in areas formerly controlled by Russian troops. The carnage has led to new rounds of sanctions against Moscow.
Journalists including from AFP last weekend found corpses in civilian clothes, some with their hands bound, in the town of Bucha outside the capital Kyiv.
The Kremlin has denied Russian forces killed civilians, and alleged that the images of dead bodies in Bucha were "fakes."