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Russia, Iran sending top envoys to longest-ever UN Human Rights Council gathering

Session scheduled to continue for over 5 weeks in Geneva; Iranian FM to attend against backdrop of domestic rights protests

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian speaks in a press briefing in Tehran, Iran, January 29, 2023. (Vahid Salemi/AP)
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian speaks in a press briefing in Tehran, Iran, January 29, 2023. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

GENEVA (AP) — UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will help kick off the latest and longest-ever session of the UN’s top human rights body on Monday, with Iran’s foreign minister, a senior Russian envoy, and the top diplomats of France and Germany among scores of leaders set to take part.

The more than five-week session of the Human Rights Council opens as the world grapples with rights concerns including Russia’s war in Ukraine, repression of dissent in Russia and Belarus, new violence between Palestinians and Israelis, and efforts to solidify a peace deal in Ethiopia that ended two years of conflict between the national government and rebels in the Tigray region.

The council, made up of 47 members countries, takes up an extensive array of human rights issues — including discrimination, the freedom of religion, right to housing or the deleterious impact of economic sanctions targeting governments on regular people — as well as country “situations” like those in Afghanistan, Syria, Myanmar, Nicaragua and South Sudan. It usually meets three times a year.

Proponents say the Geneva-based rights body has grown in importance as a diplomatic venue because the UN Security Council in New York has been increasingly divided in recent years due to a major rift between affiliations among its five permanent members: China and Russia on one side, Britain, France and the United States on the other.

On Monday, among the speakers after Guterres and the presidents of Congo, Montenegro and Colombia, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian will come up between Germany’s Annalena Baerbock and France’s Catherine Colonna. China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, is set to make a statement by video.

Amir-Abdollahian’s visit comes in the wake of vociferous and continued protests that erupted in Iran after the death in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini following her arrest by the country’s morality police.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov in Moscow, Russia, March 15, 2022. (Maxim Shemetov/Pool Photo via AP, File)

Moscow is set to be represented at the highest level since Russia suspended its council membership last year — largely because the UN General Assembly was on the cusp of stripping it. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, known more for his expertise on defense matters, is set to attend on Thursday. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to speak by video message the same day.

A year ago, scores of diplomats walked out of the council chamber as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov appeared by video, to express their opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine days earlier. He had originally been set to attend in person but many Western countries closed their airspace to flights from Russia after the invasion.

In the session, the United States is likely to try to keep pressure on China over its record on issues over a crackdown on pro-democracy activists and others in Hong Kong, long-running concerns about Tibet, and others about the western region of Xinjiang — on which former UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet issued a scathing report last fall just minutes before she left office.

“We will continue to shine a spotlight on documented abuses of Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang by the PRC,” said the US ambassador to the council, Michèle Taylor. “We are not going to just walk away from that … I don’t have an answer right now for exactly what’s planned, but I can tell you that we’re engaged in robust conversations about what that might look like.”

Western diplomats say they are looking to see what tone the new UN human rights chief, Volker Türk, takes on the issue. He is set to speak right after Guterres.

Among other items on the agenda will be the possible renewal of the term of a team of experts, known as a Commission of Inquiry, on the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Ethiopia’s effort to prematurely end the mandate of a council-designated team of investigators who have been looking into rights issues related to the conflict with Tigray rebels.

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