UN rights council approves probe into Russian invasion of Ukraine

Ukrainian envoy says vote shows Putin ‘isolated on a global level’ after only Eritrea joins Russia in opposing investigation

A woman reacts as she stands in front of a house burning after being shelled in the city of Irpin, outside Kyiv, on March 4, 2022. (Aris Messinis/AFP)
A woman reacts as she stands in front of a house burning after being shelled in the city of Irpin, outside Kyiv, on March 4, 2022. (Aris Messinis/AFP)

GENEVA (AFP) — Russia appeared more isolated than ever following a historic vote at the UN Human Rights Council on Friday to launch 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 human rights violations and abuses and violations of international humanitarian law resulting from the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine.”

Ukraine’s ambassador Yevheniia Filipenko speaks at the opening of the 49th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, on February 28, 2022. (Fabrice Coffrini/Keystone via AP, Pool)

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 — the highest level probe that can be ordered by the council — “to investigate all alleged violations and abuses… in the context of the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine.”

Hold perpetrators ‘accountable’

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, where hundreds of civilians have been killed and more than 1.2 million have fled the country since Russia launched its invasion just over a week ago.

“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.

Firefighters work to contain a fire at the Economy Department building of Karazin Kharkiv National University, allegedly hit during recent shelling by Russia, on March 2, 2022. (Sergey Bobok/AFP)

Flanked by a large number of her counterparts from around the world, Filipenko celebrated that “the whole world is standing by Ukraine.”

And she stressed 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.”

‘Russia stands alone’

Many of Ukraine’s supporters also stressed the importance of Friday’s rights council decision.

“The vote was a powerful condemnation of Russia’s actions, supported from council members from every geographic region of the world,” US ambassador Sheba Crocker said.

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

Before the vote, Russia’s representative Evgeny Ustinov had flatly rejected the resolution, insisting its “purpose is to deflect attention” from Kyiv’s alleged crimes.

He said the co-sponsors of the resolution, 68 countries at the last count, “will use any means to blame Russia.”

People fleeing from Ukraine queue to board a bus at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland, on Friday, March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

During the preceding debate, Russia received cautious support from a handful of countries, like Belarus, Eritrea, Venezuela, Cuba, and China, whose representative decried the “politicization of human rights.”

But most countries spoke out forcefully in support of Ukraine.

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

A number had 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 also seeming to back the idea.

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

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