Russia’s Suspension from the Human Rights Council: Is Non-Alignment Back?

April 21, 2022
Photo credit: lev radin /
On April 7, pursuant to a resolution sponsored by the United States, the UN General Assembly suspended Russia’s membership from the Human Rights Council in light of its gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law in Ukraine.

The resolution was adopted by a vote of 93 in favor and 24 against, well beyond the requirement for a two-thirds majority vote, abstentions1  not counting as votes.

This is a major diplomatic setback for Moscow. In a futile attempt at saving face, Russia announced shortly after the vote that it was ending its council membership.

The suspension of a country’s membership from a United Nations body is a very rare occurrence. As far as the Human Rights Council is concerned, there is only one precedent: Libya was suspended in 2011, under very different circumstances.

Russia conducted an aggressive campaign to counter the resolution, warning in a letter sent to several UN members that it would consider a vote in support of the resolution and even an abstention or absence from voting as an ‘’unfriendly’’ act, a veiled threat of consequences to bilateral relations. That Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, secured the support of only 23 countries—a mere 12 percent of the UN’s membership—is humiliating.

But for the United States and its allies, this result cannot be considered a diplomatic triumph. The sobering reality is that less than half of all UN members actually supported the resolution: 93 countries out of 193. The very high number of abstentions and absentees from the vote explains this: 76 countries, or almost 40 percent of the UN’s membership, opted to not take a side.

  • 1Countries could formally register an abstention or be “absent’’ from the vote. The net effect was the same.

The very high number of abstentions and absentees from the vote explains this: 76 countries, or almost 40 percent of the UN’s membership, opted to not take a side.

A breakdown of the results by region reveals more. As one would expect, the resolution received very strong support in the Western Europe and Others Group2  as well as in Eastern Europe.3 Elsewhere, it is a different story. Most countries in the Africa Group either abstained or declined to vote, and among the low number of countries that cast a vote, the result was split almost equally.4  In the Asia-Pacific Group as well, the majority of countries either abstained or declined to vote. Among those that did cast a vote, most voted in favor.5  In South-East Asia, a sub-region of interest in light of China’s posture in the neighborhood, most countries abstained.6  In Latin America and the Caribbean, the resolution received good support.7

When adding up the numbers of these three regions—Africa, Asia-Pacific, as well as Latin America and the Caribbean—it turns out that most countries abstained or declined to vote,8 thereby refusing to lend support to any of the major powers for whom this initiative was a momentous diplomatic tussle.

What, then, are the takeaways from this vote, most notably from the significant number of abstentions and absentees?

It goes without saying that many factors influence a country’s vote. Sure, the founding principles of the United Nations, such as territorial integrity of sovereign states and human rights, remain part of the discourse. But ultimately, each country votes according to its interpretation of the situation and, most importantly, according to what it perceives as its geopolitical and economic interests, especially its bilateral relations. Further, in this specific instance, many countries which have a dubious human rights record but nevertheless periodically assume membership in the Human Rights Council acted out of self-protection, fearful of a dangerous precedent: if Russia can be suspended from the council, maybe next time it will be them.

As for the world’s major powers, they should ponder the following:

Europe, the United States, Canada, and their allies are understandably outraged by the atrocities committed in Ukraine, but this outrage and the urge to retaliate against Russia are not shared universally.

Further, regardless of their uneven sense of outrage or attachment to the fundamental principles of the United Nations, many countries are reluctant to be dragged into what they perceive as a struggle between superpowers. In a world of harsh competition between major powers, are we witnessing a resurgence of “non-alignment”?

Undoubtedly, major powers still have a lot of pulling power and influence—but maybe not as much as they would like to think.

  • 2UN members are clustered in five regional groups: Africa; Asia and the Pacific, which includes the Middle East; Latin America and the Caribbean; Eastern Europe; and Western Europe and Others, which includes Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Turkey, as well as the United States as an observer. Support for the resolution was unanimous in the latter group.
  • 3Results in Eastern Europe: 19 in favor, 2 against, 2 absentees.
  • 4Results in Africa: 10 in favor, 9 against, 35 abstentions and absentees.
  • 5Results in Asia: 16 in favor, 10 against, 28 abstentions and absentees.
  • 6Results in South-East Asia: 2 in favor, 2 against, 7 abstentions.
  • 7Results in Latin America and the Caribbean: 19 in favor, 3 against, 11 abstentions and absentees.
  • 8All three regions combined: 45 in favor, 22 against, 74 abstentions and absentees.