Flashpoints | Diplomacy

Which Asian Countries Voted to Suspend Russia’s UNHRC Membership?

In the Asia-Pacific, as around the world, there was a definite shift in Russia’s favor at the latest vote.

Which Asian Countries Voted to Suspend Russia’s UNHRC Membership?
Credit: Flickr/ sanjitbakshi

On April 7, the United Nations General Assembly voted on a resolution to suspend Russia’s membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council. The resolution was made by Ukraine after revelations of atrocities committed by the Russian military against civilian populations in Ukraine, especially in the city of Bucha. Ukraine’s representative told the UNGA that “thousands of peaceful residents have been killed, tortured, raped and abducted and robbed by the Russian army” and demanded Russia be removed from the UNHRC, the U.N.’s top human rights body as a result.

The resolution passed, as 93 countries voted in favor, 24 voted against, and 58 abstained.

As a point of comparison, in the first UNGA vote condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on March 2, 141 countries voted in favor, just five voted against, and 35 abstained. The vote on Russia’s UNHRC membership, then, saw a sharp increase in outright “no” votes and a rise in abstentions as well, alongside a 34 percent drop in countries voting to support the resolution.

Despite the shift, the United States was “very pleased” with the outcome, U.S. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet, a senior policy advisor to the secretary of state, told The Diplomat in an exclusive interview. “I think the bottom line is what matters the most, which is that for only the second time in history a country has been removed from the U.N. Human Rights Council,” he said.

“I think it’s very significant and it sends a very clear message that Russia’s behavior is completely unacceptable and there needs to be accountability for what it’s doing.”

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The map below shows how countries voted on this week’s resolution. Hover over any country (or search for it in the search box) to see how it voted on March 2.

As I wrote regarding the March 2 resolution:

Within the Asia-Pacific region covered by The Diplomat, just two countries voted against the resolution: Russia itself and North Korea. Ten countries abstained: Bangladesh, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mongolia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, and Vietnam. (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan did not vote at all.)

In the April 7 vote, those numbers shifted drastically, matching the global trend. Nine countries in Asia voted no: China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, North Korea, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. Other than North Korea and Russia, which voted against both resolutions, the no votes had abstained in the March 2 vote.

The number of Asia-Pacific countries abstaining also ticked upward to 15: Bangladesh*, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, India*, Indonesia, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia*, Nepal, Pakistan*, Singapore, Sri Lanka*, Thailand, Vanuatu. (The countries marked with an * abstained on March 2 as well; the other countries supported the March 2 resolution.)

Meanwhile, Afghanistan and Solomon Islands, which had both supported the March 2 resolution, did not vote on April 7. Afghanistan’s U.N. seat remains a matter of contention. It is currently held by the ousted Islamic Republic of Afghanistan government, since the Taliban regime does not have official diplomatic recognition at the United Nations. (And even within the delegation appointed by the Afghan Republic government, there has been contention about who is the rightful holder of the seat.)

For those keeping score at home, that means a total of seven Asia-Pacific countries moved from abstaining on March 2 to voting “no” on the April 7 resolution, while 12 countries went from a “yes” vote to an abstention or skipping the vote altogether.

Some of the regional trends are especially notable. My colleague Catherine Putz outlined the factors at play for Central Asia, which saw four of the region’s five countries voting against this week’s resolution (Turkmenistan did not vote either time).

As Putz wrote, there are two big factors that likely influenced that decision. First, there was heavier pressure from Russia for outright opposition to the resolution, rather than abstentions. During previous rounds of voting, abstentions were often read as a “win” for Russia; countries like India and Bangladesh were reprimanded for “supporting” Russia by merely abstaining from the vote. According to a leaked memo seen by Reuters, however, Russia made clear that in this vote Moscow would view even “abstention or non-participation” as “an unfriendly gesture” to be “taken into account both in the development of bilateral relations and in the work on the issues important for it within the framework of the U.N.” In other words, Russia was threatening consequences for an abstention, which may have swayed countries with especially close ties to Moscow – not only the Central Asian states, but Vietnam as well – to cast their lot with Russia.

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Second, the precedent of removing a country from the UNHRC because of human rights violations – while it may seem like an obvious step – would be controversial for a number of countries. As Putz noted, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan both sit on the UNHRC currently; both have faced criticisms for violations of human rights at home.

Southeast Asia was another region where positions changed nearly across the board. Eight of the 11 regional states changed their votes between March 2 and April 7: Laos and Vietnam (close allies themselves, with Hanoi also having especially deep ties to Moscow) both switched from abstentions to “no” votes. Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore went from “yes” votes to abstentions.

Singapore’s shift is especially surprising, as it’s one of the only Southeast Asian counties to have placed sanctions on Russia. Curiously, Singapore’s representative used her comments before the vote to condemn “the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine and its continuing attacks on Ukrainian cities, civilians and civilian infrastructure in the strongest possible terms,” which makes the abstention even more puzzling.

Only Myanmar, the Philippines, and Timor-Leste stuck with their yes votes, and – as I explained previously – Myanmar’s vote comes with a caveat: the current U.N. representative does not represent the military regime that seized power in February 2021. The Myanmar junta itself has been outspoken in support of Russia.

The U.S. was not concerned by the shifts in Southeast Asia, Chollet said. “We want to focus on the outcome here…. We are not going to respond over the top in any way if some countries abstained, because the bottom line remains that Russia’s off the Council.”

“If you look at the ASEAN Charter and the core principles expressed in the ASEAN Charter, particularly issues like sovereignty and the peaceful resolution of disputes, all of those are being violated today by Russia against Ukraine. My sense is there’s wide agreement on that within ASEAN, with an asterisk really around Burma, of course,” Chollet added.

“We’ve been gratified by the level of support and unity we’ve seen thus far, but we’re going to continue the conversation with our ASEAN friends, particularly about ways forward, in terms of their relationship with Russia but also how we can work together to try to address the effects of Russia war against Ukraine.”

In South Asia, Bhutan, Maldives, and Nepal went from a “yes” vote on March 2 to abstaining; Afghanistan, as noted above, went from voting in support to not voting at all. The other four South Asian states – Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka – were consistent in abstaining each time. That in itself is notable, given the larger shift in Russia’s favor and the reported heavy pressure from Moscow for direct support this time.

Northeast Asia was more consistent. Mongolia joins India in the list of eye-catching abstainers, given its close ties to Russia and the apparent pressure to vote “no.” China, meanwhile, switched from abstaining to a “no” vote, likely at least in part because it is seriously alarmed by the precedent of booting an UNHRC member over human rights violations. China’s U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun said as much in his remarks: “Dealing with the membership of the Human Rights Council in such a way will set new dangerous precedent, further intensify confrontation in the field of human rights, bringing a greater impact on the UN governance system, and produce serious consequences,” he said. China itself sits on the council despite facing active accusations of genocide.

Other Northeast Asian states voted along predictable lines: North Korea voted against the resolution again, while U.S. allies Japan and South Korea voted for it.

The Pacific Islands, meanwhile, remained a bastion of support for Ukraine. Vanuatu was the only state in the region to abstain, while Solomon Islands did not vote at all. Both had voted to approve the March 2 resolution. The other regional states were all consistent in their support.

Overall, it seems that many countries in Asia – and the developing world writ large – are increasingly frustrated at being forced to take sides between the U.S. and Russia. It’s also an important reminder that, when countries are truly forced to pick sides – with a neutral position not an option – many countries will, in fact, choose Russia.

But there was also a strong sense in the UNGA that perhaps the decision had just been rushed. Several representatives, including Malaysia’s, emphasized that “a critical decision such as the suspension of a member of the Human Rights Council must not be made in haste.”

This article has been updated to include comments from Counselor Derek Chollet.