Putin’s shameless UN charm offensive - with stolen grain from Ukraine

Russia is on a mission to grab a seat on the UN’s Human Rights Council - and to add insult to injury it’s using crops plundered from its illegal war to curry favour with potential backers, writes Arpan Rai

Thursday 28 September 2023 15:16 BST
To win his place back at the United Nations Human Rights Council seat, Putin is offering rare perks to his remaining allies on the table
To win his place back at the United Nations Human Rights Council seat, Putin is offering rare perks to his remaining allies on the table (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

A desperate Vladimir Putin, increasingly isolated on the world stage, is eyeing a return to the UN Human Rights Council – and he has launched a shameless charm offensive to get him there.

Armed with stolen Ukrainian grain, the Russian president is on a mission to curry favour with potential backers ahead of a vote for council membership next month, although his efforts are likely to fall short.

Two years after being kicked off the panel for invading its neighbour, Putin has ordered his diplomats to try and secure the backing of enough countries for Moscow to beat two other eastern European nations on 10 October.

A Russian position paper circulated to dozens of other countries ahead of the vote strikes a markedly different tone to the nuclear threats and wartime sabre-rattling of Putin’s addresses since he invaded Ukraine, calling for “constructive mutually respectful dialogue” and referring to the 47-member Human Rights Council as “a key body in the United Nations system”.

Russia is competing with Albania and Bulgaria to win one of two spots up for grabs on the council that are reserved for central and eastern European nations. Ironically one of the countries being replaced is in fact Ukraine – its and the Czech Republic’s terms are expiring.

Moscow is going all out to try and reverse the April 2022 vote that saw it booted, experts tell The Independent. Then, 93 countries voted in favour of suspending Russia, while 24 voted against and 58 abstained.

“Russia is apparently offering incentives such as grain and arms in exchange for votes. Along with other moves to deepen relations with Africa, we know that President Putin had already promised African states grain back in July at the Russia-Africa Summit,” says Yousuf Syed Khan, a senior lawyer at international human rights firm Global Rights Compliance.

“At the same time, Russia is engaged in the systematic pillage of Ukraine’s grain, having rebuilt infrastructure to harness the ability to export millions of tonnes from occupied Ukrainian territory into Russia. This is not a coincidence,” the war crimes lawyer adds.

Russia has been accused of weaponising global food security in its war against Ukraine, targeting key Ukrainian infrastructure with missile strikes while at the same time pulling out of a UN-brokered deal that had allowed Kyiv to keep exporting grain to other parts of the world where rising food prices are pushing more people into poverty.

“The bottom line is that Russia is in no better standing to join the Human Rights Council now than it was nearly 18 months ago when it was voted off. In many ways, its bid to re-join and the outcome of the vote will be a barometer of Russia’s international standing,” Khan says.

Alongside what it can offer in terms of trade, Khan says Russia will likely try to convince smaller countries that they do not want to be “instrumentalised to serve the political wills of Western nations”. “This logic may speak to some of the African States that Russia will desperately need to vote in its favour,” he tells The Independent.

This tallies with the language in the position paper Russian diplomats have already distributed. The paper says Moscow “believes it is important to prevent the increasing trend of turning the Human Rights Council into the instrument, which serves political wills of one group of countries punishing non-loyal governments for their independent internal and external policy,” reported CNN.

Alfred de Zayas, a former independent UN expert on human rights, says he believes the odds are stacked against Russia rejoining the council, despite the concerns voiced in recent days by Western officials.

“At present, there are five eastern European states represented in the council – Czechia [the Czech Republic], Georgia, Lithuania, Montenegro and Ukraine. The terms of Czechia and Ukraine expire in December 2023. There are two openings but three candidates – Albania, Russia and Bulgaria,” he tells The Independent.

De Zayas says that there was little in Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s recent comments at the UN General Assembly in New York to suggest a rapprochement with “the collective West” is any nearer.

But at the same time, he argues that including Russia on multilateral platforms like the Human Rights Council is exactly what is needed to work towards peace talks to end the Ukraine war. “Maximum inclusiveness, bringing in as many countries as possible would be desirable, so that meaningful exchanges of ideas and perspectives could be conducted. Excluding Russia is counterproductive because it closes an important avenue of compromise and quid pro quo,” says De Zayas.

“Precisely because there is a war going on, it is crucial to take advantage of every forum of dialogue,” he suggests.

For Khan, however, Russia’s ongoing abuses in Ukraine are likely to see Putin’s charm offensive fall short. “Since the initial days of its full-scale invasion in February last year, Russia has been engaged in starvation as a method of warfare across Ukraine,” he says, recounting Moscow’s significant human rights violations during the conflict. “Unlawful conduct includes the laying of sieges to areas such as Chernihiv and Mariupol while denying access to even the most basic items required for civilian survival such as food, medicine and potable water.

“More recently, we have seen Russia attacking grain ports along the Danube, forcing Ukraine to pivot to the Sulina Channel with its exports and to work with Romania, to elicit sanctions relief for Moscow. Russia also destroyed at least 270,000 tonnes of grain in late July and early August alone. None of this is being done with any valid military objective.”

The latest report by Mariana Katzarova, the UN’s special rapporteur on Russia’s rights situation within its own borders, noted that rights have been on a “steady decline” over the last two decades but things have “significantly deteriorated since its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022”.

Mass arbitrary arrests, detentions and harassment were recorded for “anyone speaking out against Russia’s war on Ukraine or daring to criticise the government’s actions,” the report found.

The UN’s website says that “with membership on the [Human Rights] Council comes a responsibility to uphold high human rights standards”.

“One would hope that all nations vote in line with the HRC membership criteria,” says Khan, who has worked with the UN for a decade on atrocity inquiries, adding that on this point Russia is falling far short.

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