UN assembly suspends Russia from top human rights body
Warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of violence, and photos and video showing bodies of the dead
The United Nations General Assembly voted Thursday to suspend Russia from the world organization's leading human rights body over allegations of horrific rights violations by Russian soldiers in Ukraine, which the United States and Ukraine have called tantamount to war crimes.
The vote was 93-24 with 58 abstentions, significantly lower than the vote on two resolutions the assembly adopted last month demanding an immediate cease-fire in Ukraine, withdrawal of all Russian troops and protection for civilians. Both of those resolutions were approved by at least 140 nations.
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield launched the campaign to suspend Russia from its seat on the 47-member Human Rights Council in the wake of videos and photos of streets in the town of Bucha strewn with corpses of what appeared to be civilians after Russian soldiers retreated. The deaths have sparked global revulsion and calls for tougher sanctions on Russia, which has vehemently denied its troops were responsible.
Russia is the second country to have its membership rights stripped at the rights council which was established in 2006. In 2011, Libya was suspended by the assembly when upheaval in the North African country brought down longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi.
While almost half of the UN's 193 member nations supported the resolution, more than half either voted against it, abstained or didn't vote.
Explaining their decision not to support the resolution, some countries called it premature, noting that there are ongoing investigations into whether war crimes have occurred, or said it would undermine the credibility of the Human Rights Council and the United Nations. Others said the resolution reflected American and European geopolitical agendas and what opponents called Western hypocrisy and selective outrage about human rights.
Before the vote, Ukraine's UN Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya urged assembly members to keep the Human Rights Council from "sinking" and suspend Russia, saying it has committed "horrific human rights violations and abuses that would be equated to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
"Russia's actions are beyond the pale," he said. "Russia is not only committing human rights violations, it is shaking the underpinnings of international peace and security."
Russia's deputy ambassador Gennady Kuzmin urged members to vote "no."
"What we're seeing today is an attempt by the United States to maintain its dominant position and total control," he said. "We reject the untruthful allegations against us, based on staged events and widely circulated fakes."
Attacks on health care
The vote came the same day the World Health Organization (WHO) said it has recorded 103 attacks on health care in Ukraine since the invasion began.
The WHO says there have been 89 such attacks on facilities such as hospitals — including the bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol — and 13 on transport, including ambulances.
"I have been personally struck by the resilience and fortitude of health care providers and indeed of the health system itself in Ukraine," said Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe in a statement. "WHO has been working to ensure supply lines remain open to allow life-saving health and medical supplies to reach cities and towns nationwide, and continued attacks on health make this effort all the more challenging."
The attacks have killed 73 people and injured 51.
NATO promises Ukraine more assistance
In Brussels, NATO foreign ministers concluded two days of meetings in Brussels with a promise to provide more support to fight the latest Russian offensive as Ukraine braced to battle for control of its industrial east.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said alliance members are "determined to do more" to help Ukrainians "defend their homes and their country, and push back the invading forces."
"We agreed that we must further strengthen and sustain our support to Ukraine, so that Ukraine prevails in the face of Russia's invasion," he said.
The focus of Russia's six-week-old invasion failed to take Ukraine's capital quickly and achieve what Western countries say was President Vladimir Putin's initial aim of ousting the Ukrainian government. Russia's focus is now on the Donbas, a mostly Russian-speaking region in Eastern Ukraine.
In Brussels, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged NATO to provide more weapons for his country to help prevent further atrocities like those reported in the city of Bucha, northwest of Kyiv.
"My agenda is very simple. It's weapons, weapons and weapons," Kuleba said as he arrived for talks with NATO's foreign ministers.
"We know how to fight. We know how to win. But without sustainable and sufficient supplies requested by Ukraine, these wins will be accompanied by enormous sacrifices," Kuleba said on Wednesday. "The more weapons we get and the sooner they arrive in Ukraine, the more human lives will be saved."
After the meetings, Kuleba called for help from allies within days, not weeks, "or your help will come too late, and many people will die."
Ukraine urges civilians in east to evacuate
Growing numbers of Putin's troops, along with mercenaries, have been reported moving into the Donbas. "Later, people will come under fire," Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in urging civilians to evacuate from the mostly Russian-speaking industrial region, "and we won't be able to do anything to help them."
She said Ukraine and Russian officials agreed to establish 10 civilian evacuation routes from Donetsk, Luhansk and the Zaporizhzhia region. She said residents would be able to seek safety in the cities of Zaporizhzhia in southeast Ukraine and Bakhmut in the east.
Ukrainian forces have been fighting Russia-backed separatists in the Donbas since 2014. Ahead of its Feb. 24 invasion, Moscow recognized the Luhansk and Donetsk regions as independent states.
Air attacks on the east
Russian air attacks are now focused mainly on areas of Eastern Ukraine, and Russian forces are trying to encircle Ukrainian troops in the region, Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said on Thursday.
He said the besieged southern city of Mariupol was holding out and that he believed the Russian efforts to surround Ukrainian troops in the east would be in vain. Capturing Mariupol would allow Russia to secure a continuous land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.
More than 100,000 people still need to be evacuated urgently from Mariupol, Mayor Vadym Boichenko said on Thursday, describing the situation in the port city as a humanitarian catastrophe.
"The remaining more than 100,000 people are praying for rescue — a full-scale evacuation is needed," he said on national television.
Boichenko said that of the more than 5,000 civilians killed during weeks of Russian bombardment and street fighting, 210 were children. Russian forces bombed hospitals, including one where 50 people burned to death, he said.
Boichenko said more than 90 per cent of the city's infrastructure was destroyed. The attacks on the strategic city on the Sea of Azov have cut off food, water, fuel and medicine and pulverized homes and businesses.
In areas north of the capital, Ukrainian officials continued to gather evidence of Russian atrocities amid signs Moscow's troops killed people indiscriminately before retreating.
Ukrainian authorities said the bodies of least 410 civilians were found in towns around Kyiv, victims of what Zelensky has portrayed as a Russian campaign of murder, rape, dismemberment and torture. Some victims had apparently been shot at close range. Some were found with their hands bound.
Accusations of coverup
Zelensky on Wednesday accused Russia of interfering with an international investigation into possible war crimes by removing corpses and trying to hide other evidence in Bucha, northwest of Kyiv.
"We have information that the Russian troops have changed tactics and are trying to remove the dead people, the dead Ukrainians, from the streets and cellars of territory they occupied," he said during his latest video address. "This is only an attempt to hide the evidence and nothing more."
He called on Russians to demand an end to the war, "if you have even a little shame about what the Russian military is doing in Ukraine."
In reaction to the alleged atrocities outside Kyiv, the U.S. announced sanctions against Putin's two adult daughters and said it is toughening penalties against Russian banks. Britain banned investment in Russia and pledged to end its dependence on Russian coal and oil by the end of the year.
European Union countries approved new punishing sanctions against Russia Thursday, including an EU embargo on coal imports in the wake of evidence of torture and killings emerging from war zones outside Kyiv.
The ban on coal imports will be the first EU sanctions targeting Russia's lucrative energy industry over its war in Ukraine, an official said Thursday on condition of anonymity, because the official announcement had not yet been made.
The EU ban on coal is estimated to be worth four billion euros ($5.4 billion Cdn) per year.
With files from Reuters