If Russian President Vladimir Putin achieves his goal of ousting the government in Kyiv, the humanitarian and rights crises in Ukraine “will only get worse”, the top US diplomat warned Tuesday.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned the UN Human Rights Council that Russia’s “premeditated, unprovoked and unjustified attack on Ukraine” was creating a dire human rights and humanitarian crisis there.
In a pre-recorded video, he also questioned whether Russia should be allowed to hold onto its seat on the Geneva-based council after launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
He said Moscow’s “violations of international humanitarian law mount by the hour”, with Russian strikes “hitting schools, hospitals and residential buildings”, and destroying critical infrastructure.
“Civilian buses, cars, and even ambulances have been shelled,” he said, slamming the “monstrous rocket strike that hit an apartment complex” in Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv on Monday.
More than 350 civilians have been killed since the Russian invasion began, including 16 children, according to Ukrainian authorities.
Nearly 680,000 people have already fled abroad, the UN refugee agency said, estimating that a million people are displaced within Ukraine.
Blinken warned that “if President Putin succeeds in his stated goal of toppling Ukraine’s democratically-elected government, the human rights and humanitarian crises will only get worse”.
– ‘Flagrant assault’ –
He pointed to the situation on the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014.
There, he charged, “Russia’s occupation has come with extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary detention, the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, and the brutal repression of dissent.
“The Kremlin is also ramping up its repression within Russia,” Blinken warned.
He said that “even before the invasion, it was shuttering human rights organisations and harassing, poisoning, and imprisoning anti-corruption activists and political opponents”.
And since the invasion began just six days ago, “authorities reportedly have detained thousands of Russians peacefully protesting the invasions, as well as journalists covering the demonstrations”, he added.
The top US diplomat called on the council to “send a united message that President Putin should unconditionally stop this unprovoked attack… and immediately withdraw Russian forces from Ukraine”.
He also demanded “steps to hold the perpetrators accountable”.
Blinken voiced outrage that a member of the top UN rights body would carry out such a “flagrant assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty.
“One can reasonably ask whether a UN member state that tries to take over another UN member state, while committing horrific human rights abuses and causing massive humanitarian suffering, should be allowed to remain on this council,” he said.
– ‘Illegitimate sanctions’ –
Suspending one of the council’s 47 members requires a majority vote in the UN General Assembly in New York, something that has only happened once before, with Libya in 2011.
Earlier Tuesday, diplomats from a wide range of countries staged a walkout from the rights council as a video statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov played.
They followed Ukrainian Ambassador Yevheniia Filipenko out of the room and gathered around a large Ukrainian flag to show their support for the Ukrainian people.
In his speech before a nearly empty room, Lavrov meanwhile blamed Kyiv for the crisis, accusing Ukraine’s government of pursuing “a course of aggressive derusification” and increasing “criminal actions”.
He also slammed the West for the “unilateral illegitimate sanctions” imposed on his country, blaming them for preventing him from travelling to Geneva in person as planned and thus “evading the direct honest face-to-face dialogue they clearly fear.”
The broad and massive sanctions, he said, show that “the West has clearly lost control of itself in its desire to vent its anger on Russia and has gone to the extent of destroying all the institutions and rules it has created.”