Libya joined 92 other countries at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in voting to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) as punishment for its aggression — including actions that have been widely described in the international community as ‘war crimes’ — in Ukraine. The Assembly achieved the necessary two-thirds majority of voting members but Russia immediately quit the UNHCR after the vote.
Libya’s support for the motion stood out in the context of the overall results. Of the UNGA’s members which were present: 93 voted in favour of Russia’s suspension; 24 voted against it; and 58 abstained; while the remaining UN members did not attend the session. Among the Arab countries, Libya was the only one to vote in favour; while Syria and Algeria voted against; and most of the Gulf countries, Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia all abstained. Africa was similarly split with only a handful voting in favour, nine against (including the Central African Republic, Congo, and Burundi), and 23 abstained — including heavyweights such as Nigeria and South Africa as well as Cameroon and Ghana — while 11 countries failed to attend or vote.
Ironically, although the two situations are quite different, Libya is the only other country whose UNHCR membership has previously been suspended. This occurred in March 2011 when Muammar Qadhafi’s forces began using force against peaceful protestors objecting to his regime. Its membership was reinstated after Qadhafi had been killed on 20 October 2011.
The number of countries voting against Russia’s suspension was high compared to last month’s two General Assembly resolutions condemning its invasion of Ukraine when the vast majority of UN members voted in favour. This time, while some argued for further investigation into the Russia’s atrocities, many either also have very poor human rights records and/or or are concerned about their future relations with Moscow. An obvious example is Syria which has receiving massive support from Russia since 2015, while Algeria is one of the world’s largest markets for Moscow’s military exports.
Libya’s vote was equally calculated. In the UN it is still represented by the incumbent Government of National Unity (GNU) which is currently being challenged by the House of Representatives’ established Government of National Salvation (GNS) which is headed by the former interior minister Fathi Bashagha. Russia has effectively recognised the GNS — and was also a major supporter of Khalifa Haftar’s political and military campaign against western Libya — so the vote to suspend it from the UNHCR was a form of retaliation by the GNU.
Although the vote is of little consequence to Moscow which has much bigger fish to fry, it is vindictive and will not forget whether or not governments supported it diplomatically. Libya’s vote will probably only strengthen Russia’s support for Bashagha’s GNS which was created as part of an alliance of mutual convenience with the support of Khalifa Haftar and the House of Representatives speaker Aguila Saleh. The GNS claims that the GNU’s mandate expired on 24 December 2021 — when the election was supposed to take place — but the GNU’s Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah insists that, under the terms of the Libyan Political Agreement, he is only supposed to hand over power to a democratically elected government. Russia may be temporarily too bogged down in Ukraine to be able to influence Libya’s current political and potentially military standoff. The conflict has quietened down a bit since Ramadan began early this month and a major clash is unlikely until it ends in early May (see Key Risks). Nonetheless, much could still happen between now and then, including on the global stage.