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What a UN vote shows about how much of the world views the war in Ukraine


Thursday's vote to suspend Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council says a great deal about how much of the world views the Ukraine war. The U.S., Europe and its democratic partners voted to suspend Russia, and some countries with a history of human rights abuses sided with Russia. But there were many countries in the middle, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Russia lined up its defenders to speak on its behalf in the General Assembly. One observer, Richard Gowan of the International Crisis Group, says it was absurd to hear North Korean and Syrian diplomats lecture the world about human rights.

RICHARD GOWAN: I don't think Russia helped its case by asking countries like Syria to defend it at the U.N. I think that it actually emphasized how isolated it is with the broader U.N. membership over Ukraine.

KELEMEN: But Russia did get some more support in the vote count than it did on earlier resolutions related to Ukraine. Gowan says some countries didn't want to set a precedent for others to get kicked off the Human Rights Council. China is in that camp. While 93 countries voted to suspend Russia, 58 abstained, and some just didn't show up for the vote.

GOWAN: There is frustration amongst many African and Asian members of the U.N. that the West keeps on pushing them to criticize Russia over the war but is not addressing their own concerns about food price spikes and economic shocks resulting from this conflict.

KELEMEN: Russia also sent a letter warning countries not to go along with the U.S. and its partners, and that, too, played a role, says Anjali Dayal, an assistant professor of international politics at Fordham University.

ANJALI DAYAL: That does resonate with some smaller countries that may find that their exposure to Russia in terms of security ties, in terms of former Soviet equipment that they have, for military equipment that they have, for example, for some other countries, its fuel.

KELEMEN: Then there are countries like Kenya. Its ambassador, Martin Kimani, has been outspoken in the Security Council, calling for a prompt U.N. investigation into reported Russian atrocities in Ukraine.

MARTIN KIMANI: No one can doubt that there are flagrant violations of international law, international humanitarian law and the U.N. charter underway in Ukraine.

KELEMEN: But he abstained in the General Assembly vote, saying it was premature to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council and that it could weaponize the U.N. body. Many countries rely on the U.N. for humanitarian aid and peacekeeping operations, and Dayal says they're worried about the growing fractures.

DAYAL: Between Russia and the U.S. and its Atlantic allies, between Russia and Ukrainian allies - then, I think, we will probably see the emergence of a bloc of countries again that essentially says we want the daily work of the U.N. to continue. We need the daily work of the U.N. to continue.

KELEMEN: And they fear Russia could block a lot of that work using its veto power in the Security Council. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.