Russia in firing line at top UN rights, disarmament meets

Russia faced strong criticism over its action in Ukraine on Monday as the top UN rights body and a global disarmament forum met, amid warnings that rights worldwide were backsliding.

Days after the United Nations General Assembly in New York voted overwhelmingly to demand Russia withdraw from Ukraine immediately, Moscow's war also dominated the opening of the UN Human Rights Council and Conference for Disarmament sessions in Geneva.

"The Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered the most massive violations of human rights we are living today," UN chief Antonio Guterres told the rights council on the first day of a record six-week session.

Seventy-five years after the signing of the Declaration of Human Rights, UN rights chief Volker Turk meanwhile decried the re-emergences of "the old destructive wars of aggression from a bygone era with worldwide consequences, as we have witnessed again in Europe with the senseless Russian invasion of Ukraine".

Montenegro's President Milo Djukanovic, among nearly 150 ministers and heads of state and government set to address the Human Rights Council this week, cautioned that "Russian aggression is a test for the entire world."

"It is Ukraine today, but tomorrow it might be some other neighbouring country. We cannot be neutral."

Roughly half of the 50 or so dignitaries who took the floor on Monday mentioned Ukraine.

Echoing the alarm expressed by many, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna decried "rapes used as a weapon of war, torture, executions" in Ukraine, insisting "those responsible for such crimes must be held accountable."

- 'Dramatically unstable' -

At the opening of the nearby Conference on Disarmament, British minister for Europe Leo Docherty meanwhile delivered a statement on behalf of 44 countries slamming Russia's actions.

"Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine is a threat not only to Ukraine, but to international peace and security and to the rules-based international order," he said.

Bonnie Jenkins, the US under secretary of state for arms control and international security, criticised Russia suspending its participation in New START, the last nuclear arms control pact between Moscow and Washington.

"Russia is once again showing the world that it is not a responsible nuclear power," she said, warning that "we now face a dramatically unstable security environment".

In her speech to the conference, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also denounced Russia for "undermining the arms control architecture we all depend on."

She also made an impassioned appeal before the rights council, quoting a man who last March saw 15 children taken from the children's home he ran in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson and "didn't have a chance to stop it."

These 15, she said, are "among countless Ukrainian children, that Russia has reportedly abducted".

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to address the UN rights council remotely on Thursday, while Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov will be there in person the same day.

- War crimes probe -

There is no shortage of other pressing human rights issues for the council to address, with the situations in Iran, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Syria and Israel on the agenda.

Guterres warned Monday that the Ukraine conflict was just one example of how rights around the world are "under assault from all sides."

"Some governments chip away at it. Others use a wrecking ball," he said, noting that the past century of astounding progress in human rights and development had "gone into reverse".

A long line of resolutions will be voted on before the UN rights session is due to close on April 4.

One key resolution will be on extending a high-level investigation into crimes committed in Ukraine since Russia's invasion.

The so-called Commission of Inquiry, which has already determined that Russia is committing war crimes on a "massive scale" in Ukraine, is due to present a comprehensive report to the council in late March.

On the sidelines of the conference, nearly 50 countries signed a joint statement hailing the work of the COI and other efforts towards ensuring accountability for crimes committed in Ukraine.

Speaking via video link, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also called during that event for an extension of the investigation.

The Russians, he lamented, "have a sense of total impunity. We must put an end to this erroneous feeling."