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Vietnam’s vote for Russia on UN council could damage campaign to lead it

Vietnam’s vote against a U.S.-led resolution to remove Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council on Thursday likely ends any hope Hanoi had to lead the body, one analyst told RFA.

Cambodia’s abstention from voting, meanwhile, drew criticism from local rights groups who accused Phnom Penh of flip-flopping its position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In all, 24 countries voted against booting Russia from the council, including Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and Syria. But after 93 countries voted yes, Moscow resigned its seat.

Vietnam’s ambassador to the U.N., Dang Hoang Giang, said in remarks prior to the vote that Hanoi was concerned about the impact of the war on civilians.

He said that the country was “against all attacks on civilians that were in violation of international laws on humanitarianism and human rights.” He also said that it was important “to examine and crosscheck recent information publicly, with transparency and objectivity and with the cooperation of relevant parties.”

Vietnamplus was the only Vietnamese outlet that reported Giang’s comments. Vietnamese state media made no mention of Vietnam’s vote in coverage of the resolution.

Alienating vote

Vietnam has publicly voiced its intention to run for chairmanship of the council for the 2023-2025 term, but experts told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that Hanoi will now find it difficult to gain support from Western countries.

“I should say that Vietnam has shot itself in the foot,” Carl Thayer of New South Wales University in Australia told RFA.

“Vietnam has always been proud of its prestige in the international circles as a commodity that made it important. Any country in the world that is now opposing Russian action are not going to support Vietnam,” he said.

Thayer noted that Vietnam’s profile among the international community had been on the rise, as it had twice been elected as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

“Now that smooth sailing is going to hit headwinds and if it continues to support boats like [Russia], Vietnam is going to find increasingly there will be a drop-off in support,” Thayer said.

He said that Hanoi may have been trying to demonstrate that dialogue and negotiation are more effective than measures to isolate Russia. But it would have been better to abstain from the vote, because now Vietnam has alienated the West and has little to gain by casting its lot with Russia.

“That country is never going to play a major role with Vietnam in coming years. In my opinion, it is going to be weakened and economically isolated as long as Putin remains in power.”

Isolation ineffective

Cambodia did abstain from Thursday’s vote with Ambassador Ke Sovann saying in a statement that Russia’s isolation will not help resolve the conflict in Ukraine, but will only make a bad situation worse.

“At a fragile time for world peace, security and stability, the engagement among the member states in all relevant United Nations bodies including the Human Rights Council is very important,” he said. 

Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Cambodian government, told RFA’s Khmer Service that kicking Moscow out of the council will “only allow the country to avoid its responsibility.”

But Ny Sokha, president of The Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, said the vote to remove Russia from the council is a stand against the death and destruction the country’s invasion of Ukraine has caused.

“We should not allow the country that abuses human rights in the U.N. Human Rights Council. As a member it needs to respect human rights,” he said.

Cambodia’s abstention from Thursday’s vote is an example of flip-flopping in its response to the situation in Ukraine, said Ny Sokha, an apparent reference to Cambodia’s vote last month at the U.N. condemning the invasion.

Political analyst Kim Sok said Cambodia voted for a resolution last month to condemn Russia as part of its efforts to convince the U.S. to attend a special summit with ASEAN while Phnom Penh chairs the regional bloc.

Thursday’s vote, in contrast, was an effort to appease China, he said.

“When China opposes, Hun Sen dares not to vote in favor,” he said.  

Russian Threats

Prior to Thursday’s vote, Russia warned that votes in favor or abstentions would be seen as an “unfriendly gesture” and would have consequences in bilateral relations.

Despite voting to remove Russia, the U.N. Human Rights Council remains an organization with a shaky reputation likened to an old boys club for dictators.

Of its 47 member nations, only 15 are classified as “free” societies by rights watchdog Freedom House. The rest are either only “partly free” or “not free,” and include countries with poor human rights records like China, Eritrea, Somalia and Cuba.

The U.S. left the council temporarily in 2018, calling the organization a mockery of human rights for not punishing rights abusers and for what then-ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley called bias against Israel.

After Tuesday’s vote, the Russian representative announced Russia’s decision to withdraw its membership from the council before the 2021-2023 term ends, and called the resolution “an illegal and politically motivated move to punish a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council who was pursuing an independent domestic and foreign policy.”

Translated by Anna Vu and Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.