Why Is Saudi Arabia Heading a UN Human Rights Council Panel?

The Human Rights Council is beholden to outmoded protocols that allow rotating member-states to assume control of issues they’re least qualified to address.

09.23.15 2:05 AM ET

In a normal world, Saudi Arabia would be arraigned for its appalling human rights record, not appointed to head an important panel at the international human rights monitor. And yet, it was revealed Monday that over the summer Saudi Arabia was appointed to a panel at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) that would interview and short-list experts, from among whom successful candidates would then be nominated to examine specific human rights challenges. These challenges may include the human rights record of a particular country or a specific theme, and those themes can include violence against women, the rights of migrants, religious freedom, or sexual orientation.

The hypocrisy behind this decision need hardly be stated. The Saudi government is unelected and run by one large family, or clan. Not only does it have the death penalty on its statute, it executes prisoners with particular relish, turning their executions into a public spectacle. Torture is routine in its prisons and offenders of certain crimes are flogged in public. The denial of the right to drive is among the least of the abuses women suffer in the country.  Foreigners who live in Saudi Arabia—be they well-paid expatriates or construction workers living in slavery-like conditions—have to be on the guard constantly so that they don’t fall foul of its laws that violate the norms of free and fair trials. Its vast wealth is used to acquire weapons at home and finance fundamentalist movements abroad which cause havoc in distant societies, transforming native forms of Islam into Wahhabism which bears little relation to the universal declaration of human rights.

Hillel Neuer, executive director at UN Watch, which tracks some of the grander absurdities of the UNHRC, called Saudi Arabia’s appointment “scandalous” because it “has beheaded more people this year than ISIS.” Ensaf Haidar, whose husband Raif Badawi has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes for blogging about free speech in Saudi Arabia, said the appointment would in effect give “a green light to start flogging [Badawi] again.” Others have blamed the power of oil wealth—“oil continues to trump basic human rights principles,” Neuer added, according to reports.

Given Saudi Arabia’s record, the rage is understandable—it would get to recommend experts who may not be experts, or whose understanding of human rights is at variance with the vast majority of those who care for human rights.

But the global fury is directed at the wrong target. Agnes Callamard, director of Columbia University’s Global Freedom of Expression and Information initiative (disclosure: I am part of its team of experts), told The Daily Beast: “What has happened is that Saudi Arabia is now a member of the advisory committee that produces recommendations to the president of the Human Rights Council who makes final decisions regarding the appointing of mandate holders. The composition of the advisory group is five representatives from all regions. It is a rotation within regions, so nobody appoints anybody. The real problem is that Saudi Arabia was appointed to the Human Rights Council and its being a member of the advisory committee is just a logical consequence. And the UN is not responsible for the appointment in any way.”

What has given rise to such ire is Saudi Arabia’s appointment to the UNHRC’s consultative group. This group is made up of five members, one from each of the five regional groups recognized by the United Nations. This group interviews and recommends candidates for dozens of experts, called “special rapporteurs” or “independent experts” whose job it is to examine specific human rights challenges and make non-binding recommendations to the human rights council. The recommendations are not binding.

These appointments represent important work; the mandates help set the norms about how the world can enhance respect for, and protection and fulfillment of human rights, and how that should be at the core of every action. But changes are gradual. A special rapporteur on violence against women, for example, may produce path-breaking research and offer advice on how states can stop that, but states are under no legal obligations to implement those recommendations. If a special rapporteur criticizes a particular country’s conduct against minorities, the country can brazen it out—it can even deny the rapporteur the right to visit the country to undertake investigations. As important the mandates are, they are toothless. And that is because the member-states want it that way, just as it is the member-states which want Saudi Arabia to be in the consultative group and in the UNHRC.

Within the Council, Saudi Arabia is part of the Asian group, and as per standard UN practice, the groups nominate their representatives, usually by rotation and by consensus. According to reports, the other current members of the consultative group are Algeria, Chile, Lithuania, and Greece. These countries are drawn from 47 members of the UNHRC, who are elected according to their regions, and the regions represent Cold War-era thinking and geopolitics—13 from Africa, 13 from Asia, six from Eastern Europe, eight from Latin America and the Caribbean, and seven from Western Europe and other countries.

While the UN General Assembly is expected to consider the candidate states’ contribution towards promoting and protecting human rights as well as their commitments to uphold international human rights standards, it is clear that realpolitik prevails. Current members include countries with a poor human rights record, including China. It also includes the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, and Japan, but it is nobody’s case that these Western states have a perfect record on human rights, nor have they necessarily ratified most human rights instruments, such as covenants and conventions that form the body of human rights laws.

By all means the international community needs to take a long and hard look at how it elects members to the UNHRC. By all means that process needs serious reform. Indeed, countries with a poor human rights record should not be part of such a council. And, indeed, there should be clear criteria to determine whose record is worse than others’, and countries that are politically strong should not get a free pass, and countries that are convenient to dislike are not excluded. Those are far bigger issues, and far more significant concerns, than arguing whether Saudi Arabia should be the temporary chair of an advisory panel, whose recommendations would simply be that—recommendations.