Lost in Transmission (sort of): The Saudis and the UN Commission on Human Rights

Saudi Arabia, UN Commission on Human RightsIt’s interesting how information becomes contorted in transmission, depending on how things are presented in the media.

I’ve been under the erroneous impression for several weeks that the Saudis were gunning to head the UN Commission for Human Rights, which outraged me in light of their track record in human rights abuses, whether it be preventing the evolution of women’s rights in that country, the violent suppression of anti-government protesters, the hard line taken with respect to executions or lashings of political prisoners or those persons who have broken sharia law, or even the indiscriminate targeting of Shia civilians in Yemen in the name of national stabilization.

What right does a country have to lord it over Bashar Al Assad in Syria when they are just as bad if not worse? But this comparison is neither here nor there, and is an aside for another discussion at another date.

What I did find interesting, as I wanted to go to the source of the information relative to the Saudi appointment was the vagueness in reporting on the subject.

From the Washington Post:

Saudi Arabia had earlier this year sought the leadership slot of the entire Human Rights Council of the U.N., a move that drew criticism given the country’s human rights record. The kingdom routinely comes in at the bottom of Freedom House’s rankings of world freedom.

From the Guardian:

Saudi Arabia, a country which has a poor record on religious freedoms, women’s rights, and has reportedly beheaded more than 100 people this year, has just been elected to the post of chairman of the council’s consultative Group, a group of five ambassadors which appoints 77 key rights envoys around the world.

From the Independent:

The United Nations is coming under fire for handing Saudi Arabia a key human rights role even though the Kingdom has “arguably the worst record in the world” on freedoms for women, minorities and dissidents…UN Watch, an independent campaigning NGO, has discovered that Mr Trad, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador at the UN in Geneva, has been elected as chair of a panel of independent experts on the UN Human Rights Council.

As the UN Watch was the source of information for many of the articles, I thought it prudent to see what they’d written, as I wanted to know what the UN Commission for Human Right’s Consultative Group was, as reference to that group was airy at best.

The UN Watch noted the following:

According to UNHRC documents obtained by UN Watch, Saudi Arabia was chosen to head a 5-member group of ambassadors, known as the Consultative Group, which has the power to select applicants from around the world for more than 77 positions dealing with country-specific and thematic human rights mandates…“The UN often describes these experts as the ‘crown jewels’ of its Human Rights Council, yet the world body only undermines their legitimacy by picking a fundamentalist theocracy that oppresses women and minorities to preside over the experts’ appointment.”

I wanted to know what the UN actually had to say about this mysterious Consultative Group. I found the following press release on the UN Commission for Human Right’s website.

– As an aside, I will note that there was nary a reference to any press release condemning human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, but plenty of press releases on all sorts of other countries, for at least the several pages that I was searching through. Interesting, ne c’est pas? –

Over the past few days, a highly distorted narrative has been spreading on the role of Saudi Arabia in the Consultative Group.

The Consultative Group is comprised of five ambassadors, who are not elected by the Human Rights Council, or any other U.N. body, but appointed by the five regional groups and serve in their personal capacity. They assess candidates for UN human rights expert positions (known as Special Procedures mandate-holders). On the basis of objective criteria, they then recommend candidates, by consensus, to the President of the Human Rights Council. The President then conducts broad consultations before putting his recommendation before the full membership of the Human Rights Council. The Human Rights Council then appoints the relevant candidate.

Clearly, it is patently untrue to suggest that any one ambassador has the authority to decide upon a candidate unilaterally. The Ambassador of Saudi Arabia was nominated by the Asian Group to serve on the Consultative Group from 1 January to 31 December this year, and assumed the chair on a rotating basis during part of this year. The chairmanship does not entail any powers over and above the four other members, who this year come from Lithuania, Greece, Chile and Algeria. The composition of this year’s Consultative Group was made public at the beginning of this year and the Group has already submitted all of its three reports for 2015. It is not expected to meet again until next year.

The appointment of mandate-holders is conducted in a transparent manner following well-established rules and procedures taking into account views from various actors including those from States and civil society. Any candidate not happy with the way the process was conducted may appeal to the President of the Human Rights Council.

This whole Saudi – UN human rights issue seems to smack more of the usual backroom jockeying and politicking rather than any outrage that a Saudi is heading a UN human rights panel. I think it’s forgotten that most countries in the world, if not all, are guilty of some form of human rights contravention. Even Canada was called into question for its the treatment of aboriginal women, for example. It’s not to say that the Saudi’s terrible track record of human rights abuses should be dismissed as social minutiae; the Saudi abuses are very real, very outrageous, and very much deserving of the world’s attention and action. In fact, as the cartoon above shows, countries turn a very blind eye to Saudi human rights abuses when a deal, arms or otherwise, is on the table.

But the UN isn’t about action, it’s about policy-setting, and laying the political groundwork for change, even if that change might not take root. At least a Saudi is participating in a human rights panel, even if for face value alone. The optimist in me hopes that some good will rub off on Mr. Trad, the Saudi ambassador to the UN, and that will translate into a small, albeit significant, change for Saudi society.
We can’t cram high ideals down everyone’s throats and hope that those ideals will hold fast. We can present high ideals, such as human rights, as social goals for which we can all strive, and one day, perhaps, we will all share them.
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