Saudi Arabia wants to be the next president of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the UN’s main human-rights body and based in Geneva. Tribune de Genève confirmed that the country, a grave human-rights abuser, is lobbying for its turn at the top of the human-rights table. The election should take place in December for a one-year term.
Political dissidents, lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender people, religious minorities and even women in Saudi Arabia would no doubt be appalled to learn that the same state that systematically violates their rights is being considered as a candidate for this important and prestigious human-rights post. But sadly, this news is relatively unsurprising in the Geneva human-rights world, where people have long become used to a Kafkaesque state of affairs.
Saudi Arabia is currently one of the 47 members of the Human Rights Council and belongs to the UN Asia-Pacific regional group. Other Asia Group members now sitting at the Council and who would also be eligible to run for the presidency for the next term are Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Maldives, Pakistan, Qatar, South Korea, United Arab Emirates and Vietnam.
While some of those states have thoroughly dubious human-rights records, Saudi Arabia ranks as one of the most closed societies and oppressive regimes on the list. It is more than a little perverse that such a state is even being considered for the presidency of an international body tasked with the universal protection and promotion of human rights. If Saudi Arabia is elected to the position, the legitimacy and credibility of the UN’s main human-rights body will be significantly undermined.
Indeed, it seems that lesson of electing a serious human-rights abuser to the presidency has not been learned since the demise of the Council’s predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights, where the final nail in its coffin was Libya becoming chairman during Muammar el-Qadaffi’s regime.
The Human Rights Council’s 47 members are elected to three-year terms according to proportionate geographic representation, and the presidency rotates among each of the five regional groups. Germany currently holds the presidency, with the previous presidents coming from Mexico, Romania, Nigeria, Belgium, Thailand, Uruguay, Poland and Gabon. While none of those states, as is true for any country, has a perfect human-rights record, they are not in the same category as Saudi Arabia in terms of systematic, widespread and egregious abuses.
So, how have we reached this point? Saudi Arabia’s candidacy for the presidency, alas, is neither an aberration nor has it occurred in a vacuum. Council members are elected by their peers, and since its creation in 2006, many grave abusers have sat at the body.
Just consider some of the current members, which include such grave violators as China, Cuba, Qatar and Russia, alongside other known abusers like Ethiopia, Kazakhstan and Venezuela. Failures by the European Union and Latin American states to vote against such members from gaining a foothold on the Council has paved the way for known abusers to seek the presidency of the human-rights body.
Some might argue that all types of states and regimes ought to be represented at the Council. That may be true, but that does not fully justify the worst abusers sitting at the table let alone heading it. When that happens, the body’s ability to protect and promote human rights suffers, not least because such countries have little interest in using the Council to achieve a mandate that would affect their own domestic policies that are systematically violating their citizens’ rights.
Moreover, this issue goes further than the Council’s work. It also sends a loud, pernicious message to other countries and to individuals — to rights-holders across the world. Saudi Arabia’s membership in the UN’s most important human-rights body — and potential presidency — signals that a country’s own record has no bearing on the prestige it is afforded in the closely watched UN human-rights world in Geneva.
The message that is conveyed is that a state may behave as it pleases and can still rely on its political clout to ensure that a cloak of legitimacy is wrapped around its heinous domestic record. Such duplicity occurred at the Commission on Human Rights, ultimately causing it to be disbanded.
Sadly, it seems that the Human Rights Council, which was created by the UN General Assembly to be cleansed of such behavior, may be headed in the same direction.
This is an opinion essay.
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Dr. Rosa Freedman is a senior lecturer at Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham, England. Her research focuses on the United Nations and human rights, particularly the political effects on international human-rights law. Dr. Freedman has published extensively on the UN Human Rights Council and is working on a British Academy-funded project on UN special procedures. Her other main research project is on UN peacekeeping and accountability for human-rights abuses committed during such operations.
Dr. Freedman has published two books, “Failing to Protect: The UN and the Politicization of Human Rights” and “The United Nations Human Rights Council: A Critique and Early Assessment.” Her academic articles have appeared in such journals as the European Journal of International Law and Human Rights Quarterly. She also writes for national and digital media, works closely with the UN and with state governments and sits on the advisory boards of international NGOs.
Dr. Freedman received a master of laws degree from University College London and a Ph.D. from Queen Mary University of London.