Brussels (Brussels Morning) Saudi Arabia’s bid to get a seat on the UN Human Rights Council was rejected by member states in a secret vote by the UN General Assembly.
Although it should come as no surprise for a state with a recent record of blatant human rights violations, the snub inflicted on Saudi Arabia tells a lot about the country’s prevailing international image. Saudi Arabia, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the G20 and is to host a summit in Riyadh in November, was the only candidate country not to get elected, as reported by Al-Monitor.
Created by the UN General Assembly in 2006 to replace the previous Council on Human Rights, the UNHRC’s mandate is to examine human rights violations, make recommendations and establish international inquiries and fact-finding missions.
The UNHRC’s voting system for membership is in itself a contentious issue that has come in for much harsh criticism. Many have expressed dissatisfaction at what they claim amounts to a mix of geographic quotas and back-door negotiations that often result in countries being elected uncontested. In secret-ballot voting for four Asia-Pacific seats, Pakistan received 169 votes, Uzbekistan 164, Nepal 150, China 139 and Saudi Arabia accrued just 90 votes. In 2016, the Saudis won a seat with 152 votes, according to the AP.
Warnings ahead of the vote
The result comes after intense lobbying by human rights organisations arguing that the Council’s credibility would be damaged if countries with recent records of abuse and violations got to retain their seats. Several organisations, states and critics of the Saudi regime warned recently that were the Kingdom to gain a seat on the Council, it would enable it to circumvent public scrutiny about its own record.
Just before the UNHRC’s last session in September-October, Denmark issued a joint statement on behalf of a number of states, expressing concerns about the ongoing detention of Saudi women activists, the destructive war in Yemen, and the need for more transparency and accountability regarding the October 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Earlier, Human Rights Watch put out a release calling on UN member-states to deny seats for “major human rights violators”, who sought “to undermine the international human rights system they’re demanding to be a part of”.
The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) for its part had reiterated the call for a list of measures the kingdom should commit to implement as member of the Council.
NGOs hail the decision
“The #HRC elections today delivered a stunning rebuke to #SaudiArabia under Mohammed bin Salman: only country not elected, shunned by a majority of the UN. The kingdom reaped what it deserves for its serious violations of human rights and war crimes abroad ” Bruno Stagno, a deputy executive director at Human Rights Watch, tweeted, referring to the Saudi crown prince.
“Under Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the monarchy continues its downward slide into global isolation and irrelevance,” Sunjeev Bery, executive director of the US foreign policy advocacy group Freedom Forward, said in a statement.
Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) also hailed the outcome of the UN vote. “Despite the hundreds of millions MbS has spent in PR stunts to cover for his grotesque abuses, the international community just isn’t buying it. Unless #Saudi Arabia undertakes dramatic reforms to release political prisoners, end its disastrous war in Yemen and allow its citizens meaningful political participation, it will remain a global pariah”, she tweeted. DAWN was initially founded by Jamal Khashoggi but only launched on 2 October.
A “parody of justice”
Earlier in September, the secret agents tried for their role in the Istanbul murder had their sentences commuted by the Saudi court that conducted their trial. Instead of the prescribed death penalty, the sentences were reduced to sentences of 20 years maximum. The UNHRC’s Special Rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings, Agnes Callamard, termed it a “well-rehearsed parody of justice”, maintaining that the verdict had no moral or judicial legitimacy and was delivered at the culmination of a process that had been neither equitable, just or transparent”, according to reports by Le Monde. Callamard issued her findings in a report in June 2019, according to which Jamal Khashoggi was the victim of a premeditated execution by Saudi state agents who had used state means to silence the journalist. Her report asserted there was credible evidence to warrant further investigation of high-level Saudi officials’ individual liability, including that of the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. This position is also corroborated by a CIA investigation.
In a tribute published in Foreign Policy, exiled Saudi rights lawyer Taha al-Hajji reflects on how Saudi Arabia uses the death penalty to crush dissent. “Despite recent reports to the contrary, the Kingdom is still a country where children can be executed for attending peaceful protests [..] A country that tortures and executes its citizens for exercising their right to free expression should not be on the Human Rights Council”.
Calls for meaningful change
Amid an intensifying crackdown on dissent in the Kingdom, exiled Saudi activists and intellectuals have been taking action to raise awareness and call for meaningful change in the country. On 23 September, Saudi Arabia’s newly-established “national day”, a group of prominent Saudi activists announced the formation of a new political party in exile, the National Assembly Party or NAAS [people in Arabic]. According to its inaugural statement, the party aims to institute democracy as a form of government in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Middle East Eye reports that the party seeks the establishment of a fully elected parliament and the separation of powers in the country, while it also denounces the state’s increasing use of violence and repression and its aggressive foreign policy.
The document was signed by those opposing the direction Saudi-Arabia has taken under the authoritative governance of MbS. Signatories include the London-based Saudi academic Professor Madawi al-Rasheed and another academic, Abdullah Alaoudh, the son of jailed Islamic scholar Salman al-Awda.
Sarah Leah Whitson