UN Watch: Support for Saudis on Human Rights Council ‘Absolute WORST Comment in the History of US Gov'

By Patrick Goodenough | September 23, 2015 | 9:16 PM EDT

Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

(CNSNews.com) – The administration is under fire over a State Department spokesman’s comment that the U.S. welcomes a leadership position for Saudi Arabia – widely viewed as one of the world’s most egregious human rights abusers – on the U.N. Human Rights Council.

“We would welcome it,” spokesman Mark Toner said at a daily press briefing Tuesday when asked about the kingdom’s assuming of a leadership position at the Geneva-based council. “We’re close allies.”

U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that monitors the HRC, urged U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power to repudiate Toner’s remark.

“This is the absolute WORST comment in the history of the U.S. gov,” U.N. Watch executive director Hillel Neuer said in a tweet addressed to Power. “I urge you to reverse it.”

Neuer said Wednesday the department’s comment was “simply mind-boggling.”

“If I didn’t actually see the spokesman saying those words on video, it would be literally impossible to believe,” he said.

“This cannot stand,” Neuer said, adding that both Secretary of State John Kerry and Power “need to unequivocally renounce the bizarre U.S. endorsement of a misogynistic theocracy as chair of a U.N. human rights committee.”

Toner’s remark came despite the fact the Obama administration, a keen participant in the HRC, has generally been critical of the election onto the council of countries with poor human rights records.

Those countries’ bids tend to be successful because there are no mandatory criteria for membership, and because regional groups routinely submit “closed slates” – the same number of candidates for HRC membership as there are seats available for that group – thus avoiding any competition.

When Saudi Arabia – along with China, Russia, Cuba, Vietnam and Algeria – was elected onto the HRC for a three-year term in November 2013, Power deplored the fact that some of the newcomers “commit significant violations of the rights the council is designed to advance and protect.”

A year earlier, when Venezuela, Pakistan and Kazakhstan were among those elected, Power’s predecessor, Susan Rice, pointed out that when regional groups have competitive slates, it helps to ensure that the “worst abusers of human rights are not elected to the council.”

Saudi ambassador to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Faisal bin Hassan Trad, meets with the director-general of the U.N. Office in Geneva, Michael Møller. Trad was been named head of a panel responsible for interviewing and shortlisting human rights experts. (UN Photo)

HRC ‘discredits, dishonors, and diminishes itself’ when violators are members

In 2010, when Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, the Maldives, Mauritania, Qatar and Angola were all successful candidates for the HRC, Rice said ahead of the vote that the U.S. regretted the fact that a few “countries whose human rights records is problematic” were likely to be elected.

“I’m not going to sit here and name names. I don’t think it’s particularly constructive at this point,” she said. “But it’s obvious which countries that are on the ballot have more problematic human rights records than others.”

When the HRC held its first five-year review, in 2011, the U.S. spearheaded efforts to improve its membership standards. It proposed that “closed slates” be prohibited, and that every candidate country should first be required to defend its human rights record before U.N. member states and NGOs.

Both recommendations failed, and afterwards a U.S. diplomat said, “The council discredits, dishonors, and diminishes itself when the worst violators of human rights have a seat at its table. Membership “should be earned through respect for human rights, not accorded to those who abuse them.”

Beheading and ‘crucifixion’

Saudi Arabia draws strong criticism in the annual State Department country reports on human rights, as well as its annual international religious freedom report.

Amnesty International reported last month that the kingdom executed at least 102 people in the first half of this year – more than the entire previous year.

This week, human rights advocates stepped up calls for international pressure on the Sunni-ruled kingdom over plans to behead and “crucify” a minority Shi’ite man, who was arrested aged 17 during “Arab-spring” protests in 2012, and convicted of belong to a terror cell and related charges.

Ali al-Nimr, now 21, was sentenced to death last May, and an appeal court upheld the sentence last week.

Ali al-Nimr, a Saudi Shi’ite, has been sentenced to death by beheading and “crucifixion.” (Photo: Facebook)

(“Crucifixion” under Saudi law means the court orders an executed person’s body to be publicly displayed after death. If beheaded, the victim’s severed head is also displayed.)

At the same press briefing Tuesday, Toner was asked about the al-Nimr case. He said he was not aware of the trial or sentence.

“We’ve talked about our concerns about some of the capital punishment cases in Saudi Arabia in our human rights report, but I don’t have any more to add to it.”

Asked whether the U.S. would “welcome a decision to commute the sentence of this young man,” Toner replied, “Again, I’m not aware of the case, so it’s hard for me to comment on it other than that we believe that any kind of verdict like that should come at the end of a legal process that is just and in accordance with international legal standards.”

On the same day, three U.N. human rights experts added their voices to calls for clemency, charging that the trial did not meet international standards and also noting that al-Nimr was convicted for crimes allegedly committed as a minor.

“Mr. al-Nimr did not receive a fair trial and his lawyer was not allowed to properly assist him and was prevented from accessing the case file,” the experts said.

“International law, accepted as binding by Saudi Arabia, provides that capital punishment may only be imposed following trials that comply with the most stringent requirements of fair trial and due process, or could otherwise be considered an arbitrary execution.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow