Restrictive Saudi Arabia Eyeing Presidency of UN’s Top Human Rights Body?

By Patrick Goodenough | May 14, 2015 | 4:43am EDT
President Obama meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, center, and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, in the Oval Office in Washington on Wednesday, May 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

(Editor's note: The fifth-last paragraph mistakenly referred to Ghana as a former HRC president despite being ranked "not free" by Freedom House. It should have read Gabon and has now been corrected. Ghana, which has not held the HRC presidency, is ranked "free.")


( – Saudi Arabia, viewed by human rights activists as one of the world’s most severe violators of religious and other freedoms, reportedly is seeking the presidency of the U.N. Human Rights Council next year.

A Swiss newspaper, Tribune de Geneve, reported this week that Saudi Arabia is seeking the support of fellow members of the 13-strong Asia group for its nomination to the top post in 2016.

In accordance with U.N. custom, the presidency of the Geneva-based council rotates among the five regional groups, and next year is Asia’s turn. The HRC elects a president towards the end of the preceding year.

Judging from past voting patterns at the 47-member HRC, a Saudi candidacy would easily succeed: Asian and African members alone comprise a majority, the Islamic bloc currently controls 15 seats, and the kingdom could also count on the support of several members from other regions, such as Russia and Cuba.

A Saudi bid could be thwarted if another member from Asia is persuaded to step forward as an alternative, thereby setting up a competitive election, although such a move would be rare. (The 12 other Asia members are Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Maldives, Pakistan, Qatar, South Korea, United Arab Emirates and Vietnam.)

Saudi Arabia is one of 12 current HRC members that are designated “not free” by the Washington-based democracy watchdog, Freedom House.

A Geneva-based non-governmental organization, U.N. Watch, called Wednesday on the U.S. and European governments to publicly oppose a Saudi candidacy.

“We urge U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power and E.U. foreign minister Federica Mogherini to denounce this despicable act of cynicism by a regime that beheads people in the town square, systematically oppresses women, Christians, and gays, and jails innocent bloggers like Raif Badawi for the crime of challenging the rulers’ radical brand of Wahabbist Islam,” said executive director Hillel Neuer.

(Badawi has been sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam.)

Neuer was also critical of the Western democracies for not blocking Saudi Arabia’s 2013 election onto the council in the first place.

“We urged them to oppose the election of Saudi Arabia, yet Washington and Brussels did nothing,” he said. “Now they must take responsibility and at least stop the Saudi from seizing the presidency.”

Queries sent to the Saudi mission to the United Nations in Geneva and to the U.S. mission to the U.N. in New York brought no response by press time.

If the Saudi bid is successful, it would become the most controversial head of the U.N.’s top rights body since Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya was elected 12 years ago to the helm of the HRC’s predecessor, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

The Bush administration tried to prevent Libya’s election in 2003, pressing for the nomination to be put to a vote for the first time in the 60 year-old commission’s history. Libya duly won by a 33-3 vote, with 17 members of the 53-seat commission abstaining.

Libya’s elevation to the leadership was viewed by many rights campaigners and democratic governments as a new low point for the already badly discredited commission

The HRC’s launch three years later was meant to usher in improvements, but after difficult negotiations, the U.S. in the end was one of just four countries to vote against the resolution establishing the new council.

The Bush administration argued that it did not go far enough to avoid the very problems that had plagued the commission – among other things a failure to lay down strict and enforceable criteria for membership.

Over the next nine years some of the world’s most repressive regimes have been elected onto the HRC, including China, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Venezuela.

Even so, the rotating presidency has until now been mostly uncontroversial, with the exception of Gabon – “not free” according to Freedom House – which was elected to the position last year after being nominated by the Africa group.

Otherwise, the presidency has been held by Germany and Belgium (Western group), Romania and Poland (Eastern Europe), Uruguay and Mexico (Latin America), Thailand (Asia) and Nigeria (Africa).

The Obama administration reversed its predecessor stance and joined the HRC in 2009, conceding that it was flawed but saying that U.S. engagement could lead to improvements.

Assistant Secretary Bathsheba Nell Crocker told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee last week that since the U.S. had engaged and taken a leadership role in the council it has succeeded in driving its agenda, shining a spotlight on repressive regimes, and lessening its disproportionate focus on Israel.

It had managed to do so, she said, “despite the fact that there are some bad human rights abusers on the council itself, which is something we also work against.”

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