Should Saudis Be Suspended From UN Human Rights Council? State Dep’t Won’t Say

By Patrick Goodenough | June 30, 2016 | 4:16 AM EDT

The U.N. Human Rights Council meets in Geneva. (AP Photo, File)

( – A State Department spokesman on Wednesday declined to give an opinion on whether Saudi Arabia should be suspended from the U.N. Human Rights Council over its widely-criticized rights record, on the grounds that the U.S. is “just an observer.”

“Because we only have observer status,” Mark Toner told a briefing in response to questions about calls for the kingdom’s suspension, “I’d refer you to the U.N. for more details. I mean, we don’t have a vote.”

A vote to suspend a member of the Geneva-based HRC would be taken not by that body but by the U.N. General Assembly in New York – at which the U.S. and the other 192 U.N. members have a vote.

But asked whether the U.S. would favor a vote in the General Assembly to suspend Saudi Arabia, Toner said, “I don’t think we would talk about our vote before that happened – before the vote took place. But nice try.”

Toner said he did not want to “to weigh in on a process that, again, we’re just an observer to, except to say that we want the Human Rights Council to remain an effective body and we do believe in its mission and we would hope that all members to the Human Rights Council would respect that mission.”

Questioned further, Toner said the U.S. will “obviously remain active as an observer-state, and we’ll continue to work to make sure that the council lives up to its mandate. Beyond that, I’m not going to pronounce on whether Saudi Arabia should or should not be a member.”

While Toner said the U.S. was “just an observer,” under the Obama administration the U.S. has touted its leadership on the HRC, serving as a member from 2009-2015. Now on a mandatory 12-month break (after two consecutive three-year terms), it will almost certainly run for a new term in elections to be held in New York in the fall.

Saudi Ambassador to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Faisal bin Hassan Trad. (UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré)

For virtually the entire period of the U.S. membership, Saudi Arabia was also a member (term limits obliged it to stand down during 2013) but there is no record of the U.S. ever publicly questioning its presence on the 47-seat HRC – or indeed that of other members with poor records by name, including China, Russia, Cuba, Qatar, Vietnam and Pakistan.

On the contrary, Toner last September said the administration would “welcome” Saudi Arabia’s appointment to a leadership position at the Human Rights Council, saying that the U.S. and the kingdom were “close allies.”

Sometime earlier, Saudi Arabia had been chosen to chair a HRC panel responsible for interviewing and shortlisting experts who investigate human rights issues around the world.

After saying the U.S. would “welcome” a leadership position for the Saudis, Toner was asked about the appropriateness of the appointment.

“We hope that it’s an occasion for them to look at human rights around the world but also within their own borders,” he then added.

Recently, the Saudis’ human rights record drew fresh controversy after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon admitted that he had removed Saudi Arabia from a blacklist of countries that violate children’s rights in conflict (in the context of the Saudi-led airstrike campaign in Yemen.) Ban did so after the kingdom and several of its allies threatened to defund U.N. programs.

The incident was the last straw for some advocacy groups, and on Wednesday Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International jointly called for Saudi Arabia to be suspended from the HRC.

Under U.N. rules a council member may be suspended by the U.N. General Assembly for “gross and systematic violations of human rights,” with a two-thirds majority vote required.

The procedure has only once been employed during the HRC’s 10-year lifespan – against Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya in 2011. (At the time, Russia and China both insisted the move did not set a “precedent” while Cuba reiterated its opposition to the mechanism that allows for suspension of HRC members.)

Toner said Tuesday that U.S. support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen was “geared towards” combating the threat Saudi Arabia faced on its borders from Yemen’s Shi’ite Houthi militia

“But in every situation, in every occasion, we have also stressed the fact that all sides in that conflict need to abide by international law and avoid civilian casualties,” he added.

The HRC this year has the smallest proportion of “free” members in its ten-year history – 18 out of 47.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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