(CNSNews.com) – State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday that the administration would “welcome” Saudi Arabia’s appointment to a leadership position at the U.N. Human Rights Council, saying that the U.S. and the kingdom were “close allies.”
“We hope that it’s an occasion for them to, you know, to look at human rights around the world but also within their own borders,” he said in response to a question about the appropriateness of the kingdom holding a leadership post.
The line of questioning began with a reporter mistakenly saying that Saudi Arabia had been named as head of the Geneva-based HRC. In fact, the Saudi ambassador to the HRC was named over the summer as chairman of a key HRC panel responsible for interviewing and shortlisting experts who are mandated by the council to investigate and report on a range of human rights concerns around the world.
Asked Tuesday for the administration’s reaction to Saudi Arabia “heading the council,” Toner said he had no comment, but then added, “I mean, frankly, you know, it’s a, you know – we would welcome it. We’re close allies.”
Asked whether he thought it was “appropriate for them to have a leadership position,” Toner said, “We have a strong dialogue, obviously a partnership with Saudi Arabia that spans, obviously, many issues. We talk about human rights concerns with them. You know, as to this leadership role, we hope that it’s an occasion for them to, you know, to look at human rights around the world but also within their own borders.”
“But you said that you welcome them in this position,” another reporter said. “Is it based on improved record? I mean, can you show or point to anything where there is you know, a sort of stark improvement in their human rights record?”
“I mean, we have an ongoing discussion with them about all these human rights issues, like we do with every country,” Toner said. “We make our concerns clear when we do have concerns, but that dialogue continues. But I don’t have anything to point to in terms of progress.”
Saudi Arabia's appointment to chair the HRC panel was brought to public attention this week by the Geneva-based non-governmental organization U.N. Watch. It brought strong criticism from observers who said that with its poor human rights record Saudi Arabia should not even be a member of the 47-member HRC, let alone hold a leadership post. U.N. Watch executive director Hillel Neuer called on U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power and European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to reverse the appointment.
Repressive regimes have long used their membership on the U.N.’s top human rights watchdog to defend each other, block scrutiny of their own records, and promote agenda items that focus on favored targets like Israel.
Their presence on the council frustrates democracies, but U.N. rules do not disqualify any country from standing for election. They generally have no competition, as regional groups put forward “closed slates” of candidates – the same number of candidates as there are vacancies.
With no mandatory qualification for members and with voting taking place at the U.N. General Assembly by secret ballot, countries with poor records continue to win seats.
Saudi Arabia is one of 12 current members of the HRC that are designated “not free” by the Washington-based democracy watchdog, Freedom House.
On the day it was elected to a three-year term on the HRC, in Nov. 2013, then-State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “we regret that some countries elected to the Human Rights Council have failed to show their commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights.”
She did not name names, but a total of six countries elected that day – China, Russia, Cuba, Vietnam, Algeria and Saudi Arabia – are ranked “not free” by Freedom House.
Meanwhile in other reaction to Saudi Arabia’s appointment to chair the HRC panel, the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders called the move “grotesque.”
“Saudi Arabia is ranked 164th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index,” said Alexandra El Khazen, head of the group’s Middle East desk. “How could anyone image Riyadh making a significant contribution to the fight against human rights violations throughout the world?”
A grouping of liberal members of the European Parliament also slammed the decision.
U.N. Watch earlier launched a petition calling on the U.N. to remove Saudi Arabia from the council.