KITCHENER, Ontario — According to its own website, the United Nations Human Rights Council is “responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe.”
At the opening of the 4th UNHRC session on March 12, 2007, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “All victims of human rights abuses should be able to look to the Human Rights Council as a forum and a springboard for action.” Pretty words, indeed, but lacking any real power, the council is mainly symbolic.
In what can only be seen as another strange example in the bizarre environment of world politics, last September, Faisal bin Hassan Trad, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, was elected as chair of a UNHRC panel that selects independent experts to draft international human rights standards and write reports on violations. Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a Geneva-based NGO which monitors the international body, described the appointment as “the final nail in the coffin for the credibility” of the UNHRC.
In the FAQ section on the council’s website is the question: “What are the expectations of the members to the Council?” The answer: “When voting for members of the Council, member states take into consideration a candidate’s contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights.”
The violations of the basic human rights of the Saudis by their government are countless. On Jan. 4, the country started the new year by carrying out its largest mass execution since 1980, killing 47 people, including four by firing squad and 43 by beheading. Many of those killed were targeted for speaking up against the Saud regime. But this is only one of the more widely-publicized examples of Saudi barbarity.
In its 2015 world report, Human Rights Watch, summarizing the situation in Saudi Arabia, asserted:
“Saudi Arabia continued in 2014 to try, convict, and imprison political dissidents and human rights activists solely on account of their peaceful activities. Systematic discrimination against women and religious minorities continued. Authorities failed to enact systematic measures to protect the rights of 9 million foreign workers. As in past years, authorities subjected hundreds of people to unfair trials and arbitrary detention. New anti-terrorism regulations that took effect in 2014 can be used to criminalize almost any form of peaceful criticism of the authorities as terrorism.”
Likewise, Amnesty International, in its report of 2014/15, also noted restrictions on freedom of expression, including violent crackdowns on dissent, extensive use of the death penalty, torture of detainees, and flogging.
Partners in crime
One must wonder, then, how a nation with such barbaric practices joined the UNHRC. The application for the appointment came just days after Saudi Arabia posted an advertisement for eight new executioners, apparently to keep pace with an increase in execution orders (by November, the kingdom had executed 151 people, the highest number in 20 years).
As might be expected in any situation involving a quest for power, it seems that Saudi Arabia could only ascend to the human rights panel with some outside assistance. The United Kingdom, also seeking a seat on the council, sent a memorandum to Saudi Arabia, which was then forwarded to the foreign ministry. The memorandum requested that Saudi Arabia vote favorably for the U.K. to be admitted to the UNHRC. It was then suggested by the Saudi delegation that initially received the request that the foreign ministry could obtain the U.K.’s vote, if Saudi Arabia agreed to the U.K.’s request.
And what of the United States? Surely that self-proclaimed beacon of freedom and liberty would not associate itself with such a barbaric regime, and would bring all possible political pressure to bear, to force it to change its ways. Invading the country to force U.S.-style democracy there would not be unprecedented.
But no, that is not the case. The U.S. maintains full diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. In October, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Saudi King Salman for official talks on Middle East issues. About a week prior to the meeting, 28 Muslims had been beheaded by the Saudi regime for their alleged involvement in a stampede at the Holy Mecca in March.
Yet when U.S. humanitarian aid worker Peter Kassig was beheaded by Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the terrorist group commonly known as ISIS or ISIL) in November, President Barack Obama said it was “an act of pure evil by a terrorist group that the world rightly associates with inhumanity.”
It is interesting to note that, while the U.S. gets most of its oil from Canada, its second largest supplier is Saudi Arabia. Daesh is reportedly selling oil, making an estimated $1 million to $1.5 million a day. At present, the U.S. is not buying Daesh’s oil, although the group’s markets include Turkey, Syria and Israel, either directly or through third-party brokers. One cannot help but wonder if, should the U.S. decide to trade with Daesh, perhaps officials from Daesh will then have state meetings with the U.S. Secretary of State, and its beheading of political prisoners will be overlooked?
Saudi Arabia is not only a major source of oil for the U.S.; it is also a major market for that most American of all products: weaponry. In November, the U.S. approved arms sales to Saudi Arabia totalling $1.29 billion. Human rights violations in its own country and possible war crimes committed in Yemen might, any thinking person would be excused for believing, perhaps cause the world’s self-designated leader of freedom to pause before providing the Saudis with more weaponry to oppress their own people and kill their neighbors. But in the U.S., politicians have many gods, and chief among them is the almighty dollar. Last year, the defense industry spent in excess of $95 million dollars lobbying the U.S. government. The sales to Saudi Arabia represent a very nice return on that investment, indeed.
Those seeking redress should look elsewhere
So, in the context of the UNHRC, the inmates are running the asylum. It seems to follow the U.S. model, where the incursion of U.S. ships into Iranian waters, followed by the capture, humane treatment and quick release of the sailors, was roundly condemned by many U.S. politicians, who seemed to overlook the torture of U.S. political prisoners by U.S. service personnel in Iraq. Apparently, territorial waters are only territorial when the U.S. deems it so.
Saudi Arabia’s membership on the UNHRC draws to a close this year. And while it will do little material damage in that time, its membership, and the fact that its ambassador is the current chair on an important panel, will only serve to destroy what little credibility the council may ever have had. Individuals around the world looking for redress for the horrific human rights abuses they are experiencing will, as always, have to look elsewhere.
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