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Saudi Arabia’s role on UN Human Rights Commission: A chance for redemption?

ByMumbi Kiragu

Sep 29, 2015

Public outrage ensued over the appointment of a representative from Saudi Arabia as the Head of the United Nations Human Rights Council panel. It was no surprise that people deemed the decision to appoint a human rights representative from a prominently repressive regime so absurd. UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer alluded to the hypocrisy of the appointment when he stated, “it is like electing a pyromaniac as the town fire chief”.

The role of panel head, assigned to ambassador Faisal bin Hassan Trad, involves scrutiny of various human rights challenges and establishing solutions to these challenges. In 2014, Shia activist Muhammed al-Nimr, 21, was sentenced to death by beheading and liberal blogger Raif Badawi was publicly flogged for blogging about free speech. How can an individual who represents a nation that exercises appalling practices such as executions, crucifixions and floggings possibly be the ideal candidate to lead the UN’s efforts in resolving challenges to human rights?

We would assume that the United States, well renowned for crusading their views on democracy and human rights, would be the first to condemn this appointment. On the contrary, Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner supported the decision at a recent state department briefing. While his remarks presented the appointment as an opportunity for redemption considering Saudi Arabia’s history with human rights, we cannot overlook the importance of the long-standing partnership between the US and Saudi Arabia over oil and arms production.

Indeed this event has brought greater attention to the human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and the hypocrisy behind US public policy. However, the true victor of the blame game in this scenario is the UN. Not ignoring the tremendous triumphs that the Human Rights Council has achieved, all institutions have their weaknesses – the council admission procedure being a major one of theirs.

Ultimately, the panel selection process is responsible for the ambassador’s appointment. People are unaware that this selection process is not based on merit but rather, a rotation of the position between different regions. Therefore, the appointment is merely part of a programmed process. As Agnes Callamard, Director of Columbia University’s Global Freedom of Expression and Information Initiative described it, Saudi Arabia being appointed as the head of the council panel was simply a ‘logical consequence’.

In regards to competency, the main issue is not that the appointee is incapable of fulfilling the role, but that an individual with a background and exposure to the successes that result from adhering to human rights would arguably be a better candidate.

For such an outstanding organisation, which plays an integral role in the pursuit of safeguarding human rights on a global scale, it is disappointing that procedural inadequacies can influence such major decisions. This system of selection requires reform that will ensure that representatives are purposely selected based on their competence and not on an ad hoc basis.

Indeed diversity is certainly important and equal opportunity all the same in any selection process. Perhaps Mark Toner was even correct in suggesting that an opportunity at redemption for Saudi Arabia will improve the perspective towards human rights in a region that needs it most. However, it is essential that changes in the selection process be made to ensure the highest level of competence of the council.


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