The United Nations plunged to a new low over the weekend when it held a secret ballot to elect 14 members to its Human Rights Council. Rather predictably, Russia was voted off, although some might question what it was doing on the council in the first place when its track record on Chechnya is considered, not to mention its bombing of civilian areas in Syria.
However, clinging-on to its seat in the UNHRC for another term is Saudi Arabia. The government in Riyadh, you may recall, boasted earlier this year of beheading 47 people in one day, including the prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr.
When it comes to human rights, there’s actually little difference between Russia and Saudi Arabia; both are in the gutter and have been for years. Their low regard for and treatment of their own citizens is as shocking as their activities in other countries, where they drop bombs on schools, hospitals and places of worship.
Russia bullies and threatens to get its way at international summits while Saudi just throws money around to buy its friends, and even some enemies. Whether it’s Yemen or Syria the international community should be even-handed in its condemnation, but it’s not.
British Prime Minister Theresa May was asked in Parliament last week about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and she wavered and obfuscated before saying: “But I reiterate a point that I’ve made in this House before, that our relationship with Saudi Arabia is an important relationship. It’s a particularly important relationship in relation to the security of this country and counter-terrorism.”
Sadly, Britain, like so many other Western countries, is gutless when it comes to defending human rights in the face of cash rich and oil-rich regimes like Saudi. Its track record of standing up to Russia is equally lacklustre when you consider how Vladimir Putin seems to dictate his terms without too much resistance.
The big mystery in all of this is why Saudi wants to sit on the UN’s Human Rights Council when it clearly has no regard for anyone’s rights at home or abroad. The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has already admitted responsibility for the bombing of a funeral that killed 140 people and wounded 600 more, blaming the “wrong information” for the massacre.
Riyadh’s views on women’s rights are abhorrent, but while this was used as an excuse by Britain and America to invade Afghanistan in 2001 and overthrow the then ruling Taliban, the so-called major powers are prepared to look the other way when it comes to Riyadh behaving badly. The Saudi Air Force continues to be trained by the British while other security departments benefit from similar programmes; in addition, the British government has licensed £3.3bn worth of arms to the Saudi government since March.
Meanwhile, Egypt also has a seat at UNHRC even though its prisons are bulging with tens of thousands of political prisoners who, according to international human rights organisations, are being tortured and starved and held in appalling conditions. Among those prisoners is the only democratically-elected president in Egypt’s history; Muhammad Morsi was removed from office in a brutal military coup led by army chief General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who went on to become president. You could barely make it up, but the fact is that the actions of a military dictator apparently do not rule Egypt out from having a place on a UN human rights committee.
Another seat is held by Iraq, a country which is still in complete turmoil, riddled with sectarian strife and rumoured to be carrying out horrendous acts of brutality in its own prisons. Joining the Arab members of the committee is the United States, which refuses to sign up to the international criminal court, ignores international law and still holds men without trial or charge in Guantanamo. It may even get a new president who has promised to “bring back waterboarding and more” should he be elected.
Other countries sitting on the panel include Brazil, Croatia, Hungary, Japan, Rwanda and Tunisia, while those re-elected for an additional term are Cuba, South Africa and Britain. While the latter denies that it carries out torture, it has certainly been complicit with its ally America and has so far shelled out millions of pounds to compensate victims on the understanding of “no liability or admission of guilt”. China also has a seat despite vast catalogues of human rights abuses being recorded against it citizens.
If you are a torture victim in Egypt, Saudi, China or Iraq, or are being held in Guantanamo with neither charge nor trial, who do you turn to for justice? Even the allies of these countries will probably look the other way and turn a deaf ear to avoid losing trade agreements, arms deals and the flow of oil.
Human rights, it seems, have become a luxury item that few can afford and even fewer are prepared to defend and uphold. A close check of some of those sitting on the UNHRC reveals exactly how low the world has sunk in terms of morality, justice and equality. As the international body meant to promote such values, the UN should hang its head in shame. It is failing us all.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.