Saudi Arabia Should Be Punished by, Not Elected to, the UN Human Rights Council

Whatever the theoretical value of the United Nations system, its agencies are a source of frequent farce. Among the worst performers is the Human Rights Council. Nominally devoted to promoting people’s basic rights, the body often protects the world’s worst human rights abusers instead. Indeed, authoritarian governments routinely sit on the 47-member body.

Over the years 117 countries have served on the Council. Among the more vicious oppressors: Bahrain, China, Burundi, Vietnam, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Russia, Algeria, Kazakhstan, Eritrea, Cuba, Egypt, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia.

The selection of states that kill and imprison their people is no accident. Countries are elected by region. Many governments care nothing about how neighboring states treat their own people. Moreover, like any legislative body the UN is prone to log-rolling. Tyrants often band together to create a cordon sanitaire against anyone who would hold criminal regimes accountable. The Mideast is noteworthy for the high concentration of despotic regimes.

Amazingly, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a bloody, aggressive, absolute monarchy, treats the HRC as almost a second home. The KSA joined the Council in 2006, dropped off after hitting the six-term limit, returned from 2014 to 2019, left this year for the same reason, and is now running again.

The vote occurs on Tuesday and Riyadh is a heavy favorite along with China, since only five countries are vying for four seats in the Asia-Pacific. Nepal, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan, none of them liberal democracies, follow. At least there is a contest there. Everywhere else the elections are Soviet style, with no competition.

No doubt, the Kingdom hopes to use membership to defend its reputation. Last year Australia and Iceland led multiple nations in publicly rebuking Riyadh for its many abuses. That likely came as shock to a country used to buying protection from friends, including the Trump administration, which even sought to cover up the infamous 2018 murder of U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. Returning to the Council would allow the Saudi royals to better dampen future criticism. Warned Human Rights Watch: "Saudi Arabia and China have a history of using their seats on the Human Rights Council to prevent scrutiny of their abuses and those by their allies. Saudi Arabia has threatened to withdraw millions of dollars in UN funding to stay off the secretary-general’s annual ‘list of shame’ for violations against children."

It is impossible to overstate the ludicrous nature of its HRC candidacy. Despite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s attempt to play social reformer, the group Freedom House rates the Kingdom as Not Free. It scores just seven on a 100-point scale. Out of almost 200 countries only North Korea, Turkmenistan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, and Syria rank lower. (Somalia tied the KSA.)

Explained Freedom House: "Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties. No officials at the national level are elected. The regime relies on pervasive surveillance, the criminalization of dissent, appeals to sectarianism and ethnicity, and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power. Women and religious minorities face extensive discrimination in law and in practice. Working conditions for the large expatriate labor force are often exploitative."

Amnesty International also detailed how the regime’s treatment of its people remained barbaric, stuck in an earlier time. Explained AI: "The authorities escalated repression of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. They harassed, arbitrarily detained and prosecuted dozens of government critics, human rights defenders, including women’s rights activists, members of the Shia minority and family members of activists. Shia activists and religious clerics remained on trial before a counter-terror court for expressing dissent. The authorities used the death penalty extensively, carrying out scores of executions for a range of crimes, including drug offences. Some people, most of them members of the country’s Shia minority, were executed following grossly unfair trials."

Discrimination against women was pervasive and humiliating. Despite some reforms, "women continued to face systematic discrimination in law and practice in other areas and remained inadequately protected against sexual and other violence. The authorities granted hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals the right to work and access to education and health care, but arrested and deported hundreds of thousands of irregular migrant workers, who were exposed to labor abuses and exploitation by employers and torture when in state custody. Discrimination against the Shia minority remained entrenched."

Even the US State Department, headquarters of Saudi sycophant Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, was forced to admit the obvious—though the agency’s human rights report was shaped to minimize the royal family’s many crimes. It began with a description of the KSA’s organization of government, lauded long-overdue social reforms, and suggested that Riyadh was the victim when the Yemenis that Saudi Arabia had been bombing and killing for years retaliated with drone and missile strikes.

However, even clever phrasing could not shield the regime from blame for its totalitarian political system. Explained State: "Significant human rights issues included: unlawful killings; executions for nonviolent offenses; forced disappearances; torture of prisoners and detainees by government agents; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; criminalization of libel, censorship, and site blocking; restrictions on freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, and movement; severe restrictions of religious freedom; citizens’ lack of ability and legal means to choose their government through free and fair elections; trafficking in persons; violence and official discrimination against women, although new women’s rights initiatives were implemented; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual activity; and prohibition of trade unions. In several cases the government did not punish officials accused of committing human rights abuses, contributing to an environment of impunity."

Human Rights Watch also covered the Kingdom’s crimes in detail, including violations of "freedom of expression, association, and belief," criminal justice abuses, discrimination against women, and mistreatment of migrant workers. Unlike the State Department, HRW also cited Riyadh’s murderous war while privately worrying about liability for war crimes, the horrific aggressive war being waged by the KSA against Yemen.

Observed HRW: "As the leader of the coalition that began military operations against Houthi forces in Yemen on March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia has committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law. As of June [2019], at least 7,292 civilians had been killed and 11,630 wounded, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), although the actual civilian casualty count is likely much higher. The majority of these casualties were a result of coalition airstrikes.

Since March 2015, Human Rights Watch has documented numerous unlawful attacks by the coalition that have hit homes, markets, hospitals, schools, and mosques. Some of these attacks may amount to war crimes. Saudi commanders face possible criminal liability for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility. Human Rights Watch documented five deadly attacks carried out by coalition naval forces on Yemeni fishing boats since 2018 that killed at least 47 Yemeni fishermen, including seven children, as well as the coalition’s detention of more than 100 others, some of whom say they were tortured in custody in Saudi Arabia."

The Saudis also are among the world’s most religiously intolerant and repressive states. At least North Korea has a handful of official churches. Riyadh makes no pretense of allowing any non-Muslims to worship. (The right of Shiites to practice their faith is restricted and any effort at activism is brutally repressed.)

The State Department made no attempt to hide the ugly reality: "Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The government does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion. The law criminalizes ‘anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.’ The law criminalizes ‘the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,’ ‘any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,’ publications that ‘contradict the provisions of Islamic law,’ and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim."

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom was even tougher in its assessment: the KSA "continued to engage in other systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom. The government prohibits public practice of any religion other than Islam, and no houses of worship other than mosques are allowed in the kingdom. Non-Muslims who gather in private houses are subject to surveillance and Saudi security services may break up their private worship services. … the government’s tolerance remained low for those who chose not to accept its state-endorsed version of Hanbali Sunni Islam."

Shiite Muslims fared only marginally better than non-Muslims. Wrote USCIRF: "Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia continue to face discrimination in education, employment, and the judiciary, and lack access to senior government and military positions. The building of Shia mosques is restricted outside majority-Shia Muslim areas in the Eastern Province, and Saudi authorities often prohibit use of the Shia Muslim call to prayer in these areas. Authorities arrest and imprison Shia Muslims for holding religious gatherings in private homes without permits and reading religious materials in husseiniyas (prayer halls). Saudi Arabia also restricts the establishment of Shia Muslim cemeteries. In 2019, government authorities conducted a mass execution of 37 Shia Muslim protesters, including some who were minors at the time of their alleged crimes."

Even genuine reforms are encircled with repression. MbS, as the crown prince is known, lifted some of the disabilities traditionally inflicted upon women. At the same time, however, he ordered the detention, torture, and imprisonment of activists who campaigned for just such a reform. Why this seeming contradiction, asked the International Service for Human Rights?

Simple: "Because of their activism. The women’s rights activists are being used to amplify the Saudi’s government message to its citizens: ‘Keep quiet and obey us. If you demand your rights, you will get punished.’ Several of the women’s rights activists were tortured and sexually assaulted. They told the Prosecution about their torture but it has so far failed to hold those responsible accountable."

Of course, Saudi Arabia is not the only brutal dictatorship seeking to win election to the Human Rights Council. As noted earlier, China is running for a seat in the same region. Cuba, Russia, and Uzbekistan are effectively unopposed in other regions. None of them should sit on a body that is supposed to help protect their citizens from the same regimes.

Yet Riyadh is a special case since so many Western nations shamelessly line up for Saudi oil and money. Even the US When Pompeo visits Riyadh he genuflects in spirit if not fact the moment he exits the plane.

The Kingdom apparently is buying its way back onto the HRC. That makes a powerful statement of injustice. Complained Saudi defense attorney Taha al-Hajji, who lives in Germany: "If Saudi Arabia succeeds, it will show the world that as long as a state has powerful friends and a limitless public relations budget, it can torture and execute its people, including children, with impunity."

There is still time for the UN to reject Saudi Arabia’s candidacy. After all, not only does it brutally mistreat its people. It also recklessly endangers the peace and routinely subsidizes tyranny. Which undermines the UN’s foundational values.

But set aside moral concerns for a moment. The Kingdom, especially under MbS, is a security threat. At least Washington should stop making excuses for the Saudi regime’s reckless criminality.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.