Diplomats say oil triumphs over human rights

Saudi Arabia be Heads UN Rights CouncilImage: UNHRC logo
news Monday, September 28, 2015 - 17:24

If you think that headline is terrible, the reality is worse, much worse. Earlier this month Saudi Arabia was appointed to head a key body of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). To date this year, the oil kingdom has beheaded 1000 people. Media reports say soon it will send 17-year-old Ali Mohammed al-Nimr to the gallows (crucifixion and beheading) for taking part in some anti-government demonstrations.

Reports say he was arrested in the Qatif province in 2012, he has been tortured, not allowed to speak to any lawyer and forced to sign a confession that is tantamount to him signing his own death sentence. Under normal circumstances, I should stop writing this piece here so readers can draw their conclusions about the cynicism that has taken over multilateral diplomacy. 

But giving up is too easy. The only way forward is for the UN to take a step back and ask itself one question – why does it exist?  Is it to turn a blind eye to murders and mass executions, allow oil to trump over human rights or does it have the courage to return to the drawing board?

In a few days, the UNHRC will decide what to do with its own report detailing grave human rights violations in Sri Lanka towards the end of the civil war between government forces and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). The same countries that are calling for an ad-hoc court composed of an independently appointed international team to take Colombo to task are part of the decision to appoint Riyadh to lead a human rights body.

This decision has been met with widespread condemnation including from the wife of blogger Raif Bidwai who is sentenced to 1000 lashes for blogging about free speech.  Reports say he will be subjected to a second flogging (50 lashes) on Friday. Bidwai’s wife Ensaf Haidar is leading a global campaign to free her husband. In a recent post on Facebook, she said handing over the role to Faisal bin Hassan Trad, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UN is effectively “a green light to start flogging” her husband again.

The Saudi diplomat will head the five-member group of countries that picks special rapporteurs (international experts) of the world body tasked to probe human rights violations and related issues around the world. The recommendations will not bind nations to any course correction – all it amount to is a rap on the wrist and some bad press.

Diplomats are scurrying around to saying Riyadh’s appointment is just a rotational procedure and the composition of the advisory group is such that nobody appoints anybody. However, the advisory group is called the crown jewel of UNHRC and within countries lawyers, especially those working in the area of human rights and civil liberties, clamour to get on board. Within the Council, Saudi Arabia belongs to the Asian group. The composition of the 47-member Council is a direct result of the Cold war days – it has 13 countries from Africa, 13 from Asia, six from Easter Europe, eight from Latin America and the Caribbean and seven from Western Europe and other countries.

Even as this macabre drama plays out at the European headquarters of the UN in Geneva, the UN General Assembly in New York will at some point take up the matter of human rights and civil liberties. Examining the documents will be very senior diplomats with one eye on their career paths and the other on full stops and commas.

That doesn’t address issues of beheadings and extra-judicial killings, civil wars and torture.  Is anybody listening?