Appointment of Saudi Arabian Ambassador to Key Human Rights Council Position: A Mere ‘Procedural Position’ or Ethical Quandary?

11819579326_97144bf27c_zUS Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Powers says that the recent promotion of Saudi Arabian Ambassador Faisal bin Hassan Trad to the Consultative Group of the Human Rights Council is nothing more than a “procedural position” that will not have any bearing on what the United Nations does regarding human rights issues. However, is it true that this appointment will have no effect on the UNHRC’s human rights efforts? Even if it has no direct effect, does the conflict between Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and the principles espoused by the Human Rights Council matter ethically?

The Human Rights Council claims to be “responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them.”  Thus, on principle, it seems to be contradictory that such a body that promotes and protects universal human rights would allow, even welcome, within it a representative of a country that boasts one of the worst human rights records in the world.

However, articles covering bin Hassan Trad’s recent appointment explain very little about the position itself. As the chair of the Consultative Group of the Human Rights Council, he is reported to have the power to pick applicants for various positions of “expert roles within countries where the UN has a mandate on human rights”. Furthermore, the Geneva-based NGO UN Watch claims that the UN considers these positions on the Consultative Group as the “crown jewels” of the Human Rights Council. Yet according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) website, it is not true that the chair has the sole or ultimate authority to select candidates. Composed of five ambassadors appointed by the five regional groups, officials serve in their personal capacity to assess applicants for UN human rights expert positions whom they recommend together to the President of the Human Rights Council.

As such, it seems that Samantha Powers is correct is describing bin Hassan Trad’s position as merely procedural. He was appointed to his position by the Asian regional group for his personal merits. As to what his merits are remains a mystery for there is no mention of him before the news of his appointment, making it is difficult to assess whether he is actually qualified for this position. However, it may be argued that he is not his country and must not be judged for what he is not responsible. The strength of this argument depends on the extent to which you believe he can be held responsible in his position for his country’s actions. Yet, recent discoveries concerning Saudi Arabia’s position within the UNHRC and facts about its human rights record raise questions pertaining to the ethics of bin Hassan Trad’s appointment and create tension that override the questionable relevance of his responsibility for his country’s human rights infractions.

First, there is the fact that although bin Hassan Trad was elected chair of the Consultative Group in June, his appointment was undisclosed until recently. UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer speculates that this appointment “may have been a consolation prize for the Saudis after they withdrew their bid to head the 47-nation council following international condemnation of the kingdom’s human rights record.” Then, there is the fact that recent Wikileaks documents revealed references to a secret vote-trading deal in 2013 initiated by Britain with Saudi Arabia to secure membership for both countries to the UN Human Rights Council. This prompted much outrage as many found it contrary to the UNHRC’s principles. Membership to the General Assembly of the Human Rights Council depends on an assessment of “the candidate States’ contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights, as well as their voluntary pledges and commitments in this regard.” As such, Saudi Arabia does not seem to fit the eligibility criteria given its long record of human rights abuses.

Despite Ambassador Power’s insistence that bin Hassan Trad’s position will not affect the UN’s human rights efforts, we have to wonder if that is true given the recent move by Saudi Arabia to block a full-fledged UN backed investigation into Saudi Arabia’s possible war crimes in Yemen.  After six months, Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombings have left more than 21 million people in need of humanitarian aid and over 5,000 people killed, including 500 children. The resolution put forth by Saudi Arabia rivaled a previous proposition by the Netherlands and insists on only a national investigation instead of an independent investigation. This raises concerns that such an investigation will fail to deter additional human rights abuses, says deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Geneva, Philippe Dam.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has also recently prevented the inclusion of LGBT rights in the UN’s Global Goals on the basis that it violates Islamic law. Under Sharia law, homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia and punishable by chemical castration, imprisonment, and execution.

As of August 2015, Saudi Arabia has already surpassed the amount of executions committed in the previous year — 110 versus 88 in 2014, almost twice as many people as ISIS has beheaded in 2015. In May 2015, the month before bin Hassan Trad’s appointment, Saudi Arabia advertised eight new positions for executioners. The job responsibilities include performing amputations on lesser offenses.

While it is possible that bin Hassan Trad’s new position carries with it no further power or responsibility, there still seems to be tension between Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and the UNHRC’s founding principles. This begs the question, do the principles matter? One would hope so, but consider the human rights records of other current member states like Venezuela, Qatar, China, and Russia. Even the United States of America frequently violates international law with its drone campaigns, so is it surprising that the UN overlooks yet another country’s violations? Perhaps if we are to take issue with Saudi Arabia’s participation in UNHRC activity, we must also be critical of the other aspects of UNHRC.

All Images courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.