The United States said this week it was pleased to hear of Saudi Arabia’s leadership role on a United Nations Human Rights Council advisory group.
“We would welcome it. We’re close allies,” US State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington on Tuesday.
He spoke after a blog post by UN Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer last week indicated that in 2015, Saudi Arabia had been one of five ambassadors on a key advisory panel to the UNHRC. The body, which is known as the Consultative Group, has since June been chaired by Saudi Arabian Ambassador Faisal bin Hassan Trad.
While a new group of ambassadors will be appointed for 2016, Neuer’s piece made headlines around the world because of Saudi Arabia’s dismal human rights record.
“It is scandalous that the UN chose a country that has beheaded more people this year than ISIS to be head of a key human rights panel,” Neuer said.
“Saudi Arabia has arguably the worst record in the world when it comes to religious freedom and women’s rights, and continues to imprison the innocent blogger Raif Badawi,” Neuer added. Badawi also faces a flogging sentence of 1,000 lashes.
Saudi Arabia is already one of 47 member states that makes up the UNHRC. But its role in the sub-group in 2015 expanded its influence on the committee, according to Neuer.
“This UN appointment is like making a pyromaniac into the town fire chief, and underscores the credibility deficit of a human rights council that already counts Russia, Cuba, China, Qatar and Venezuela among its elected members [of 47 nations],” Neuer said.
At the State Department on Tuesday, Toner said that the US has “a strong dialogue, obviously a partnership with Saudi Arabia that spans, obviously, many issues."
“We talk about human rights concerns with them. As to this leadership role, we hope that it’s an occasion for them to look at human rights around the world but also within their own borders,” Toner said.
“We make our concerns clear when we do have concerns, but that dialogue continues,” he said.
Neuer said that the Consultative Group's membership for 2015 also included Greece, Lithuania, Chile and Algeria.
In a subsequent blog post on the issue, Neuer said that the Consultative Group had short listed candidates for the following UN positions: UN Special Rapporteurs on Violence Against Women, the Right to Privacy and Cultural Rights.
It also short listed candidates for membership on the UN Working Groups on Arbitrary Detention, Enforced Disappearances and experts on People of African Descent.
Neuer has also alluded to possible back-room deal in which Saudi Arabia was placed on the Consultative Group in 2015 in exchange for dropping its bid last year to become UNHRC president. He has also speculated about the connection between Saudi Arabia’s UNHRC membership, as one of the council’s 47 member states, and a 2012 donation of $1 million to the UNHRC council.
The UNHRC and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have rejected all such claims.
In a statement the UNHRC sent out to the media on Thursday, it explained that over the past few days, “a highly distorted narrative has been spreading on the role of Saudi Arabia in the Consultative Group.”
It explained that membership to the Consultative Group was determined solely by member states of five regional groups. Each of those regional groups had one representative on the Consultative Group.
Saudi Arabia belongs to the Asian group, which placed it on the Consultative Group as its representative.
The UNHRC explained that the Consultative Group assess candidates for expert positions such as special Rapporteurs.
“On the basis of objective criteria, they then recommend candidates, by consensus, to the President of the Human Rights Council. The President then conducts broad consultations before putting his recommendation before the full membership of the Human Rights Council. The Human Rights Council then appoints the relevant candidate,” it said.
“Clearly, it is patently untrue to suggest that any one ambassador has the authority to decide upon a candidate unilaterally. The ambassador of Saudi Arabia was nominated by the Asian Group to serve on the Consultative Group from 1 January to 31 December this year, and assumed the chair on a rotating basis during part of this year,” the UNHRC said.
“The chairmanship does not entail any powers over and above the four other members, who this year come from Lithuania, Greece, Chile and Algeria,” the UNHRC said.
“The composition of this year’s Consultative Group was made public at the beginning of this year and the group has already submitted all of its three reports for 2015. It is not expected to meet again until next year, when it will have five different members," the UNHRC said.
“The appointment of mandate-holders is conducted in a transparent manner following well-established rules and procedures taking into account views from various actors including those from states and civil society. Any candidate not happy with the way the process was conducted may appeal to the president of the Human Rights Council,” the UNHRC said.
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