Saudi Arabia’s failed UNHRC bid not just about human rights - analysis

Observers of United Nations affairs cite need for major reforms regarding way countries are elected to rights council.

Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights addresses a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse (photo credit: DENIS BALIBOUSE/REUTERS)
Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights addresses a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
Saudi Arabia’s failed membership bid to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is not necessarily due to the kingdom’s alleged abuses and is a sign that the inter-governmental body is in need of major reforms, UN and Saudi watchers tell The Media Line.
On Tuesday, the 193-member General Assembly voted in a secret ballot for 15 countries to serve a three-year term on the 47-seat UNHRC.
Of its five regions, Asia-Pacific was the only competitive race, with five candidates vying for four spots. Saudi Arabia received just 90 votes, 60 behind fourth-place finisher Nepal and a 40% drop from Riyadh’s last election to the council in 2016, when it ran unopposed.
“The Saudi rejection is illustrative of the decline in Saudi soft power over the past five years and, in terms of timing, is awkward given the Saudi determination to play a more active global role, especially in hosting the G20 this year,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, told The Media Line.
Analysts say there is more going on than the kingdom’s alleged persecution of women’s rights activists and atrocities in the war in Yemen, as well the high-profile death of Jamal Khashoggi. The US-based journalist and critic of Saudi Arabia's government was murdered just over two years ago inside Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul.
They point to the fact that serial rights abusers China and Russia won seats on the council.
“The member states do not generally reveal who they vote for or why, but it is clear that Saudi Arabia was not rejected on principle,” Brett Schaefer, a senior research fellow for international regulatory affairs at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, told The Media Line. “If it were, how did China, which is committing gross crimes against the Uighurs, win a seat on the council?”
Adds Schaefer: “There is something seriously wrong with a process that has Cuba, Mexico, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and other countries with flawed human rights records earning more votes than France or the UK.”
The United States withdrew from the UNHRC in 2018. Announcing the decision in Washington alongside US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, then-US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley cited “chronic bias” against Israel.
US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has said that he would rejoin the council should he be elected in November.
Human rights organizations cheered the kingdom’s rejection.
“Grounds for electing a certain country are not known, but it surely demonstrates an increasing pressure on Saudi Arabia and mounting awareness of the gross abuses taking place in the country,” Inès Osman, director of the MENA Rights Group, told The Media Line.
Since the UNHRC’s inception in 2006, Saudi Arabia has been elected for four mandates of three years, between 2006 and 2012, and again from 2014 to 2019. Countries are not eligible after two consecutive three-year terms, which is why the kingdom could not seek membership in 2013 and 2020.
Tuesday was the first time it failed to be elected.
Still, even with the votes against Saudi Arabia, human rights activists acknowledge that the body needs significant changes.
Louis Charbonneau, United Nations director at Human Rights Watch, says the lack of competition allows for countries with abysmal human rights records to sit on a body that is supposed to be the antithesis of what they represent.
“When there’s competition, governments actually have to defend their records, and as we saw in the case of Saudi Arabia, they weren’t able to do that. We and others pointed out that they simply don’t qualify,” Charbonneau told The Media Line.
He points out that if there had been even more competition in the Asia-Pacific region, China would have probably lost, calling this “a proper outcome.”
Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, says that despite the “admittedly murky and indiscriminate process” of UNHRC elections, the extra-judicial killing of a dissident like Khashoggi may have been too much.
“It is hard to be encouraged when clear abusers such as Russia and China are on the council,” Diwan told The Media Line. “But Saudi reformers and human rights activists may take some satisfaction from this setback.”
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