untitledThere are many things that the United Nations does that cause me to shake my head in disbelief. I have to say that their latest feat leaves me completely nonplussed.

“States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear”. – Raif Badawi (about Saudi Arabia)

To set the scene: The United Nations has a panel of independent experts on the UN Human Rights Council. The panel has a chair. And the chair has the power to select applicants from around the World for scores of expert roles in countries where the UN has a mandate on human rights. These experts are often described as the “crown jewels” of the Human Rights Council.

So there are many organisations, countries and people who could be appointed to chair this Council. And why has the UN chosen to appoint Saudi Arabia to that position?

The Independent Newspaper in Britain reported the appointment as follows:

“The United Nations has been criticised for handing Saudi Arabia a key human rights role – despite the country having “arguably the worst record in the world” on freedoms for women, minorities and dissidents.

Critics, including the wife of imprisoned pro-democracy blogger Raif Badawi – sentenced to 1,000 lashes for blogging about free speech – labelled the appointment “scandalous”, saying it meant “oil trumps human rights”.

Mr Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, who is leading an international campaign to free her husband, said on Facebook that handing the role to Faisal bin Hassan Trad, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador at the UN in Geneva, was effectively “a green light to start flogging [him] again”.

UN Watch, an independent campaigning NGO, revealed Mr Trad, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador at the UN in Geneva, was elected as chair of a panel of independent experts on the UN Human Rights Council.

As head of a five-strong group of diplomats, the influential role would give Mr Trad the power to select applicants from around the world for scores of expert roles in countries where the UN has a mandate on human rights.” Read more here:

Most recently Human Rights Watch, an organisation that examines the breaches of human rights across the world had this to say about Saudi Arabia:

“King Abdullah passed away on January 23, 2015 after a nine-and-a-half year reign and his half-brother Salman bin Abdulaziz became king. Saudi Arabia has pressed on with arbitrary arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents, and forcibly dispersed peaceful demonstrations. Authorities continue to discriminate against Saudi women and girls and do not adequately protect the rights of migrant workers. The country’s anti-terrorism regulations can be used to criminalize almost any form of peaceful criticism of the authorities, and dozens of human rights defenders and others are serving long prison sentences for criticizing authorities or demanding political and human rights reforms”

Some of the headlines that have been reported on the Human Rights Watch website in relation to Saudi Arabia are as follows:

“Saudi Arabia: Mass Expulsions of Migrant Workers”

“Saudi authorities may soon execute a Saudi man for crimes related to a 2011 protest movement”

“King Salman largely has failed to improve his country’s human rights”

“Alleged Child Offender at risk of execution”

The World Report 2015 in regard to Saudi Arabia was far more detailed in its condemnation of their human rights abuses. Their report said the following:

“Saudi Arabia continued in 2014 to try, convict, and imprison political dissidents and human rights activists solely on account of their peaceful activities. Systematic discrimination against women and religious minorities continued. Authorities failed to enact systematic measures to protect the rights of 9 million foreign workers. As in past years, authorities subjected hundreds of people to unfair trials and arbitrary detention. New anti-terrorism regulations that took effect in 2014 can be used to criminalize almost any form of peaceful criticism of the authorities as terrorism.

Freedom of Expression, Association, and Belief

The Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia’s terrorism tribunal, sentenced prominent Eastern Province activist Fadhil al-Manasif to 15 years in prison, a 15-year ban on travel abroad, and a large fine on April 17 after it convicted him on charges that included “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” “contact with foreign news organizations to exaggerate the news,” and “circulating his phone number to [foreign] news agencies to allow them to call him.” The charges arose from al-Manasif’s assistance to international media covering the 2011 protests in Eastern Province.

A Specialized Criminal Court judge ordered the detention of prominent human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair on April 15. In July, the  court convicted him on vague charges arising solely from his peaceful activism, sentencing him to 15 years in prison, a 15-year travel ban, and a fine of 200,000 Saudi Riyals (US$53,000). On August 11, the day after Abu al-Khair refused to cooperate in his transfer to another prison, Jeddah prison authorities beat him and dragged him from the prison with chains, injuring his ankles, then dispatched him to another prison almost 1,000 kilometers away from his family home.

Authorities continued to persecute activists associated with the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA). In June, a court sentenced Fowzan al-Harbi to seven years in prison but suspended six years of the sentence on condition that he does not return to his activism. Issa al-Hamid, the brother of imprisoned activist Abdullah al-Hamid, was on trial in September on charges that included “inciting [people] to violate public order and spreading discord” and “insulting the judiciary.” Others were under investigation.

An appeals tribunal inside the Specialized Criminal Court in July upheld a sentence of five years in prison and a 10-year travel ban for human rights advocate Mikhlif al-Shammari, based on his writings and exposure of human rights abuses.

Saudi officials continue to refuse to register political or human rights groups, leaving members subject to prosecution for “setting up an unregistered organization.” Saudi officials did not pass a long-awaited associations law in 2014, leaving Saudi citizens with no legal avenue to set up non-charity nongovernmental organizations.

Saudi Arabia does not tolerate public worship by adherents of religions other than Islam and systematically discriminates against Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelver Shia and Ismailis.

In May, a Jeddah court convicted activist Raif Badawi and sentenced him to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam” by founding a critical liberal website, and for his comments during television interviews. An appeals court upheld the sentence in September.

Further it says:

“Detainees, including children, commonly face systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights, including arbitrary arrest and torture and ill-treatment in detention. Saudi judges routinely sentence defendants to floggings of hundreds of lashes.

Judges can order arrest and detention, including of children, at their discretion. Children can be tried for capital crimes and sentenced as adults if physical signs of puberty exist.”

The appointment of Saudi Arabia to this position has been condemned by activists everywhere. UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer is quoted as follows:

“UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer said the appointment, made in June but unreported until now, 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.

The Saudis’ bid emerged shortly after it posted a job advertisement for eight new executioners, to cope with what Amnesty International branded a “macabre spike” in the use of capital punishment, including beheadings, this year.

The HRC, the UN body responsible for promoting human rights around the world, has long been the subject of criticism for granting membership to countries with dubious human rights records. As well as Saudi Arabia, current members include China, Qatar, Russia and Venezuela.”

“Mr Neuer described the appointment as “scandalous”.

“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,” he said.

“It’s a sad comment on our world that oil continues to trump basic human rights principles.

“It’s bad enough that Saudi Arabia is a member of the council, but for the UN to go and name the regime as chair of a key panel only pours salt in the wounds for dissidents languishing in Saudi prisons.”

The UN, and the Saudi Arabian mission to the UN’s Office in Geneva (UNOG), had not responded to The Independent‘s requests for a comment at the time of writing.

It is unfortunate that appointments of this nature sully the reputation of the United Nations further. Where it is being called upon to make decisions that will raise its status to one that is seen as being credible, we have this type of decision that will mire it in further controversy. That also throws doubt on its ability to effectively manage the myriad of problems that are being played out across the world.