By Tawanda Mutasah, Senior Director International Law and Policy at Amnesty International
Ten years since it was first created the UN Human Rights Council is facing a stark moment of truth. The credibility of the world’s top human rights body, which was set up to ensure that it is able to effectively address human rights violations without being undermined by geopolitics and competing national interests, is being called into question because of the abysmal track record of one of its members – Saudi Arabia – and the failure of other members to call it to account.
Since it joined the UN Human Rights Council in January 2014 Saudi Arabia has carried out gross and systematic human rights violations both at home and in neighbouring Yemen.
It has consistently ranked as one of the world’s top executioners, has presided over a ruthless crackdown against peaceful dissent and human rights activism in Saudi Arabia and most recently lead a military coalition which stands accused of carrying out war crimes in Yemen.
Not only has Saudi Arabia manifestly failed to uphold the “highest standards in the protection and promotion of human rights”, but it has also actively used its privileged Council position to evade justice for grave violations, and pulled the wool over the eyes of some of its Council peers.
In October 2015, Saudi Arabia used its diplomatic clout and its position on the Council to scupper scrutiny of its wanton conduct in the war in Yemen. After derailing a Dutch resolution calling for an international investigation into violations that killed and injured thousands of civilians in Yemen, Saudi Arabia ensured its own watered-down resolution was adopted instead. The result was a Saudi Arabia-backed commission of inquiry carried out by the exiled Yemeni government. Nine months on, it has failed to carry out credible investigations.
Even that paled in comparison to their latest insidious move. Earlier this month, despite the UN attributing 60% of all child deaths in Yemen in 2015 to airstrikes by the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition, the Kingdom successfully had the coalition removed from the UN’s annual report singling out states and armed groups who violate children’s rights. How? By threatening the UN Secretary General to withdraw funds and engagement from UN programmes – both its own and those of the 57-state Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
It is against this backdrop that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are making a call on the UN to suspend Saudi Arabia from the Human Rights Council. World leaders should stop the Kingdom’s cynical use of the Council to help it get away with gross and systematic violations.
Human rights begin at home
Our call is informed by months of in-depth research into Saudi Arabia’s spiralling pattern of human rights violations, both in the Kingdom and in the conduct of the armed conflict in neighbouring Yemen.
In 15 months of aerial bombardment, Saudi Arabia and its military coalition have caused the majority of the civilian casualties in the conflict, which has left at least 3,539 killed and 6,268 injured. Coalition forces have repeatedly violated the laws of war by bombing civilians, including in schools, hospitals, markets and factories. They have also repeatedly used cluster munitions, inherently indiscriminate weapons banned under international law.
At home, Saudi Arabia has ramped up executions and intensified its onslaught against dissent. Since its election to the Council, more than 350 people have been put to death, many after grossly unfair trials.
In 2014 the authorities brought a vaguely-worded counter-terror law into force which it has used to ruthlessly crack down on peaceful activists such as the human rights defender Waleed Abu al-Khair who was sentenced to 15 years in prison and a further 15-year travel ban in relation to his human rights work. Three decades of freedom stripped away for pursuing rights and justice.
Saudi Arabia has also punished anyone seeking to expose human rights violations, shutting down independent NGOs and preventing activists from travelling to events abroad. Activists can find themselves facing jail terms even for speaking to human rights organizations like Amnesty International.
A moment of truth
This is a moment of truth for the UN. By manifestly failing to hold Saudi Arabia accountable to its basic membership requirements, the Human Rights Council and its member states risk a serious loss of credibility.
If the UN does not act on this call, it would also mark a poignant failure by the Council to improve on the record of its predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights, disbanded a decade ago. As Amnesty International flagged in 2005, among the reasons for that body’s demise was that “power politics and double standards have … prevented the Commission from addressing, or even discussing, widespread or serious human rights violations in many countries.”
Allowing Saudi Arabia to play the same power politics in the Human Rights Council would be a slap in the face for victims of human rights violations the world over.
Council members have a core duty to protect and promote human rights, which they must not betray – whether out of fear of losing billion-dollar arms deals that could fuel the commission of further serious violations in Yemen or for the sake of cooperation in counter-terrorism.
The UN General Assembly’s own rules say they should suspend a Council member that has been committing “gross and systematic violations of human rights”. To fail to do so sends a message that the world’s top human rights body can be swayed by power politics, and is not serious about ensuring justice and accountability or ending the suffering of people in both Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
This article was first published in Newsweek.
Tawanda Mutasah is the Senior Director of International Law and Policy at Amnesty International.