The recent removal of Saudi Arabia from the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is a farce, not a victory for human rights. Instead, it is part of the never-ending charade by worse actors to distract from their own misdeeds.
Before I elaborate, let me be clear: Saudi Arabia does not belong on any legitimate human-rights panel. It silences legitimate dissent, does not allow for religious liberty and does not have anything resembling the rule of law. I could go on.
However, these are not the reasons it was removed. It was punished for moving closer to America and its allies and because, due to the horrific killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it was a convenient scapegoat for more malignant forces.
A few facts: The U.N. General Assembly votes by secret ballot for members of the UNHRC, which are elected by region. Saudi was in a five-way race for four seats to represent the Asia-Pacific region. It finished fifth with 90 votes, losing to China, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Nepal.
China is the most powerful human-rights abuser in the world. It is in the process of committing genocide against Uyghur Muslims. Reports suggest China is harvesting living people for their organs and specifically targeting dissidents for such violence. China’s abuses of its large Christian minority have ramped up in recent years. Dissidents have a bad habit of dying in state custody. The list is almost endless.
Pakistan has a horrible human-rights record, and it’s getting worse. Virtually all religious minorities, including Hindus, Christians and minority Muslim sects, face persecution and go unprotected by the government. Pakistan’s Hindu population—20 percent at its creation in 1947—has dwindled to less than 2 percent today. Moreover, there is Pakistan’s nonstop government support of terrorist groups such as Hizbul Mujahideen in Kashmir and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
It’s hardly worth discussing the less geopolitically important Uzbekistan or Nepal, but their human-rights records are also poor. Still worse are horrific human-rights abusers elected from other regions, like Russia and Cuba.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has made small but significant reforms since 2016, when it was last elected to the UNHRC. In 2018, women were granted the right to drive and also the right to open businesses. Bans on movie theaters were lifted. Restaurants are no longer gender-segregated. Saudi’s Muslim World League, once an organ of extremist Wahhabi Islam, now issues fatwas against Holocaust denial. I could go on.
None of this even remotely qualifies Saudi Arabia as a human-rights champion. But it is an improvement. And it begs the question: Why was Saudi Arabia acceptable before, but not now?
Simply put: Bad actors, particularly China, whose misdeeds have been magnified due to the coronavirus pandemic, and others in the anti-Western axis needed a whipping boy. Partly because of its increasing closeness to the West and partly because of its own mistakes, Saudi Arabia provided a convenient scapegoat.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia—a longtime, if problematic, American ally—has become a strategic partner. Its modest human-rights reforms are partly a result of this. This is driven by the threat of Iran, its chief rival, whose aggressions are manifold. Saudi Arabia is the lynchpin of the anti-Iran coalition. U.S. President Donald Trump’s first foreign visit was to Saudi Arabia, and it began his administration’s moves against Iran that have pushed its economy to the brink.
Moreover, the Saudi Arabia-Israel relationship is the worst-kept secret in the Middle East. Also, the recent normalization agreements between Saudi’s neighbors—the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain—and Israel could not have happened without Saudi approval.
But in the eyes of America’s rivals, and to a certain extent even the European Union, which is wedded to the now-defunct Iran nuclear deal, these make Saudi Arabia a desirable whipping boy.
Another reason Saudi is a desirable scapegoat is the killing of dissident-in-exile, Jamal Khashoggi. It what may be the most counterproductive political murder in recent history, some in Saudi government, possibly with the knowledge of the de facto head of state, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, literally dismembered Khashoggi, who was bylining columns at The Washington Post. This was made the subject of a huge media conflagration that tarnished Saudi’s image.
Khashoggi was not a sympathetic figure. Openly supportive of the theocratic Muslim Brotherhood and an opponent of peace with Israel, he was little but a mouthpiece for Qatar, which has largely replaced Saudi’s former status as the world’s leading financier of radical Islam. In the West, Khashoggi’s critique of the Saudi monarchy, while ostensibly focused on human rights, was mostly aimed at protecting his Islamist allies.
Nonetheless, his barbaric killing rightly shocked the world. Khashoggi’s friends in Washington and elsewhere made his murder a cause célèbre around the world.
Thus, China (whose repression of journalists and others is arguably worse), Saudi rivals like Turkey (the world’s biggest jailer of journalists) and U.N. bureaucrats, always willing to bully pro-American autocracies, were happy to grandstand by removing Saudi Arabia.
As former U.N. delegate Daniel Pipes pointed out, UNHRC has no real power, so it needs media coverage to forward its agenda. In removing Saudi, the commission was seeking media coverage—not to improve human rights, but to obscure worse acts. One need not be an apologist for Saudi Arabia’s many misdeeds to realize this.
Indeed, for all its sins, Saudi Arabia’s ouster is simply a useful distraction for other abusers and a tool to discourage more pro-American foreign policies.
Cliff Smith is director of the Middle East Forum’s Washington Project. You can follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.
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