The United Nations Defends Saudi Arabian Head of Human Rights Panel, with Good Reason September 24, 2015

The United Nations Defends Saudi Arabian Head of Human Rights Panel, with Good Reason

Earlier this week, media outlets began reporting that Faisal bin Hassan Trad, a representative from Saudi Arabia (of all places), had been appointed to a major leadership position for the United Nations’ Human Rights Council.

I repeat: Someone from a country known for its human rights abuses would now head up a panel for the Human Rights Council.

Faisal bin Hassan Trad (left) and Michael Møller, the Acting Director-General of the United Nations Office (Pierre Albouy/Flickr)

The panel Trad would head up has a lot of power when it comes to choosing human rights appointees anywhere in the world where the UN has a mandate.

The outrage was quick and harsh. You can understand why. After all, we’re talking about a nation that has killed more than 100 people this year alone, most by beheading. Ali Mohammed al-Nimr is also set to be beheaded and crucified very soon.

The wife of Raif Badawi, who is currently awaiting his 1,000-lashes punishment for insulting Islam, even said that the appointment was “a green light to start flogging [him] again.”

But in the past couple of days, we’ve received more information on what the United Nations was thinking. First of all, the appointment was made back in June; it only caught the media’s eye this week. More importantly, the panel that Trad now heads up has five people and he has as much power as any of them. It’s not like he could single-handedly damage human rights around the world.

My friend Michael De Dora, who works for the Center for Inquiry and is their representative to the UN, explained to me that this group doesn’t have as much power as people think. They mostly look at applicants for independent experts in various areas, rank their top three with justification, and give their recommendations to the President of the HRC, who accepts or rejects the recommendation. The HRC then votes on the nominee.

If that’s confusing, De Dora looked at what this panel has done since being headed up by a Saudi and saw no reason to be worried:

I have looked through the nominated independent experts and see no evidence that they are weaker on human rights due to Saudi involvement in the Consultative Group. In fact, one of the most recent recommendations by the group, for the position of Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights, is the US-based academic Karima Bennoune. Take a look at her bio, or her most recent book, or her articles on Open Democracy, or this piece in the Guardian; she’s a fantastic nominee for the position.

Tonight, in a rare move, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement clarifying all the misinformation that’s out there:

Over the past few days, a highly distorted narrative has been spreading on the role of Saudi Arabia in the Consultative Group.

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 chairmanship does not entail any powers over and above the four other members, who this year come from Lithuania, Greece, Chile and Algeria. 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.

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.

In short, there’s nothing to be concerned about. Even if Trad represented everything we despise about Saudi Arabia, he’s has no ability to push those views on anyone else. What he does is transparent and his opinions could easily be overridden by other members of his panel.

It’s still disturbing that Saudi Arabia and the United Nations appear together in any context, but at least in this situation, there’s nothing to worry about.

(Image via UN Geneva on Flickr)

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