Saudi Arabia Poised to Weaken U.N. Independent Experts’ Mandates

Saudi Arabia was recently appointed to chair a five-member panel within the U.N. Human Rights Council, making it a gatekeeper of U.N. human rights experts. The U.S. State Department applauded the move. But Saudi Arabia’s horrific record on human rights and its efforts to derail U.N. human rights investigations, most recently in Yemen, make this a terrible appointment.

The Saudi-chaired panel vets candidates for U.N. independent human rights experts (also referred to as special rapporteurs) with mandates to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective. Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called them the “crown jewels” of the U.N. system.

These experts investigate reports of torture, defend freedom of expression, and fight for women’s rights around the world. Last year 28 of them urged the World Bank to consider human rights in its environmental and social policies. They enable the U.N. system to respond nimbly to unfolding crises and promote emerging human rights standards.

Saudi Arabia’s new position is part of a deeper trend inside the Human Rights Council of certain states trying to weaken the authority and independence of the special rapporteurs. They’ve pushed to eliminate the country-specific positions, such as the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia. Governments fear that their country will be the next to receive intense scrutiny.

In 2007, a group of governments successfully pushed for the Human Rights Council to adopt a controversial Code of Conduct regulating the independent experts. Proponents portray the Code of Conduct as an important means of ensuring accountability. However, many—including civil society groups—see it as an effort to intimidate experts and undermine their work. Philip Alston, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, asserted that the Code of Conduct has been implemented “in an uneven, haphazard, and somewhat dysfunctional way.”

Governments seeking to stifle the U.N. experts can invoke the Code of Conduct to critique their work. They can also try to block extension of their mandates when they come up for renewal. But Saudi Arabia’s new position opens up another avenue to strategically weaken the independent experts—screening off potentially well-qualified candidates.

Saudi Arabia’s panel would not necessarily have to overtly refuse to consider experienced candidates to weaken the most controversial positions. The special rapporteurs have very few resources and often rely on their home universities or other institutions to provide them with the research and administrative support critical to the work. Saudi Arabia could opt to advance candidates who lack access to these resources and supportive networks.

Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner of the State Department, when asked about Saudi Arabia’s new position, said: “We would welcome it. We’re close allies.” He continued, “We have a strong dialogue, obviously a partnership with Saudi Arabia that spans, obviously, many issues. We talk about human rights concerns with them. As to this leadership role, we hope that it’s an occasion for them to look at human rights around the world but also within their own borders.”

This reflexive endorsement of Saudi Arabia’s leadership role in the Human Rights Council is especially disturbing given the kingdom’s crackdown on civil society, its sectarian incitement, and its foreign policy that is antagonistic to human rights. Human Rights First has warned the U.S. government that the human rights violations condoned and facilitated by Saudi Arabia, both in the kingdom and throughout the region, pose serious threats to America’s security interests and run counter to U.S. ideals.

As Saudi Arabia assumes its new position as chair of this Human Rights Council panel, the U.S. government should make sustained diplomatic efforts to shore up support for the U.N. independent experts’ mandates. The Saudi government is poised to tarnish the “crown jewels” of the U.N. system.

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Published on October 6, 2015

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