Pressure caused Saudi representative to backtracked, yet tensions remain
Translated from Tribune de Genève, June 8, 2015
By Alain Jourdan
Facing with an outcry over its candidacy, Saudi Arabia finally renounced its bid for the presidency of the Human Rights Council. Riyadh asked its representative to the UN in Geneva, Faisal bin Hassan Trad, to shelve his ambitions. The diplomat, who took up his post in 2014, had been campaigning for several weeks in the Asia group to become its candidate and secure his tenure as head of the Human Rights Council when the presidency rotates in 2016.
Despite this decision, the “puzzle” remains unsolved, commented a European diplomat. Finding someone to succeed the German Joachim Ruecker in the Asia group promises to be complicated to say the least. The position of president has great symbolic value. The effect would be disastrous for the Council if a representative were appointed from a country that is clearly at odds with the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
One can easily imagine that if Indonesia or Pakistan were a candidate in the Asia group, the outcome would be just as messy as Saudi Arabia’s failed attempt. As for Japan, which could be a credible candidate, it would have no chance of getting past the roadblock that China would immediately erect should Japan exhibit the slightest ambition. The diplomats are in such a predicament that some missions have not ruled out propelling Mongolia to the head of the Human Rights Council in 2016, the same year it is scheduled to join.
The Iran Effect
Usually, diplomats excel in the art of finding compromises that allow everyone to save face. This time, things are more complicated. The return of Iran to the forefront of the international scene upsets the balance, even amid multilateral strongholds such as the Human Rights Council. “Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic hyper-activism is not unrelated to the nuclear talks and the forthcoming adoption of an historic agreement,” confirmed one diplomat.
Beyond the developments of the latest episode, the Saudi monarchy’s incursions into the area of human rights continue to fray nerves. Jeddah recently hosted the 5th conference of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) as part of both the Istanbul Process and Resolution 16/18 on the “fight against incitement to hatred, discrimination and violence based on one’s religion or beliefs” – an event that was nearly passed over in silence.
In a statement, the NGO UN Watch expressed anger and surprise over the decision of the UN, but also such countries as the United States, to send representatives to Saudi Arabia. The NGO faults them for having taken part in the meeting even though the human rights activist and blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for religious dissent.
Such an egregious discrepancy between the theme of the conference and current practices in Saudi Arabia is an insult to human rights advocates, especially since one of Raif Badawi’s alleged crimes was daring to claim that “Muslims, Christians, Jews and atheists are all equal”. This assertion could cost him dearly, because some would like to reopen his case so that he can be found guilty of apostasy, a determination that can lead to the death penalty.
The Specter of Blasphemy
Given this context, the Executive Director of UN Watch, Hillel Neuer, does not understand why the current president of the Human Rights Council, Joachim Ruecker, agreed to participate in the conference that was recently held in Jeddah – a lack of distance that some diplomats also deplore while at the same time conceding that the Human Rights Council is a prisoner to Resolution 16/18, which allowed it to put a lid on the very controversial draft resolution on blasphemy introduced earlier by Saudi Arabia, by broadening the debate to include religious intolerance. The theme is more consensual, but the positions are much more hypocritical.