Multilateral institutions

Hypocrisy at the Human Rights Council: backroom deals and the elevation of repressive Saudi Arabia

Amelia Cooper

The hypocrisy of the UN Human Rights Council has once again revealed itself, with the appointment of Saudi Arabia as the chair on a panel of independent experts.  

From high profile cases, such as the flogging and imprisonment of Raif Badawi, to systematic and entrenched discrimination against women, minorities and dissidents, the Kingdom demonstrates its disdain for human rights and civil liberties on a daily basis. 

Despite this, however, the country enjoys member status at the UN Human Rights Council. Not only does their position undermine a fundamental membership condition, to ‘uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights’, news recently broke that gaining their position included a clandestine vote-trading deal with Britain. 

Leaked diplomatic cables from the Saudi Arabian foreign ministry to the British state that “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would support the candidacy of the United Kingdom to the membership of the council for the period 2014-2015 in exchange for the support of the United Kingdom to the candidacy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”. Another cable revealed that Saudi Arabia transferred $100,000 to Britain for “expenditures resulting from the campaign to nominate the Kingdom for membership of the human rights council for the period 2014-2016”. How this money has been spent remains unclear; however, these cables suggest that Britain was essentially contracted to bolster the reputation of one of the most repressive and abusive states in the world. As such, Britain is complicit in the whitewashing of Saudi Arabia’s reputation and the subversion of the foundational principles of the Human Rights Council. 

As if this isn’t bad enough, Saudi Arabia has just been selected as head of a five-person panel of independent experts, charged with appointing experts to fill UN mandate positions. It is a highly influential role, with the power of shaping approaches to thematic and country-specific roles through the selection of specific candidates. Saudi Arabia’s appointment has been met with anger and indignation – justifiably so – by activists worldwide. Ensaf Haidar, wife of Raif Badawi and leader of an international campaign to free him, said that giving the position to Saudi Arabia was effectively “a green light to start flogging [him] again”.

Saudi Arabia’s position as a member of the Council makes an absolute mockery of the UN system, underscored by the dubious circumstances in which they were elected. Their recent elevation, however, pours salt in the wounds of those languishing under a repressive and brutal state. 

Time to Engage: The United Nations Human Rights Council


As students of Oxford approach the final weeks of term, some taut faced as they look towards their examinations, others lucky enough to have cast off their Sub Fusc to lounge on college lawns, human rights experts, delegates and civil society actors will convene in Geneva for the 29th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. 

The Council is the principal human rights body of the United Nations, composed of 47 member states responsible for the promotion and protection of international human rights, with other states sitting as observers. The Council’s work is enhanced by engagement with civil society organizations, experts, and academics. Convening three times a year for regular sessions, and at numerous points to respond to crises, the Council is a forum for the development of new resolutions, legislation and norms that form the foundations of the international human rights framework. It provides opportunities for thematic and country-specific discussion, with the intention of serving as, in UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s words, ‘a springboard for action’. Each session takes a slightly different focus: at each session, various reports are delivered by Special Rapporteurs, while interactive dialogue panels are held with experts. Furthermore, countries come under review at every session, both formally and informally. The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a process under which the human rights records of UN member states are subjected to scrutiny by their peers, who offer recommendations as to how the situation may be improved. Heralded as one of the best and most practical mechanisms of the Council, the UPR is central to state accountability. On an informal level, innumerable speeches are made which draw attention to specific instances of concern in many countries.

However, the work of the Council is imperfect, and the good intentions of key actors are often frustrated by a lack of will or commitment from States. As Rosa Freedman, an eminent academic specializing in the UN and international human rights law, notes, ‘when we talk of the UN, we are talking about the collective will of its members’. One need only look to the gulf between the rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and its concomitant binding agreements, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the ground-level reality of violations and abuse throughout the world to see that there is much to be done. This extends even to the increasingly politicized Council, where resolutions and declarations are often obfuscated for strategic purposes.

Redressing such a disparity is a daunting task; however, engagement with the Council is a key area in which we can all play a role. Taking note of the what goes on within the Council, from resolution debates to speeches made by civil society actors and States, is an essential step in ensuring the countries are held to account for the statements and commitments (both positive and negative) that they make. Currently, a dearth of coverage and interest has leant States a feeling of near impunity, allowing them to act in a reprehensible manner without fear of condemnation. What happens at the Council is of fundamental significance in shaping the international human rights framework: it affects us all.

The June session, opening this Monday, has a packed and varied agenda, encompassing issues from migrants’ rights to counter-terrorism, education to summary executions, and UPR outcomes for fourteen countries. Providing a coherent summary of the agenda is impossible; however, it can be accessed online here. Notable is the attendance of the new Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, David A. Kaye, who will deliver his first report, focusing on data privacy and encryption. Given the rumoured revival of the Snooper’s Charter and Cameron’s apparent disregard for the value of anonymity and privacy online, this is something that British citizens should be particularly engaged with.

Wherever your interests lie, it is clear that human rights are an increasingly prominent dimension of international relations and the happenings within the Human Rights Council require close attention. Perhaps the best sources of information are the civil society groups that attend: deeply engaged with the work that takes place, yet removed from the political games that are played by States, they have a unique ability to see – and show – the Council’s inner machinations. In that vein, I would encourage readers to engage with the Council via social media (civil society groups and most delegations have Twitter, Facebook etc.), to blog and talk about what is happening in Geneva, and to hold your governments to account to ensure that the Council retains its legitimacy and accountability, such that it can serve as the springboard that it was intended to be.


These twitter accounts may be of interest to readers:

All human rights, follow @fidh_un @fidh_en @ishrglobal @philippe_dam @nico_agostini @hrw @FreedomHouseDC

Freedom of expression, @article19un @indexcensorship @_SejalParmar 

Freedom of assembly and association and the protection of human rights defenders, @CIVICUSalliance @panafricannet

Freedom of religion or belief, @BHAhumanists @AmeliaCCooper @elizabethocasey @iheu @center4inquiry @mdedora @CSWEurope @RNS @brianpellot

Securing equal access to human rights for LGBTQIA, @ARCint1 @HRC

Disclaimer: This is by no means an exhaustive list, and is reflective of the author’s interests and bias.