Saudi Arabia, The Country That Executed 47 People In One Day, Sits On The U.N. Human Rights Council

Last Saturday Saudi Arabia executed 47 prisoners, either by shooting or beheading. Amongst the prisoners was Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a central figure in the protests of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority who called for the deposal of the Sunni government during the Arab Spring uprisings. Massive protests followed the executions, laying bear deep sectarian divisions.

The statement of Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry, that all 47 were convicted terrorists, is highly doubtful: Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, convicted of inciting sectarian strife, sedition and other charges, has been described as an oppressed martyr who only used speech to pursue his political and religious objectives. Amnesty International called the charges against him vague, and argued that they were part of an effort by the Sunni government to oppress Shiite opposition. Besides Nimr al-Nimr at least three other Shiite political detainees were executed.

Shiite leaders of countries including Lebanon, Iraq and Iran have responded vehemently to the mass-execution — the largest carried out by Saudi Arabia in 35 years-, and particularly, the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.

Just hours after Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran and Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned Saudi Arabia that “divine intervention” were to follow the executions, the Kingdom cut diplomatic ties with Iran. The Iranian Supreme Leader has since made comparisons between the actions of Saudi Arabia and those of Islamic State. 
Human Rights Watch described the mass execution as “the most serious crime imaginable”, Amnesty International saw it as a demonstration of utter disregard for human rights and life, a joint statement of the The European Centre for Democracy & Human Rights (ECDHR), Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) condemned the executions in the “strongest and most absolute terms”.

In 2015 Saudi-Arabia was criticised for multiple other human rights violations: A total of 158 executions were carried out, a blogger was sentenced to 1000 lashes with a cane for writing about free speech, and plans to execute Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr’s 17 year old nephew - who also participated in the Saudi-Arabian protests during the Arab spring - were made. The country consistently ranks as one of the countries with the poorest human rights record in Freedom House’s ranking of world freedom. Torture is applied routinely, women suffer great inequalities, certain crimes are flogged publicly.

And yet, this country sits on the U.N. Security council and chairs a key U.N. Human Rights Council panel.

Saudi Arabia was elected as one of the members for the Asian region in 2013. Multiple human rights groups voiced their concern, but stood against supporters of the Saudi inclusion, such as the U.K.: According to leaked documents the U.K. even initiated a vote-deal to secure seats for both countries. In September 2015, Saudi Arabia was elected as chair of a key UN HRC panel that selects top officials — special rapporteurs — who examine human rights violations and make recommendations to the Human Rights Council: They can shape international human rights standards by reporting on violations worldwide.

Even though this election triggered cries of protest all around the world, a U.S. State department spokesperson stated the chairmanship of this panel by Saudi Arabia would be welcomed, since the U.S. And Saudi Arabia are close allies.

Saudi Arabia immediately used their newfound — not merely “procedural”, as described by U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power — position, to change an international, independent inquiry into human rights violations during the Yemen war, to a far less efficient national one, making it practically impossible to find truth regarding the death toll partially caused by the Saudi-led coalition.

How can the mandate given to the U.N. in article 55 of the Charter of the U.N. - the promotion of universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms - be fulfilled, when a member of it’s security council — which already had an atrocious Human Rights record — has just executed 47 prisoners?

The UN rights commissioner Zeid Raad Hussein called Saturday’s mass execution “a very disturbing development indeed, particularly as some of those sentenced to death were accused of non-violent crimes(..)” The Saudi authorities were strongly recommended to work towards alternative anti-terror solutions with the U.N. and to impose a moratorium on all executions.

In the light of the Saudi Kingdom’s longstanding tradition of disrespect towards fundamental human rights and freedoms and Saturday’s display of utter disregard for the values the U.N. aims to stimulate, it is hard to believe that such a recommendation will make a true difference. In stead it is time to recognise that the Saudi Kingdom has no place on the U.N. Security Council.

N.B. So far both David Cameron and Barack Obama have been painfully quiet: Neither has publicly condemned the mass-execution of January 2nd.