Saudi Arabia’s Inglorious Rise at the Human Rights Council: Should the European Union act?

In September 2015, the Saudi chairmanship of a key panel at the Human Rights Council made headlines around the world. While activist groups and some journalists ‘remain seized on the question’ – to use UN language – no reversal has been performed at the UN, and the European Union has remained largely silent on the matter with the exception of some Liberal MEPs. Has then, Normative Europe lost its way? This article proposes to explore the bewildering Saudi rise in order to better suggest why and how the EU can effectively and realistically react to it.

How was the Saudi rise possible?

Saudi Arabia made its way up in the UN body, surprisingly enough, mostly through standard procedures. Saudi Arabia was voted to enter the Council by a sweeping 140 votes at the General Assembly in 2013. Its regional peers in the Council then appointed it in early 2015 as their representative at the Consultative Group, which preselects the Council’s Human Rights experts. What cannot be accounted by the UN’s standard procedures is the de facto chairing of Faisal Trad, the Saudi representative, at the Consultative Group in June 2015, side-lining the Chilean representative who had been endowed with a year-long chairmanship only a few months ago. The Consultative Group chose to maintain this decision through the September 2015 Session of the Council. So far unreported beyond Geneva’s diplomatic circles, the contentious appointment of Faisal Trad finally came under the spotlight of UN Watch in September.

An inglorious rise

Considering that the Kingdom has increased its number of executions from 83 in 2014 to more than 127 this year, and continues to maintain an institutionalized discrimination against women under a male guardianship system, Saudi Arabia seems an ill-suited appointment to the chair of one of the most important panels in the global governance body whose mandate is to‘promote universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all’. In fact, in the spirit of creating a UN body focused on human rights promotion rather than sovereignty or balance of power, Saudi Arabia should not even be sitting at the select 47-members Council.

But let us not isolate Saudi Arabia as the sole maker of the Council’s normative failure. The General Assembly has elected many other regimes offending human rights to membership (Cuba, for example) – and even some of the most out-spoken liberal nations have failed to keep the pledge made to human security in 2006; indeed, the UK is suspected of having itself traded votes with Saudi Arabia at the GA in 2013 in order for both Kingdoms to get elected for membership at the Council. One could argue this is symptomatic of a systemic failure, which we can pin on the intrusiveness of power politics and petro-dollars – if the GA had not created the Council in 2006 with such a normative mandate in the first place. There is an urgent need to reverse Saudi Arabia’s inglorious rise, as much as there is in impeding the Council’s disgraceful downfall. The rest of this article aims at understanding what ‘normative power’ Europe, self-proclaimed beacon of Human Rights, should and can do in face of this situation.

Why should the EU care?

The European Union operates within a state dominated global governance system in which it is sill trying to carve its place. If anywhere, the EU has found some success in this endeavour in the domain of Human Rights, gaining soft power and effective recognition in international institutions. The EU should hence care not only because protecting Human Rights is one of its self-proclaimed norms – it should care to defend its normative power, and gained status in the global governance system. The EU cannot afford to muddle through the topic like Mark Toner, US State Department Deputy Spokesperson has (his response to journalists stayed along the lines of not having ‘any comment’ or ‘any reaction to ’the Saudi rise). This cannot be a sound EU policy, not at a time when the European External Action Service, spearheaded by Federica Mogherini, is rising under the auspices of the EU’s Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy. For the sake of internal institutional capacity building and of the EU’s external soft power, if not for the sake of simply being a leading defender of Human Rights, the EU should care, and act.

On a more practical note, the EU should care because Saudi Arabia is now in a position to direct the pre-selection of the experts that, once chosen by the President of the Council, will advise countries around the world on Human Rights, and report to the Council. Even if the experts coming out of the Saudi-directed pre-selection turn out to be rightful appointees, they will likely find reduced support and respect from the countries they advise, and the council to which they report. If the EU needs to find another practical reason to act, it is epitomized in the Saudi’s passing of a resolution on October the 1st classifying the war in Yemen, killing over 2,300, as a mere ‘technical cooperation’ to block a Dutch-launched attempt at sending UN investigators on the ground to look into possible war crimes committed, among others, by the Saudis. To this must be added the fact that the Saudi chairmanship already reflects badly, and rightly so, on the Council as a whole, diminishing the legitimacy of the only Human Rights (HR) focused global governance body.

How can the EU act?

There is a range of actions the EU can undertake to respond to the situation – some to revive the Council’s mandate, and some to counter-balance Saudi Arabia’s newfound influence in the short term. This article is interested in the EU’s collective external action and member states’ actions within the Council, but it goes without saying that those have to be underpinned by member states’ responsible behaviour in general– which can even be reduced to not actively promoting the rise of Saudi Arabia and other human rights offender countries in the international human rights institutions.

To revive the Council’s mandate, the EU delegation and the member states present at the Council should first call for more transparency within the procedures of the UN body. Ensuring that the Consultative Group cannot change chairmanship on a whim, and that its chairman’s election is accounted for and justified referring to some criteria in line with the body’s mandate would be a first step towards this. Secondly, the EU should engage the General Assembly in improving the Human Rights Council with the (original) intention of making it a genuine HR monitoring and defending body. Lobbying in and outside the GA, emphasizing the original spirit of the Council’s mandate and the uselessness of the Council as a mirror of balance of power, elsewhere represented, would be elements on which to base this medium-term task. In the longer-term, the EU should strive towards creating a UN environment in which amending the HRC membership requirements would be entertained. This rests on re-drawing the definition of the Council and the discourse around it – the body need not be as powerful as some activists want it to be, as long as it is not powered by Human Rights offenders. Even a Council functioning with little powers would be better than one headed by Saudi Arabia and comprising Venezuela and Qatar.

As to counter-balancing Saudi-Arabia in the short term, it implies making use of every EU asset at the Council. There is no shortage of these; Germany presently is holding the presidential seat, and is hence in a position to choose from the experts pre-selected by the Saudi-chaired Consultative Group. Moreover, within this 5 members Consultative Group are sitting 3 EU members (Italy, Lithuania and Poland). Together with the German representative, they can ensure that the experts comply with the general criteria of UNHRC resolution 5/1, : expertise, experience in the field of the mandate, independence, impartiality, personal integrity and objectivity. As to assets of the EU delegation, despite being a bit weaker in the executive sense (the EU, as a non state actor, cannot vote), they still can –and must- be mobilized – to counter balance Saudi Arabia – clear and outspoken positioning and active lobbying of Council members are in dire need, as the failure of the Dutch attempt this October has shown. So far, the EU policies have shied away from this, without much respect to the spirit of the Lisbon Treaty (empowering and giving lee-way to EU representatives), and the EU has often failed to be a reliable partner for other Council members. Finally, EU member states outside the Presidency and the Consultative Group should be brought in line with the common EU policy (the UK particularly, given its history of autonomous positioning). A strong European voice at the Council could help reverse in the medium term the tendency to allow determined and ill-suited representatives like Faisal Trad to occupy positions of importance and carry out initiatives contrary to the Council’s mandate. A strong European voice outside the Council is also acutely needed, not only to reverse the tragically absurd rise of Saudi Arabia in this HR forum, but also to help save the rights and lives of Saudi political prisoners, among others. Indeed, just as Saudi Arabia was endorsing its unreported chairmanship in the spring of 2015, the Kingdom issued a call for 8 more executioners to reinforce its judiciary system. In the face of such sombre farces, it is time for the EU to be innovative in what it claims to do best – be normative.

Aurelie Buytaert, International Relations and European Editor at Dialogue

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