U.K. and Saudis in 'Secret Deal' Over Election to Human Rights Council

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Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir at the UN, September 29, 2015.Credit: AP

The U.K. undertook a clandestine vote-trading deal with Saudi Arabia to guarantee both nations would have a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, the Guardian reported Tuesday.

Leaked classified diplomatic exchanges from early 2013 appear to show that the U.K. initiated the secret vote-swap negotiations and that the Saudis responded positively.

Membership of the UNHRC is determined by UN member states voting through secret ballot. According to its own website, the voting decision is supposed to take into account the candidate states’ “contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights.”

Both the U.K. and Saudi Arabia were elected to UNHRC in November 2013, despite frequent criticism of the latter’s human rights record by human rights organizations.

According to the website of Human Rights Watch – a human rights NGO – Saudi Arabia undertakes “arbitrary arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents, and forcibly disperse[s] peaceful demonstrations. Authorities continue to discriminate against Saudi women and girls and do not adequately protect the rights of migrant workers.”

This week, it emerged that Saudi Shia activist, Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, faces death by crucifixion after being convicted aged 17 of taking part in anti-government demonstrations. New British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn highlighted the case in his inaugural speech to his party’s conference yesterday.

According to the Guardian, the Saudi files were passed to Wikileaks in June, and were translated independently by UN Watch – a watchdog NGO which monitors the UNHRC – and newspaper the Australian.

One such document read: “The delegation is honored to send to the ministry the enclosed memorandum, which the delegation has received from the permanent mission of the United Kingdom asking it for the support and backing of the candidacy of their country to the membership of the human rights council (HRC) for the period 2014-2016, in the elections that will take place in 2013 in the city of New York.

“The ministry might find it an opportunity to exchange support with the United Kingdom, where 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 appears to show that the Kingdom transferred $100,000 for “expenditures resulting from the campaign to nominate the Kingdom for membership of the human rights council for the period 2014-2016”. However, it is not clear precisely what this money was used for, or who it was transferred to.

These revelations come in the wake of the news that the Saudi ambassador to the UN was selected on September 17 to chair an influential sub-group of senior officials on the UNHRC. This group drafts international human rights standards and writes reports on violations.

The alleged U.K.-Saudi cooperation has provoked condemnation from activists. Speaking to the Australian, Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, which often criticizes the UNHRC for its alleged anti-Israel bias, said: “Based on the evidence, we remain deeply concerned that the UK may have contracted to elect the world’s most misogynistic regime as a world judge of human rights.

“UN Watch finds it troubling that the U.K. refuses to deny the London-Riyadh vote-trade as contemplated in the Saudi cable, nor even to reassure the public that their voting complies with the core reform of the UNHRC’s founding resolution, which provides that candidates be chosen based on their human rights record, and that members be those who uphold the highest standards of human rights.”

Amnesty International U.K.’s head of policy and government affairs Allan Hogarth told the Guardian: “If the U.K. is doing back-room deals with Saudi officials over human rights, this would be a slap in the face for those beleaguered Saudi activists who already struggle with endemic persecution in the kingdom.

“People like the blogger Raif Badawi, who is still behind bars, have paid a heavy price for speaking about democracy and the need for tolerance in Saudi Arabia, and now the young activist Mohammed al-Nimr is also facing execution.

“The U.K. should be supporting the rights of Badawi and Al-Nimr, not pushing the non-existing human rights credentials of the Saudi Arabian authorities.”

The U.K. government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokeswoman said in a statement to the Guardian: “As is standard practice with all members, we never reveal our voting intentions or the way we vote.

“The British government strongly promotes human rights around the world and we raise our human rights concerns with the Saudi Arabian authorities.

“We regularly make our views known, including through the UN universal periodic review process and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s annual human rights and democracy report.”

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