Saudi Arabia's double standards

Saudi Arabia – once described as "the world's largest women's prison" – has finally won a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.

There's still a slim chance that the kingdom, having been duly elected, will now turn the seat down, as it did last month when elected to the UN Security Council.

In rejecting its Security Council seat, Saudi Arabia issued a self-righteous statement arguing that "the manner, the mechanisms of action and double standards existing in the Security Council prevent it from performing its duties and assuming its responsibilities towards preserving international peace and security".

It could easily – and very truthfully – issue a similar statement today, arguing that "the manner, the mechanisms of action and double standards existing in the Human Rights Council prevent it from performing its duties and assuming its responsibilities towards protecting human rights".

But don't bet on that happening, because when it comes to the Human Rights Council, Saudi Arabia is one of the countries responsible for the double standards. It will cling firmly to its seat in order to shield itself – and other leading rights abusers – from criticism.

We got a foretaste of that last month when the kingdom's appalling human rights record came up for scrutiny under the UNHRC's periodic review system. Reading the Saudi media reports you would scarcely be aware that council members had presented the kingdom with a list of 225 recommendations for curbing abuses. The whole thing was portrayed as a Saudi triumph.

The official Saudi news agency reported:

"Following the session held today, the President of the Saudi Human Rights Commission Dr Bandar bin Mohammed al-Aiban expressed pleasure at the positive reactions towards the Kingdom, by the states which discussed the report, pointing that 90 member states out of a total of 102 states have hailed the Saudi exerted efforts in the field of spreading, protecting and enhancing the human rights."

A similar report in the Jeddah-based Arab News said:

"Expressing his happiness of such a worldwide positive feedback, he [Aiban] said Saudi Arabia would continue to enforce and protect human rights at all levels while 'maintaining its identity, culture, national interests, welfare of its citizens'."

Most of this "positive feedback" came from countries whose own human rights record gives them little credibility – but that's the way the UNHRC operates. Among some of its members there's a kind of Mutual Protection Society where countries with a poor record on rights band together to congratulate each other, thus blunting the impact of their critics. 

In the field of human rights, double standards are Saudi Arabia's stock-in-trade. Despite operating what is probably the world’s most comprehensive system of institutionalised discrimination against women, the kingdom is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). 

It has also signed up to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (while continuing to behead people in for a wide range of crimes) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (while continuing to allow child marriages).

The kingdom rationalises this seemingly irreconcilable position, after a fashion, by saying it does not consider itself bound by any part of the conventions that conflicts with “the norms of Islamic law”. 

In other words, when it chooses not to abide by them it uses religion as the excuse. Sitting on the Human Rights Council will give it an opportunity to use that excuse even more.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 12 November 2013