By Brian Whitaker
"Saudi Arabia, which spent more than a year campaigning for a seat on the UN Security Council only to turn it down when elected last week, is seeking election to yet another UN body – the Human Rights Council. The kingdom is one of several notorious rights abusers hoping to win a place in next month's vote.
On Friday, the Saudi foreign ministry adopted a high moral tone to explain its rejection of a Security Council seat. It accused the Security Council of double standards and ineffectiveness – including a failure to prevent "the expansion of the injustices" and "the violation of rights".
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's own record in this area raises "serious questions about its fitness for membership in the Human Rights Council", according to Human Rights Watch. The New York-based organisation is calling on the kingdom to take "concrete, visible steps before the council elections to show it's willing to improve its abysmal rights record".
By coincidence, Saudi Arabia's rights record is due for scrutiny on Monday under the UNHRC's periodic review system. Ahead of tomorrow's session, the kingdom has issued a progress report which claims there is freedom of religion, freedom of expression and equality of the sexes.
A lack-of-progress report also summarises the criticisms from 13 "stakeholder" organisations, and critical questions for the Saudi representatives have been submitted by Belgium, Britain, the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden and the United States (here and here).
A submission to the council from Human Rights Watch says Saudi Arabia "continues to commit widespread violations" of basic human rights:
"The most pervasive violations affect persons in the criminal justice system, women and girls, migrant workers, and religious minorities. Persecution of political and religious dissidents is widespread."
HRW also notes that Saudi Arabia has an "exceptionally poor record of cooperation with the UN". Since the last periodic review in 2009, seven UN rapporteurs have requested access to the kingdom but none has been allowed to visit.
In contrast to that, Joshua Yaphe, an analyst at the US State Department, has written an article for Al-Monitor praising Saudi Arabia for "steady and substantial progress" in expanding women's rights.
"Saudi Arabia is starting from a very low point of gender equality, and no doubt the media and human rights activists have high expectations for rapid improvements. However, civil and personal rights are seldom won through stunning and swift action that results in revolutionary change ..."[Saudi] government attempts to promote a more tolerant and open society run counter to the situation in many of the Arab countries that recently underwent popular uprisings. It is not a revolution of civil rights in Saudi Arabia; it is a slow and quiet process of change sustained by a broad interaction of societal forces, encouraged by the free exchange of ideas on the internet, and supported by a wide range of activities and institutions receiving backing from prominent members of society. The highly-charged issue of drivers' licences could turn out to be the last privilege that women receive, long after they have gained basic employment and family rights."
Yaphe concludes by saying:
"Surprisingly, among all of King Abdallah's attempts to establish a legacy, the advancement of women's rights may turn out to be the most successful initiative well into the future."
If so, the rest of the king's legacy must surely be dire."