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Saudi Arabia loses bid for UN rights council seat

October 14, 2020

Saudi Arabia lost its bid for a seat in the only contested race for spots on the UN Human Rights Council. Rights organizations opposed its candidacy, saying that it targets human rights defenders and dissidents.

Schweiz, Genf:  UN Human Rights Council
Image: Reuters/D. Balibouse

China, Russia and Cuba were elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council on Tuesday, despite opposition from activist groups over their human rights records. 

Russia and Cuba were running unopposed, but China and Saudi Arabia were in a five-way race in the only contested spot for seats on the Geneva-based body. Saudi Arabia failed in its bid to win a seat.

Read moreChina furious with global outcry over Xinjiang and Hong Kong 

Candidates are elected by secret ballot in geographical groups to ensure even representation. The Asia-Pacific group, which included Saudi Arabia, saw five candidates vying for four seats. As a result of the ballot, made by the 193-member body, Pakistan received 169 votes, Uzbekistan 164, Nepal 150, China 139 and Saudi Arabia just 90 votes.

The new members will begin their term on January 1, 2021.

Read moreFamily of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi 'forgives' killers

Human Rights Watch and other rights organizations strongly opposed Saudi Arabia's candidacy, saying that that the Middle East nation targets human rights defenders, dissidents and women's rights activists, and has demonstrated little accountability for past abuses, including the killing of journalist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi.

"Saudi Arabia's failure to win a seat on the Human Rights Council is a welcome reminder of the need for more competition in UN elections. Had there been additional candidates, China, Cuba and Russia might have lost too," said Human Rights Watch UN director Louis Charbonneau. "But the addition of these undeserving countries won't prevent the council from shining a light on abuses and speaking up for victims. In fact, by being on the council, these abusers will be directly in the spotlight."

Read moreCan Saudi Arabia afford human rights abuses?

Support for China falls

Saudi Arabia received 152 votes when it was last elected in 2016 to be a council member from 2017 to 2019. However, although China was elected with 139 votes, its support still fell by more than 20% compared to the last time it won a seat in 2016.

China has also been criticized for a number of human rights violations including its treatment of Uighur Muslims in the country's Xinjiang region, and its handling of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Read moreChina convicts Uighurs in sham trials at Xinjiang camps

The United States, under President Donald Trump, quit the Human Rights Council in 2018 over what is called chronic bias against Israel and a lack of reform.

"The UN General Assembly once again elected countries with abhorrent human rights records," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday. "These elections only further validate the US decision to withdraw and use other venues and opportunities to protect and promote universal human rights."

Read moreAmnesty International halts operations in India 

'Like a gang of arsonists'

Last week, a coalition of human rights groups from Europe, the US and Canada called on UN member states to oppose the election of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, saying that their human rights records make them "unqualified."

"Electing these dictatorships as UN judges on human rights is like making a gang of arsonists into the fire brigade,'' said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch.

The council aims to spotlight various abuses, and periodically reviews human rights in every UN member country. Created in 2006 to replace a commission written off because of some members' poor rights records, the new council soon came to face similar criticism, including that rights abusers sought seats to protect themselves and their allies.

Read moreSaudi minister: 'We don't have a history of murdering our citizens' 

lc/dr (AP, Reuters)