Christmas · Human rights

What about “human rights”?


Late last year (2015), the non-profit organization UN Watch made known that the United Nation’s Human Rights Council (“UNHRC”) had elected  Saudi Arabia to the head the council, or more precisely to head the 5-member group which has the power to select applicants who will investigate and report on human rights abuse throughout the world. These may include the human rights record of a particular country or a specific theme, and those themes can include violence against women, the rights of migrants, religious freedom, or sexual orientation. The election was made in June but had been kept hushed up. Why is this important? Well, let’s see.


Let’s review the role of the UNHRC which, according to its website, is “an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them.”  UNHRC: “[W]orks with [ ]  special rapporteurs, special representatives, independent experts and working groups that monitor, examine, advise and publicly report on thematic issues or human rights situations in specific countries.

According to the UNHRC High Commissioner: “The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) represents the world’s commitment to universal ideals of human dignity [and has] a unique mandate from the international community to promote and protect all human rights. The High Commissioner heads OHCHR and spearheads the United Nations’ human rights efforts [ ] offer[ing] leadership, work[ing] objectively, educat[ing] and tak[ing] action to empower individuals and assist States in upholding human rights. OHCHR’s thematic priorities are strengthening international human rights mechanisms; enhancing equality and countering discrimination; combating impunity and strengthening accountability and the rule of law; integrating human rights in development and in the economic sphere; widening the democratic space; and early warning and protection of human rights in situations of conflict, violence and insecurity.

It seems pretty clear, but perhaps we should review the definition of “human rights.” According to the UNHRC:

All human rights are indivisible, whether they are civil and political rights, such as the right to life, equality before the law and freedom of expression; economic, social and cultural rights, such as the rights to work, social security and education, or collective rights, such as the rights to development and self-determination, are indivisible, interrelated and interdependent. The improvement of one right facilitates advancement of the others. Likewise, the deprivation of one right adversely affects the others.

This follows the tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states in Article 5 that:

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Seems clear. So let’s see Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights which is… hmm… Perhaps not so “humanistic.”

saudi arabia flag

Saudi Arabia is run by one large, and unelected, family (the house of Saud) and the country has the death penalty on its statute. This is not so extraordinary for after all so does the USA. But Saudi Arabia seems to execute prisoners with particular relish, doing so in public. Saudi Arabia’s legal system is ruled by Shari’a  or Islamic law.[1] Shari’a in its basic concept requires an eye for an eye.

In 2015, Saudi Arabia beheaded more people than the terrorist group known as ISIS, carrying out a total of 157 public beheadings.[2] According to Amnesty International, 63 of those were drug offenses. In August 2014, the non-profit group Human Rights Watch reported nineteen executions in seventeen days – including one for “sorcery.”  At least three of those executed were under 18, and some were under-aged when they allegedly committed their “crimes.” For example, Saudi Arabia was preparing to behead 21-year old Ali Mohammed al-Nimr. He was arrested when he was 17 for participating in anti-government protests and possessing firearms (the latter charge has been consistently denied). Just to make their point clear, following the beheading, al-Nimr’s headless body will allegedly be mounted: “on to a crucifix for public viewing.” Nothing like a good old crucifixion to make your point. The latest news was that the beheading would not take place, but no official word one way or the other is known. Ironically (?), al-Nimr’s trial was called “unfair” by a United Nations’ expert. The very same type of expert who will now be reporting to Saudi Arabia’s UNHRC’s representative.


Business” has been so good that, just prior to the appointment, the Saudi government advertised for eight extra executioners to: “[C]arry out an increasing number of death sentences, which are usually beheadings, carried out in public.” Apparently: “[N]o special qualifications are needed.” Though the main “job” function would be executing, the job description includes: “performing amputations[.]”

According to human watch groups, torture is routine in Saudi prisons and offenders of certain crimes are flogged in public. For example, Raif Badawi has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes for blogging about free speech in Saudi Arabia. Saudi’s vast oil wealth allows it to buy weapons, mostly from the USA’s defense contractors (Saudi Arabia arm purchases from the USA), as well as finance fundamentalist movements abroad causing havoc in distant societies, transforming native forms of Islam into Wahhabism which bears little relation to the universal declaration of human rights. Let’s remember, for example, that nineteen of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis.

In December 2009, in a US Embassy cable, then US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton wrote that:

While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) takes seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority. [D]onors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide[. Engagement is needed to [ ] encourage the Saudi government to take more steps to stem the flow of funds from Saudi Arabia-based sources to terrorists and extremists worldwide.

In a final ironic twist (?), in a report dated 2002, the UNHCR’s Committee Against Torture expressed concern about Saudi Arabia as follows:

(a)  While noting the State party’s indication that Shari’a expressly prohibits torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment, the State party’s domestic law itself does not explicitly reflect this prohibition, nor does it impose criminal sanctions.  The Committee considers that express incorporation in the State party’s domestic law of the crime of torture, as defined in article 1 of the Convention, is necessary to signal the cardinal importance of this prohibition;

(b)  The sentencing to, and imposition of, corporal punishments by judicial and administrative authorities, including, in particular, flogging and amputation of limbs, that are not in conformity with the Convention.

(c)   The different regimes applicable, in law and in practice, to nationals and foreigners in relation to their legal rights to be free from, and their ability to complain of, conduct in violation of the Convention.  The Committee recalls that the Convention and its protections are applicable to all acts in violation of the Convention that occur within its jurisdiction, from which it follows that all persons are entitled, in equal measure and without discrimination, to the rights contained therein;

(d)  Allegations of prolonged pre-trial detention of some individuals beyond the statutory limits prescribed by law, which heightens the risk of, and may on occasion of itself constitute, conduct in violation of the Convention.  In this connection, the Committee expresses its concern at instances of denial, at times for extended periods, of consular access to detained foreigners.  Moreover, the Committee is concerned at the limited degree of judicial supervision of pre‑trial detention;

(e)  Reports of incommunicado detention of detained persons, at times for extended periods, particularly during pre‑trial investigations.  The lack of access to external legal advice and medical assistance, as well as to family members, increases the likelihood that conduct violating the Convention will not be appropriately pursued and punished;

(f)   The requirement of article 100 of the statute of the Directorate of Public Security for an investigating officer to endeavour “by judicious means” to ascertain the reasons for an individual’s silence.  While the article in question formally proscribes resort to torture or coercion, such a requirement unjustifiably heightens the risk of conduct violating the Convention;

(g)  Cases of deportation of foreigners that have been drawn to the Committee’s attention that seem to have been in breach of the obligations imposed by article 3 of the Convention;

(h)  The jurisdiction of the Mutawe’en officials to pursue, inter alia, violations of the moral code and to proscribe conduct they identify as not conducive to public morality and safety.  The Committee is concerned that the powers of these officials are vaguely defined by law, and that their activities may violate the Convention;

(i)    The apparent failure of the State party to provide effective mechanisms to investigate complaints of breaches of the Convention;

(j)   While noting the State party’s institution of mechanisms for the purpose of providing compensation for conduct in violation of the Convention, as a practical matter, compensation appears to be rarely obtained, and full enjoyment of the rights guaranteed by the Convention is consequently limited.

ban ki-moon

Despite UN’s Secretary-General 2007 appeal that: “All victims of human rights abuses should be able to look to the Human Rights Council as a forum and a springboard for action”,[3] not much seems to have changed, or as my 2-legged says: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

Of course, according to Amnesty International, China is believed to execute more people than the rest of the world combined. For the record, the number of executions in China is a “state secret.” But, hey, as long as the products they sell are cheap!

To conclude, I would posit that it is not so strange that Saudi Arabia was elected to this post. The Council works on a rotation basis with each country taking the lead alternatively. What is perhaps surprising is that not only Saudi Arabia but other countries with horrific human rights records were permitted to be in the UNHRC. Here’s the list: UNHRC member list

We 4-leggeds are baffled!©

Now, let’s focus on the positive because, after all, where we focus our energy is what we create. On December 22, 2015, a crew of dedicated animal lovers (some 2-leggeds you gotta love!) helped save a helpless kitten that was trapped in a storm drain for over 33 hours. The kitten was named “Piper” and is reportedly doing very well.

Here’s link: Kitten saved from storm drain

Wishing you all a prosperous and happy New Year,


[1]       For the record, so do Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Brunei, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Yemen and Mauritania.


[3]       12 March 2007, Opening of the 4th Human Rights Council Session


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