On Nov. 10, Saudi Arabia introduced a draft resolution that called on the United Nations General Assembly’s committee on human rights to condemn Iran and Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. The U.S.-backed resolution, which is co-sponsored by Qatar, France and other Arab and Western countries, signals Riyadh’s growing influence at the world body.
In mid-September, the appointment of Saudi Arabia's ambassador as chair of the United Nations Human Rights Council's consultative group, an honorary position with limited powers, made global headlines. But Saudi Arabia's real diplomatic triumph came a few weeks later. On Sept. 30, Riyadh blocked a draft resolution put forward by the Netherlands that called for an international inquiry into the Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen. The victory placed an otherwise discreet Saudi Foreign Service at the center of multilateral politics.
Saudi Arabia killed the Dutch resolution by rallying the support of the Arab group. It then introduced an alternative text (through the Arab bloc with Saudi diplomats as pen holders) that was adopted on Oct. 2. The Arab group resolution simply called on the U.N. to assist a national inquiry by Yemen’s Saudi-backed government. It dropped language on “all parties” to the conflict, which resulted in the resolution ignoring violations committed by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies.
The United States, France and the United Kingdom helped the Saudis bury the international probe by providing late and weak support for the Dutch proposal and by insisting on the need to “strike a deal” with Riyadh. Saudi Arabia now occupies an elevated geopolitical posture that could have far-reaching, devastating consequences for the Middle East. Growing Saudi influence underscores the Council’s failure to fulfill its mandate of fighting human rights violations, combating impunity and preventing repetition.
The Saudis can now continue to challenge international human rights standards, including on freedom of expression, torture and execution of minors. For example, the Kingdom could now re-open the “defamation of religion” agenda, which aims to place restrictions on free expression based on religious grounds. (Riyadh and its regional allies had in the past attempted to get the concept of defamation of religion recognized in international law.)
There are many reasons for Western governments’ acquiescence toward Saudi Arabia: The Saudis are outraged by the recent nuclear deal with Iran; Riyadh is a key ally in the Syrian crisis and the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL); Saudi is an attractive market for Western businesses (last month France signed 10-billion-euros worth of deals with Saudi Arabia, which includes energy, health, agro-industry and arms trade).
Human rights are usually mentioned in a footnote in non-confrontational, behind the scenes discussions with the Kingdom’s leaders. Shielded from international scrutiny by powerful allies, Saudi Arabia continues to do whatever it deems fit in the Gulf, including what may qualify as war crimes.
The message sent by Saudi Arabia’s victory at the U.N. is clear: Victims of human rights violations are worth nothing. The country and its Gulf allies can even strike a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Yemen’s Saada province with impunity. The Saudis are likely to continue to manipulate U.N. bodies and use the country’s oversized leverage with Western powers to promote their own interests, ultimately weakening the international human rights system.
Far from an upstanding member of the international community, the Kingdom is an incubator of global terrorism, as is increasingly clear from its role as an ideological base for Wahhabi violence and its support for armed groups that use violence to advance political goals. At home, it uses methods reminiscent of ISIL to silence critics and human rights defenders. The cases of Raif Badawi (a Saudi blogger who is serving a 10-year and 1,000 lashes sentence for criticizing Saudi’s religious establishment) and 17-year-old Ali al-Nimr, who may soon be beheaded and crucified for taking part in the Arab Spring protests, exemplify this tactic.
The Kingdom's atrocities are countless but Western governments are unlikely to apply any meaningful diplomatic pressure. Since Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies launched an aerial campaign in March, 2,500 civilians have been killed in Yemen, mostly from the airstrikes. Several world heritage sites have also been badly damaged. Locals report new horrors weekly, including the bombing of two wedding ceremonies on Sept. 28 and Oct. 7.
The Saudi-led dirty war in Yemen should not be allowed to go on any longer. Democratic governments must explain to their citizens why they allowed Saudi Arabia to pass a resolution that turns a blind eye to possible war crimes in Yemen. Western leaders must also commit to supporting U.N. inquiries whenever there are reasonable grounds to believe that international crimes are being committed, whoever may be responsible for them. This is the least they can do for the victims of relentless airstrikes by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies.