Saudi Defeat, Pakistan’s Win In UNHRC Elections Tells A Lot About OIC, Muslim World

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SRINAGAR: In the surprising twist to the global diplomacy, Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) lost its race to become a member of the United Nation’s premier body, the Human Rights Council (UNHRC). It was Pakistan that scored record votes to become its member.

Imran Khan, Pakistan Prime Minister, driving visiting Saudi crown prince MBS from the airport in February 2019.

The other surprise was that of the newly elected members to the world’s most influential human rights watchdog, it was China, Russia and Cuba who became the members. All three countries do not meet even the basic minimum standards of democracy as per the UN watch. Now they will oversee the state of human rights on earth. Unlike China and Pakistan, however, Cuba and Russia were elected unopposed.

The secret ballot involved a total of 193 votes – all the members of the UN. The results shocked all – Pakistan got 169 votes, Uzbekistan 164, Nepal 150, China 139 and Saudi Arabia only 90 votes. Seemingly, not all the OIC members have voted the Saudi stake. Saudi Arabia’s worst human rights record spilt over its status in the world body and prevented its re-election. In 2016, the Saudis had won a seat with 152 votes.

To run the OHRC, elections are held for the 47-seat Human Rights Council. Seats are assigned to the regions. The contest was required for the Asia Pacific only because all other regions had nominees without a challenge. There were 15 seats to be filled through the Tuesday election.

Resolution 60/251 that governs the 47-member council wants the nations elected to the council must uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights. Members sit for three years for a maximum of two terms and are not eligible for immediate re-election.

Photo of the Preparatory Council of Foreign Ministers Meeting for the OIC Makkah Summit.

Membership in the UNHRC is distributed between five regional groups: Africa, Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, Western Europe and Eastern Europe. African and Asia-Pacific states have 13 seats on the council each, Latin America has eight, Western Europe seven, and Eastern Europe receives six seats.

Ivory Coast, Malawi, Gabon and Senegal got four African seats.

Two East European seats were taken by Russia and Ukraine. The UK and France won the two Western European seats.

Mexico, Cuba and Bolivia won the Latin American and Caribbean group seats.

Some human rights groups had opposed the election of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, asserting their human rights records are questionable. “Electing these dictatorships as UN judges on human rights is like making a gang of arsonists into the fire brigade,” Hillel Neuer, Executive Director of UN Watch was quoted saying. Off all the elected members – unopposed and elected, it is interesting to mention here, the UN Watch had only termed the UK and France two fit countries to be the members. Interestingly, 50 UN experts had sought decisive measures against China on Hong Kong and Xinjiang in June. Three months later, China emerged the referee of the council. The only satisfaction to the human rights champions is that China got the lowest votes.

Countries with a compromised track record on human rights do not auger well for the human rights body. In 2006, it killed an earlier commission because some of its members had a bad track record. With this election, it is face to face with the same situation.

On the flip side, some experts say that countries with the worst records getting elected will expose them fully.

Visuals from an event of a conference held on the sidelines of the UNHRC meeting in Geneva on March 2, 2020.

“There is a silver lining to repressive countries being elected to the council – their position as the supposed guardian of human rights makes it far more difficult for them to hide their own human rights abuses,” Kevin Jon Heller, professor of international law at the University of Copenhagen was quoted by the al-Jazeera saying. “A member of the council can hardly refuse to participate in a Universal Periodic Review [UPR] of its record. This stands in marked contrast to the United States, which no longer participates in the council.”

Interestingly, the USA, the world’s most powerful democracy and champion of human rights has walked out of the Council in 2018.

The Human Rights Council is a vital UN body that identified the crisis on human rights issues. Its mechanisms including the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), special procedures and treaty bodies, as well as the technical assistance provided by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) play an essential role in providing early warning of the risk factors that can lead to crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and genocide.

What the election means to world diplomacy is different from what it means for the Muslim world. The rejection of Saudi Arabia over its hugely questionable human rights records and an impressive vote for Pakistan means a lot for the OIC. Interestingly, the two erstwhile allies are in serious tension with each other over Kashmir. Riyadh has frustrated Pakistan’s efforts to convene a meeting of the group over Kashmir. This has triggered a sort of showdown that included undoing of fuel supply on credit and recovery of a huge loan before it was supposed to be repaid.

The Muslim World that is grouped in OIC is witnessing polar tensions for over a year now. Pakistan, Iran, Malaysia, and Turkey are seeking Saudi assertion on key issues confronting the Muslim world. It even led to an abortive bid to the formation of a sort of a new grouping within OIC block but was frustrated by the Saudi kingdom.

Pakistan is excited over the election. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi termed the election an “important diplomatic achievement” that was “a manifestation of the international community’s confidence and trust in Pakistan’s commitment to a progressive national & global human rights agenda.” This is Pakistan’s fifth term to be a Council member.

However, the Council mechanisms are unlikely to permit Pakistan or any member to sit over the judgement of the human rights record of other countries. India is already a member until the end of 2021.

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