Saudi Arabia and Russia blast Norway’s human rights record. Wait. What?

At a session of the United Nations' Universal Periodic Review — where a selection of member states have their performance on human rights assessed — Norway's record came under the microscope. The conspicuous critics at this Geneva meeting? Russia and Saudi Arabia, members of the United Nations' 47-nation Human Rights Council and well-known paragons of global norms and freedoms, of course.

Representatives from Saudi Arabia accused Norway of endangering the religious rights of Muslims in the country. According to the Independent:

The gulf state called for all criticism of religion and of prophet Mohammed to be made illegal  in Norway. It also expressed concern at “increasing cases of domestic violence, rape crimes and inequality in riches” and noted a continuation of hate crimes against Muslims in the country....

Russia meanwhile called for Norway to clamp down on expressions of religious intolerance and  and criticised the country’s child welfare system. They also recommended that Norway improve its correctional facilities for those applying for asylum status.

The Russian rebuke is perhaps less glaring than the criticisms of the Saudis, who don't seem to mind the irony of demanding censorship and a curtailing of freedom of expression at a session on human rights. Ahead of Norway's grilling, the country's foreign minister, Borge Brende expressed bemusement at what may follow to local media: "It is a paradox that countries which do not support fundamental human rights have influence on the council, but that is the United Nations," he said.

Saudi Arabia, of course, is notorious for its draconian laws that, among other harsh measures, ban women from driving, curb the religious expression of non-Muslim minorities and make homosexuality a crime punishable by death.

As a custodian of the birthplace of Islam, the kingdom's government has long championed the cause of Muslims elsewhere, so it's not surprising that it watches the gains of anti-immigrant, Islamophobic political groups in Scandinavia with concern. But for a country where domestic abuse of women and exploitation of foreign laborers is rife -- and where gang-rape victims can be sentenced to 200 lashes -- to harp on another state's far less offensive record is astonishing.

Norway has long projected itself as a committed, moral force on the global stage: It's home to the annual Nobel Peace Prize and has been a key host and interlocutor for peace talks between warring factions, including in Colombia, the Middle East and the Philippines.

No country is beyond criticism, of course, and it's good that the United Nations has such procedures of oversight. When the Saudis faced their own review in 2009, there were calls to strengthen the rights of migrant workers and women subject to the country's sharia laws. One wonders how much progress the kingdom has truly made since then on that front.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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