The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why one of the world’s worst human rights offenders is leading a U.N. human rights panel

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, right, meets with Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir in New York on Sept. 26. (Craig Ruttle/AP)

Saudi Arabia is having a bad year on the human rights front. In the past few months, the U.S. ally has drawn widespread condemnation for sentencing a blogger to 1,000 lashes with a cane for writing about free speech (only 50 lashes have been delivered so far), and for its plans to execute a young political dissident by beheading him and publicly crucifying his body afterward.

But there is one bright spot for the Middle Eastern kingdom -- the same week that the international community was in an uproar over the plight of the young dissident, a watchdog group drew attention to the fact that Saudi Arabia had been selected to oversee an influential U.N. panel on human rights. That panel "selects top officials who shape international human rights standards and report on violations worldwide," said UN Watch, the watchdog group based in Geneva.

Saudi Arabia had earlier this year sought the leadership slot of the entire Human Rights Council of the U.N., a move that drew criticism given the country's human rights record. The kingdom routinely comes in at the bottom of Freedom House's rankings of world freedom.

"Saudi Arabia has arguably the worst record in the world when it comes to religious freedom and women’s rights," UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer said in a statement. "This UN appointment is like making a pyromaniac into the town fire chief, and underscores the credibility deficit of a human rights council that already counts Russia, Cuba, China, Qatar and Venezuela among its elected members."

Some observers have questioned why Saudi Arabia has a seat at the 47-member Human Rights Council at all. But many countries on the council have enacted laws that are at odds with the U.N.'s official stances. To take one obvious example, the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights advocates against capital punishment, saying that "the death penalty has no place in the 21st century."

But a number of countries on the council, including the U.S., actively sentence people to death and execute them each year. In 2014, council member countries executed at least 139 prisoners, contrary to the commissioner's stated position. That doesn't include executions by China, which also sits on the council and where experts agree that annual execution numbers run into the thousands. Exact numbers on capital punishment in China are hard to come by, as official sources are generally seen to be unreliable.

Asked about the appropriateness of Saudi Arabia heading a key human rights panel last week, a U.S. State Department official said "we would welcome it."

Correction: This piece has been corrected to clarify that the Saudi blogger was sentenced to 1,000 lashes, but only 50 have been delivered so far.