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Invitation to a Beheading: Saudi Arabia’s Enablers


When Saudi Arabia was elected to the UN Human Rights Council in 2013 – with Dave Cameron’s help – we all regarded it as farce. Now, only hours after the Sunni Muslim Saudis chopped off the heads of 47 of their enemies – including a prominent Shia Muslim cleric – the Saudi appointment is grotesque. Of course, the world of human rights is appalled – and Shia Iran is talking of the “divine punishment” that will destroy the House of Saud. Crowds attack the Saudi embassy in Tehran. So what’s new?

“Divine” and secular punishment have been variously sought against Middle East leaders for centuries, most recently against Bashar al-Assad of Syria who, according to the French Foreign Minister, did not “deserve to live on this planet”.

The Saudis were long ago telling the Americans to “cut off the head of the serpent” – Iran’s head, needless to say – but they have obviously settled for the head of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, at least for now. But all the shouting and screaming doesn’t stop the oil flowing from Saudi wells – nor the kingdom’s friends from using the usual weasel language to excuse their outrages.

The executions are an “internal matter”, a “retrograde step” perhaps, and certainly the executions were “events that don’t help” peace in the Middle East. All of this classic verbiage, I should add, from Crispin Blunt, the Tory chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, came within hours of the mass head-chopping.

He also told Channel 4 that “we’ve got to judge when it’s right to engage” with the Saudis on such “matters”. You bet we have. “Never” would be my guess. After all, you can’t fly your flags at half mast when the last King of Saudi Arabia dies a natural death, and then get all antsy when the Saudis start slashing at the necks of their enemies.

There is, however, one little step that those who protest and roar and rage over the latest Saudi butchery might contemplate, if they can calm down enough to concentrate on the small print. For the resolution which established the United Nations Human Rights Council – upon which the Saudis are proud to sit – says that “members elected to the Council shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights”.

Even more to the point, the UN General Assembly, which elects those members who occupy the Council’s 47 seats, is empowered – with a two-thirds majority – to suspend the rights and privileges of any Council member which has persistently committed gross and systematic violations of human rights while a member of the Council.

But here’s the snag. Quite apart from the fawning Western leaders who would object to such a slur being uttered against Saudi Arabia – Dave, obviously, along with his counterparts in France, Germany, Italy, indeed the whole EU and the US (of course) and any recipient of Saudi largesse – we’d have to witness the absurd vote of Iran against Saudi Arabia. Iran, you see, has hanged an estimated 570 prisoners – 10 of them women – in the first half of 2015 alone. That’s about two lynchings a day – of “criminals” and “enemies of God” – and far outdoes the poor old Saudis who were, scarcely two years ago, advertising for more official executioners. In March, six Sunnis were put to death in Iran in a mass hanging.

In other words, he who casts the first stone – this would be literal if the Taliban were still in power in Afghanistan (though they may yet return) – had better look at his own track record. And quite apart from the US (28 executions in 2015, not counting drone attacks, “targeted killings” and other extrajudicial murders), we have to remember that on the UN Council we can find such vigorous defenders of human rights as China and Russia.

So the Saudis have little to worry about from the UN. Or from the US or the EU or Dave. Until the revolution.

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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