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This is a guest post by Alan Bao.

In a headline worthy of The Onion, the United Nations has handed Saudi Arabia, a nation that has beheaded more people this year than ISIS, a key leadership role on its Human Rights Council.

The appointment — made last June but only recently reported — sees Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UN, Faisal bin Hassan Trad (below, left), taking up the chairperson role to an expert panel on the HRC. The position gives Trad leadership of the five-diplomat panel, as well as sweeping power in selecting international human rights appointees in any nation where the UN has a mandate.

Yes, you read that right: Saudi Arabia, home of one of the worst human rights records in recent history, now has authority over the appointments of UN human rights workers worldwide.

To make matters worse, the report comes at the heels of a new round of human rights condemnations for the death-by-crucifixion sentence of teenager Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, only 17 at the time of his conviction. His uncle, incidentally, is an influential Shia preacher who is also awaiting death by crucifixion from the Saudi regime.

Understandably, critical voices have not stayed silent on the issue:

Critics, including the wife of imprisoned pro-democracy blogger Raif Badawi — sentenced to 1,000 lashes for blogging about free speech — labelled the appointment “scandalous”, saying it meant “oil trumps human rights”.

Mr Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, who is leading an international campaign to free her husband, said on Facebook that handing the role to Faisal bin Hassan Trad, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador at the UN in Geneva, was effectively “a green light to start flogging [him] again”.

In another coincidence, the original appointment of Trad, back in June, came on the heels of his home nation posting a public want ad for eight new executioners to deal with the upsurge in public beheadings.

So, to recap: a nation which practices public beheadings and crucifixions, punishes atheism as terrorism, and engages in the routine imprisonment and torture of dissidents like Raif Badawi, now has a leadership role in UN’s Human Rights Council.

Said UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer:

“It’s a sad comment on our world that oil continues to trump basic human rights principles.

“It’s bad enough that Saudi Arabia is a member of the council, but for the UN to go and name the regime as chair of a key panel only pours salt in the wounds for dissidents languishing in Saudi prisons.”

That, it certainly does.

***Update*** (9/22): This is Hemant. My friend Michael De Dora, who works for the Center for Inquiry and is their representative to the UN, points out that the document this story is based off of makes clear that the Trad-led panel will not have control over all the human rights positions, as has been widely reported. Rather, it’ll only control four of them. He told me:

Troubling thought this may be, it is not nearly as bad as Saudi Arabia having power over the more than 77 positions within the UN. It’s a significant difference.

***Update 2*** (9/22): More from Michael De Dora, who says this appointment isn’t as concerning as it may appear:

First, I should explain the Consultative Group and its role/position within the UN Human Rights Council. The Consultive Group evaluates applications for independent experts (who are mostly called Special Rapporteurs), ranking the top three candidates for each vacant mandate and providing justification for their nominations. The final decision over candidates rests with the President of the HRC, who has the power to accept or depart from the Group’s recommendation. The HRC then votes on the final candidate. You can read more about this process here:

The Consultative Group itself consists of five HRC member states, one each from the UN’s Regional Groups. These Regional Groups appoint members to the Consultative Group, which means the Asia-Pacific Group appointed the Saudi ambassador.

Now, as it turns out, Saudi Arabia has been one of the five members of the Consultative Group for the entire year, starting with the March 2015 session. In fact, the Saudi ambassador was chair of the Group for the June session, and the vice-chair for the March session. So, the fact that Saudi Arabia is on this panel would have been “breaking news” back in March, and the fact that they are chairing this panel would have been “breaking news” back in June.

Why, then, would UN Watch make a big deal of this now? I have no idea, but that’s a good question.

Perhaps more importantly, though, I have looked through the nominated independent experts and see no evidence that they are weaker on human rights due to Saudi involvement in the Consultative Group. In fact, one of the most recent recommendations by the group, for the position of Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights, is the US-based academic Karima Bennoune. Take a look at her bio, or her most recent book, or her articles on Open Democracy, or this piece in the Guardian; she’s a fantastic nominee for the position. And, in case you’re interested, you can find information on the March and June appointments here:

I have scanned these appointments and, again, see no reason to believe they are weaker because of Saudi involvement in the CG.

We’ll post more updates soon.

(Image via United Nations)

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.