Human rights? Let's learn from Saudi Arabia. The UN does.

Headed to Manhattan? Be careful. It's that time of year again. The 70th annual Grand Debate of the United Nations General Assembly has descended upon Gotham -- and Bruce Wayne is no where to be found.

Once again, we're knee deep in speeches by world leaders who muddy their talks with agenda-driven half-truths and outright lies, and, on occasion, lofty goals that never seem to manifest. Not to mention the finger-pointing, buck-passing, and pleas from the world's have-not nations for help from the wealthy -- another reason for general disappointment.

Plus, it's the cause of massive midtown Manhattan traffic jams. So watch yourself. Better yet, join Wayne, where ever he is.

Monday's opening day featured dueling speeches by President Barack Obama and Russia's Vladimir Putin. Guess what. Each had a better idea for turning the world toward the peaceable kingdom.

But this is GetReligion, so let's skip the headline-grabbing political theater and focus on another UN farce -- Saudi Arabia's growing role within the UN's Human Rights Council.

Why is this important to journalists, and religion writers in particular?

Because the skewed judgements and pronouncements emanating from the Human Rights Council are too often reported -- particularly in barebones wire-service stories -- as carrying legitimate moral authority with little or no information that adds important counter-balancing context.

But what moral authority can there be in a 47-member body that includes, in addition to Saudi Arabia, the likes of China, Russia, Ethiopia, Kazakstan, Pakistan, Venezuela, Qatar, Cuba and the Maldives -- all serial and serious human rights' violators? The United States, Japan, France, Germany and the United KIngdom are also members, but have no greater individual say than does any other nation in the group. Majority rules.

Human rights violators covet a seat on the HRC to stymie investigations or statements that might call them to task. If ever there was a clearer case of foxes guarding hen houses, well, please tell me about it.

The latest wrinkle in this, is Saudi Arabia's being chosen in September to head a key HRC committee for a one-year term. With little media notice, Saudi Arabia gained a seat on the HRC and was picked to head a five-nation committee, known as the Consultative Group, tasked with choosing which applicants from around the world will fill nearly 80 positions that, in turn, deal with alleged country-specific and thematic human rights violations. 

That means that Saudi Arabia, whose full HRC term can last up to six years, is in a key position to decide who investigates who, who gets a hostile investigator and who gets a cup cake. Pretty cozy  arrangement, no? (The group's other members are Greece, Chile, Lithuania and Algeria.)

Let's be clear about what we're  talking about when we talk about Saudi Arabia having a thumb on the human rights justice scale.

This is the only nation in the world that does not allow women to drive cars. It's absolute monarchy allows no freedom of speech or association, not political or religious; runs a stacked judicial system, makes a spectacle of public executions, and turns a blind eye toward the treatment by its citizens of foreign workers.

Read what Human Rights Watch has to say about the fabulously wealthy desert kingdom here. Then read what Amnesty International has to say here.

And finally, here's what the UN's own HRC website says about which nations should serve on the HRC: In selecting its members, the "General Assembly takes into account the candidate States’ contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights, as well as their voluntary pledges and commitments in this regard."

In case you haven't figured it out yet, let me state for the record that I'm no fan of the HRC. Not only is its structure deceitful, but since its formation in 2006 it has issued 62 condemnations against Israel as opposed to just 59 for the the rest of the world combined. I consider it, judging by the totality of its work, irredeemably anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic. The condemnation requests concerning Israel are generally instigated by Muslim-majority nations.

How often has China been condemned? Never. Russia? Never. Egypt? Never, not even at the height of the Arab Spring uprising. The nations most often condemned for human rights violations after Israel are Syria (17) and North Korea (8). (Unlike the UN Security Council, the HRC has no permanent members and, hence, a condemnation -- say Russia in the case of Syria -- cannot be stopped with just one veto.)

And just this week, the Saudis were able to wiggle out of an HRC investigation into their current bombing campaign in Yemen, which has resulted in a large number of civilian deaths. 

To be fair, there is not unanimity among those who pay close attention to the workings of the UN on how much additional damage to the cause of human rights Saudi Arabia's elevation to the CG's leading role may cause.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a Geneva-based watchdog group that's highly supportive of Israel, called it “scandalous that the UN chose a country that has beheaded more people this year than ISIS to [lead] a key human rights panel. Petro-dollars and politics have trumped human rights.” He urged the U.S. to work to remove Riyadh from the position.

But over at The Daily Beast, Salil Tripathi, a London-based author whose written about Hindu nationalist attacks on free speech in India, sees less reason to worry about Saudi Arabia's role in the issuing of what he considers toothless condemnations that are unenforceable.

His greater concern is the entire HRC apparatus. He wrote:

By all means that process needs serious reform. Indeed, countries with a poor human rights record should not be part of such a council. And, indeed, there should be clear criteria to determine whose record is worse than others’, and countries that are politically strong should not get a free pass, and countries that are convenient to dislike [should not be singled out]. Those are far bigger issues, and far more significant concerns, than arguing whether Saudi Arabia should be the temporary chair of an advisory panel, whose recommendations would simply be that -- recommendations.

Of course. But like so much else about the UN, don't expect change any time soon.

Until then, the HRC, as presently constructed, will continue to issue condemnations that are considered news -- to be sure more in some parts of the world than others, in line with who is being condemned.

Journalists should cast a skeptical eye on the off-kilter HRC. It takes more than a name to actual work toward the betterment of what the majority of us in the democratic West consider to be human rights.

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