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Politics Human rights groups call for removal of Saudi Arabia from UN body

The United Nations headquarters building in New York on Aug. 15, 2014.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Two of the world's biggest human rights watchdogs are calling for Saudi Arabia to be suspended from the United Nations Human Rights Council, arguing Riyadh's abysmal treatment of civilians at home and abroad should disqualify it from sitting on a body dedicated to promoting freedom and dignity for people around the globe.

Saudi Arabia's human rights record, including its conduct in a bloody war in Yemen, has figured prominently in Canada's national debate over an unprecedented Canadian contract to sell $15-billion worth of weaponized armoured vehicles to the Saudi National Guard.

On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International released a public letter addressed to the UN General Assembly that said the eroding state of human rights in Saudi Arabia, as well as Riyadh's military foray in neighbouring Yemen, should be sufficient to bar the Saudis from membership.

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Even worse, the watchdogs charge, is that Saudi Arabia is using its position on the UN Human Rights Council to block efforts to make it account for Riyadh's record in Yemen, where a United Nations monitoring panel has accused the Saudis and allies of gross violations of humanitarian law. A report earlier this year alleged the Saudi-dominated Arab coalition fighting in Yemen has conducted bombardment that intentionally targeted civilians, indiscriminately shelled non-combatants and used rocket artillery against civilian areas.

"In October 2015, Saudi Arabia cynically used its membership [on] the council to derail a resolution to establish an international UN investigation into allegations of war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law committed by the military coalition it leads in Yemen, by garnering support for their rival resolution backing a national Yemeni inquiry," Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International wrote.

"Nine months on, that inquiry has failed to carry out an effective, impartial investigation of violations in Yemen or hold anyone accountable."

The Human Rights Council is made up of more than 40 UN member countries that are elected to serve three-year terms. The council is supposed to promote and defend human rights globally. Saudi Arabia's term began in 2013 and it ends in 2016, but it is campaigning for a second term.

The Canadian government declined on Wednesday to support Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch's proposal when contacted. It was non-committal when asked whether Ottawa agreed with the non-governmental organizations' call.

"We regularly meet with non-governmental organizations both in Canada and abroad and will continue to do so. Engagement with them, other countries, and in multilateral fora, is the best way to raise concerns and issues and to help raise the bar in addressing them too," Global Affairs spokeswoman Rachna Mishra said in an e-mailed statement.

Human rights groups say the state of human rights inside Saudi Arabia has eroded in recent years.

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"Saudi Arabia's harsh crackdown on all forms of dissent at home has continued unabated throughout its current membership of the council, including through the use of grossly unfair trials at a special counter-terror court and long prison terms for peaceful dissidents and human rights defenders," the groups said. "More than 350 people have been executed since Saudi Arabia was elected to the Council, with 2015 seeing more recorded executions than any other year since 1995.

"We call upon the United Nations General Assembly to immediately suspend the membership rights of Saudi Arabia in the UN Human Rights Council."

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