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UN rejects Saudi bid for human rights council but Russia and China are elected

Rights groups express alarm after Moscow and Beijing secure seats on UN's top human rights body
The UN General Assembly held elections on Tuesday for 15 vacant seats in the UN Human Rights Council.
The UN General Assembly held elections on Tuesday for 15 vacant seats in the UN Human Rights Council (AFP/File photo)

Saudi Arabia failed in its bid to become a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, but Russia and China were elected in a vote that has triggered an outcry among human rights defenders.

The UN General Assembly held elections on Tuesday for 15 vacant seats in the 47-nation council, with new member-states serving for three years from January 2021.

While Russia ran unopposed - due to backroom deals - China and Pakistan were elected to the body's Asia group.

China managed to secure 139 votes, down from the last time it stood for a seat in 2016 when it gained 180. Pakistan obtained 169, while Saudi Arabia came in fifth with just 90 votes, beaten by Nepal with 150.

Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said "rights abusers should not be rewarded with seats on the Human Rights Council".

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"It's not good for human rights or for the rights council when the worst rights violators get elected," he added.

Saudi Arabia has been heavily criticised by rights groups over its crackdown on activists, its leading role in the war in Yemen, and the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Saudi Arabia rebuked at UN over Khashoggi murder and rights abuses
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Last month, dozens of countries condemned Riyadh before the rights council over serious violations and demanded accountability for Khashoggi's death.

Khashoggi, a columnist for both the Washington Post and Middle East Eye, was brutally murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. His remains have never been found.

Meanwhile, the bids by both Beijing and Moscow had been met with sharp criticism in the days leading up to the vote, largely due to Russia's role in the Syrian conflict and China's policies in Xinjiang where the UN says around one million Uighurs and ethnic Kazakhs are being held in camps.

"UN member states should not vote for China and Saudi Arabia - two of the world's most abusive governments - for seats on the UN Human Rights Council," tweeted Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

"Russia's numerous war crimes in Syria's armed conflict makes it another highly problematic candidate."

The US also slammed the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday, objecting to the election of what it called "countries with abhorrent human rights records" into the international body, including Russia, China and Cuba.

Washington had withdrawn from the council in 2018 over allegations of "anti-Israel bias".

"These elections only further validate the US decision to withdraw and use other venues and opportunities to protect and promote universal human rights," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

While Washington says it prioritises human rights, rights groups have slammed the Trump administration over its close ties to authoritarian governments in the Middle East, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia

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