It's hard to be shocked by anything that happens in the Middle East, but this act of chutzpah comes close: Saudi Arabia is lobbying to head the United Nations Human Rights Council when the current German president's term expires at the end of this year, according to Le Tribune de Genève.
Human rights activists have been stunned by the news. "It is unthinkable!" exclaimed a spokeswoman for Amnesty International.
Other recent events put a special pall on the news. As the London Independent observed, "Reports of the bid come just days after Saudi Arabia posted a job advertisement for eight new executioners." In early May, Saudi Arabia reportedly beheaded five foreign criminals and then hung their bodies from helicopters -- an act that would have garnered headlines if committed by ISIS.
The U.S. State Department's most recent human rights report offers page after page of Saudi violations covering an almost encyclopedic range of abuses, including "citizens' lack of the right and legal means to change their government; pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women, children, and noncitizen workers."
It also cites reports of "torture and other abuses; overcrowding in prisons and detention centers; holding political prisoners and detainees; denial of due process; arbitrary arrest and detention; and arbitrary interference with privacy, home, and correspondence," as well as "violence against women, trafficking in persons, and discrimination based on gender, religion, sect, race, and ethnicity."
Last year, according to Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia continued to jail peaceful dissidents and human rights activists and engage in "systematic discrimination" against women and religious minorities. It sentenced two prominent activists to 15 years in prison, travel bans and huge fines for crimes including "contact with foreign news organizations to exaggerate the news," and "circulating his phone number to [foreign] news agencies to allow them to call him."
Saudi authorities also sentenced the blogger Raif Badawi to a decade in prison and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam on his website and in television interviews. Despite a huge international protest, Badawi suffered the first 50 lashes of his punishment this January, and is now threatened with beheading, his family said.
For every case of public flogging, countless other prisoner abuses take place behind closed walls. Amnesty International reports that "Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees and sentenced prisoners" appear to be "common, widespread and generally committed with impunity. Reported methods included beating, suspension by the limbs and sleep deprivation."
The victims of Saudi "justice" range beyond ordinary criminals and political dissidents. A year ago, the Saudi government reported that prosecutors had filed charges of sorcery in 191 cases, punishable by death, in the seven months through May 2014. Many of the accused were female foreign domestic workers who reported employer abuses.
Women remain subjugated under Saudi law -- required to cover themselves in public from head to toe, and forbidden to marry, attend college, obtain a passport or visit a male doctor without permission of a male guardian.
There are no signs that the Saudi monarchy, newly led by the fiercely Islamist King Salman, plans to change its ways. "In January, he [Salman] replaced the head of the religious police who was seen as trying to curb excesses of the force," reported the New York Times. "He has also dismissed the deputy education minister, the only woman in such a high-level cabinet post, and appointed as a royal adviser a cleric whom King Abdullah had dismissed for criticizing the country's first coed university."
King Salman also appointed his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince and heir to the throne. As former Interior Minister and counterterrorism chief, Nayef took charge of arresting and torturing peaceful dissidents and branding critical speech as "terrorism," without judicial review.
U.S. officials have said almost nothing publicly critical of Saudi human rights practices, outside of published State Department reports, just as they have pandered to Riyadh over its military interventions in Yemen and Bahrain.
In 2013, Washington did not oppose Saudi Arabia's election to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, according to UN Watch. If the Obama administration and the European Union now stand by and let Saudi Arabia preside over that commission next year, they will truly destroy its credibility and undermine the cause of human rights everywhere.