Did the UK do a secret deal with Saudi Arabia on human rights?
Britain has been accused of backing Saudi Arabia's election to the United Nations top human right's body as part of a vote trading deal – despite the Gulf State's appalling abuse record.
Secret cables reportedly show that Britain approached Saudi Arabia about the trade ahead of the 2013 election for membership of the Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
The Saudi regime has shameful record on human rights and has executed 135 people since January on charges ranging from murder to witchcraft.
The classified Saudi cables, dated January and February 2013, were translated by The Australian newspaper. They were among 61,000 files from the Saudi Foreign Ministry released by WikiLeaks in June.
One, dated January 14, 2013 reportedly stated: 'The Delegation is honoured to send to the Ministry the enclosed memorandum which the Delegation has received from the Permanent Mission of the United Kingdom asking it for the support and backing of the candidacy of their country to the membership of the Human Rights council (HRC) for the period 2014-2016, in the elections that will take place in 2013 in the city of New York.
'The Ministry might find it an opportunity to exchange support with the United Kingdom, where the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would support the candidacy of the United Kingdom to the membership of the Council for the period 2014-2015 in exchange for the support of the United Kingdom to the candidacy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.'
Another cable revealed that Saudi Arabia transferred $US100,000 for 'expenditures resulting from the campaign to nominate the Kingdom for membership of the Human Rights Council for the period 2014-2016'.
Britain and Saudi Arabia were elected to the UNHRC in 2013. In the same year, China, Russia, Vietnam and Algeria - which have all denied access to UN human rights monitors keen to investigate alleged abuses – were also elected.
The Foreign Office told The Australian it was 'standard practice' not to reveal voting intentions or record.
A spokesman for the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said: 'The British government's position on human rights is a matter of public record. We regularly make our views well known, including through the UN Universal Periodic Review process and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's annual Human Rights and Democracy Report, and raise human rights concerns with the Saudi Arabian authorities.'
But Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch - a Geneva-based non-governmental human rights organisation set up to scrutinise the world body - told the Australian: 'Based on the evidence, we remain deeply concerned that the UK may have contracted to elect the world's most misogynistic regime as a world judge of human rights.'
'The claim of the Foreign Office that concealing a country's UN vote is a "standard practice" with "all members" is manifestly false. UN Watch finds it troubling that the UK refuses to deny the London-Riyadh vote-trade as contemplated in the Saudi cable, nor even to reassure the public that their voting complies with the core reform of the UNHRC's founding resolution, which provides that candidates be chosen based on their human rights record, and that members be those who uphold the highest standards of human rights.'
Earlier this month it emerged that Saudi Arabia had been appointed head of a key UN human rights panel of the HRC – prompting widespread criticism.
Faisal bin Hassan Trad, Saudi Arabia's envoy to the UN, was chosen to chair a UN Human Rights Council team making him responsible for electing experts and shaping international human rights standards around the world.
He was appointed in June - shortly after the kingdom posted an advert for eight new executioners.
The decision was described as 'scandalous' by Ensaf Haidar, the wife of imprisoned pro-democracy blogger Raif Badawi.
Mr Badawi was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in jail for blogging about free speech. His wife said giving the job to Faisal bin Hassan Trad showed that 'oil trumps human rights'.
Saudi Arabia is considered one of the world's most barbaric regimes, and has been repeatedly criticised for its crackdowns on political dissent, discrimination against women and minority groups and its abuses of migrant workers.
According to Human Rights Watch, only China and Iran have executed more people this year than Saudi Arabia.
A day before his appointment was made public, Mr Trad denounced a UN report urging countries to scrap the death penalty.
He said: 'Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state, fully sovereign, and is proud that Islamic law is the basis of the country's constitution,' he said.
Human Rights Watch says Saudi Arabia authorities 'continue to discriminate against Saudi women and girls and do not adequately protect the rights of migrant workers.'
It says the country's anti-terrorism regulations 'can be used to criminalize almost any form of peaceful criticism of the authorities, and dozens of human rights defenders and others are serving long prison sentences for criticizing authorities or demanding political and human rights reforms.'
Ironically, the UNHRC was established in 2006 to replace the UN Human Rights Commission following criticism over its membership and vote trading.
At the time, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan welcomed the 'historic resolution... that gives the United Nations a much-needed chance to make a new beginning in its work for human rights around the world'.
The discredited UN Human Rights Commission had included countries accused of gross human rights violations such as Sudan, China, Cuba and Zimbabwe.