By Omar Khoury
Omar Khoury is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania.
In signing the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, 188 countries of the United Nations vowed to universally uphold the dignity of the human person and collectively condemn those who dare have the audacity to question it. Once these nations ratified the Declaration in 1976, the bill took on the full force of international law.  The Declaration was adopted to define "human rights,” and thus the Declaration is a fundamental constitutive document of the United Nations. In addition, many international actors believe that the Declaration forms part of customary international law and is a powerful tool in applying diplomatic and moral pressure to governments that violate any of its articles, as it "constitutes an obligation for the members of the international community” to all people. 
Because of its profound legal effect, the Declaration continues to be widely cited by governments, academics, advocates, and constitutional courts, and by individuals who appeal to its principles for the protection of their endowed human rights. Yet, despite almost unanimous support for the Declaration, the reality of our world is eerily different. 
Imagine living in a country where detainees, including children, commonly face systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights, including being subject to arbitrary arrest and torture, lashes, and ill-treatment in detention.  Imagine pledging allegiance to an authoritarian regime which punitively restricts the freedom of half their citizens, including the freedom to obtain a passport, marry, travel, or access higher education without approval of a family member.  Imagine working for a company where you are legally abused, exploited for little pay, and prohibited from leaving. Imagine calling a place “home” where a teenager is beheaded and his body crucified to a stake as punishment. 
Now, imagine this country being chosen as the head of the UN Human Rights Council .
Such a scenario is, unfortunately, no nightmare from which one can wake up, but rather cold, harsh reality. The Council this term will be chaired by Saudi Arabia, one of the U.S.’s most stringent allies and a state which abstained from the ratification vote on the Declaration, claiming that it violated Sharia law.  The teenager who was tortured, denied due process rights, beheaded, and then crucified in 2015? Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, a young man whose only “heinous” crime was facilitating online pro-democracy discussion. 
Yet, despite such actions, Saudi Arabia’s autocratic government continues to be supported by the world’s so-called beacons of freedom and allies of democracy.
Saudi Arabia’s profligate violations come through its systematic denial of modern legal rights to citizens, institutional denial of women’s rights, and justification of the exploitation of workers. Yet Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking of the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, praised his actions and his character, calling the King a “man of wisdom and vision.”  President Obama proclaimed his admiration of the King, who reign saw barbaric executions and rights violations, for his supposed “enduring contribution to the search for peace.” 
The United Kingdom, arguably one of the freest and most democratic states in the world, conducted secret vote-trading deals with Saudi Arabia to ensure both states were elected to the UN Human Rights Council for their respective terms.  And while the U.S. and UN maintain sanctions against countries who violate the Declaration, there are no sanctions against Saudi Arabia itself for its human rights violations. Instead, it is elevated to be the foremost purveyor of human rights across the world.  These actions completely delegitimize the mission to ensure an impartial investigative body which oversees human rights violations and pours salt on the wounds of human rights activists protesting Saudi Arabia’s government.
In exploring the actions taken by King Abdullah, who passed away in early 2015, and the Kingdom at large, one can hardly make the conclusion that either he or his country were paradigms of wisdom, vision, or peace inside or outside of the country’s borders. Contrary to these statements, Saudi Arabia's role in searching for peace has been controversial and complicated. King Abdullah bitterly opposed the U.S. and the U.K.’s support of pro-democracy protesters during the Arab Spring, and actually urged President Obama to use force to preserve Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship in Egypt.  Saudi Arabia has also pummeled the rise of Shiite Islam movements in the region out of fear that Iran, its main political and religious rival, would gain influence. Specifically, when Shiite protesters threatened the Sunni dictatorship in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia dispatched its military to violently suppress the revolution. 
But why is there not outrage on the international level? The explanation, of course, is oil. The Kingdom is the most important producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the bloc that controls around 40 percent of the world's oil.  Because many of the world’s greatest political powers are also the world’s greatest economic powers, allying with the one of the biggest producers of oil makes geopolitical sense. As such, the most powerful members of the UN put their own economies before human rights, completely ignoring the social contract established by the Declaration. Saudi Arabia receives a seat on the Council, while other members continue their positive business relationship with the Kingdom.
Thus, the morbid aspect of the reality of international relations is that most advancements are made only if it benefits both parties. Violence arises when justice cannot be attained using legal and peaceful means, a concept that has been subverted by countries like Saudi Arabia, and equally ignored by western democracies.
It is time to start tackling human rights in a more indiscriminate manner through a more stringent and legally based process. Though the cynical view that many people across the world have of the UN is well justified, it is time to start working once more for peace through its re-institutionalization.
Peace does not only mean an absence of violence, but a manifestation of justice.
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