By James Reinl
UNITED NATIONS, Nov 22 2019 (IPS) – Human rights campaigners have reacted angrily to the election of Saudi Arabia to the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO’s top board, highlighting the kingdom’s ongoing crackdowns on political freedoms and critics.
On Wednesday, Saudi culture minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan celebrated Riyadh winning a four-year term on UNESCO’s 58-nation executive board, telling state-backed media of the kingdom’s global “role in building peace” and of promoting culture and science.
Critics, however, decried “hypocrisy” at UNESCO, saying the Paris-based agency should instead distance itself from Riyadh, which has been implicated in the murder of Saudi journalist and government critic Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year.
Josh Ruebner, an author on two books on the Middle East and board member of the anti-autocrat campaign outfit Freedom Forward, also bashed UNESCO’s multimillion-dollar tie-up with Saudi youth charity the MiSK Foundation.
“UNESCO is supposed to be an advocate for press freedom,” Ruebner told IPS.
“But now the same Saudi dictatorship that assassinated Khashoggi is on UNESCO’s executive board. UNESCO was already taking money from the Saudi dictatorship via the fake Saudi charity MiSK. Now the hypocrisy has grown even worse.”
In recent months, the U.N. has faced mounting pressure over its cooperation deals with MiSK, the private charity of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler Mohamed bin Salman, an ambitious moderniser who is better known as MbS.
UNESCO, which advocates for free speech and protecting journalists, inked a $5 million cooperation deal with MiSK in 2016, and the two groups have worked together on several events, including a Nov. 18-19 youth forum at the U.N. agency’s headquarters in Paris.
As delegates met in Paris, Ken Roth, executive director of the New York-based pressure group Human Rights Watch, accused UNESCO of “letting the Saudi crown prince whitewash his reputation by co-sponsoring” the two-day parley.
Meanwhile, some 6,500 people have signed an online petition against the UNESCO-MiSk tie-up, which describes the Saudi charity as a “propaganda” vehicle aimed at obscuring Riyadh’s rights abuses at home and during its military operations in neighbouring Yemen.
In a tweet this week, Agnes Callamard, the U.N. official who investigated Khashoggi’s murder, criticized UNESCO, saying the “agency responsible for #pressfreedom” was too cozy with the Saudi officials responsible for the journalist’s death.
UNESCO spokesman Matthieu Guevel told IPS that the agency is “currently re-evaluating its partnership strategy”. Saudi Arabia was elected to the board by member governments, and was not a decision by agency officials, he added.
Saudi Arabia’s mission to the U.N. did not respond to requests for comment from IPS.
It was not the first scandal over U.N.-MiSK tie-ups.
Street protests over a separate deal between MiSK and the U.N.’s youth envoy, Jayathma Wickramanayake, led to a fancy panel session that was planned to take place in New York in September being canceled and relocated at short notice.
Critics highlight the murder of Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered by a Saudi hit squad in Turkey in October 2018, which the CIA has reportedly concluded was ordered by MbS, though the young prince denies his direct involvement.
This month, the FBI indicted three men with being part of a Saudi government spying operation, which saw Riyadh pay Twitter employees to access accounts of users who criticised the kingdom online and relay their private details back to headquarters.
Bader al-Asaker, who runs MbS’ private office and acts as secretary-general of his MiSK charity, reportedly received phone calls from Khashoggi’s hit squad in Istanbul and masterminded the Twitter spying ring for his royal boss.