Saudi Arabia must back concessions on human rights with action
Saudi Arabia’s decision to accept numerous recommendations to improve its human rights record during its United Nations Human Rights Council review session in Geneva today is unlikely to put an end to grave violations and discrimination or lead to justice and redress for victims, said Amnesty International.
“Until Saudi Arabia’s actions match its words the Kingdom’s dire reputation as a grave violator of human rights is unlikely to change,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.
“Saudi Arabia must prove that its acceptance of these recommendations is more than a mere public relations exercise designed to deflect criticism of its human rights record.”
Although Saudi Arabia fully accepted a majority of the recommendations made to it during the review of its human rights record, it rejected crucial recommendations to ratify core international treaties including those that would safeguard the rights of women and grant victims access to justice.
There are also no plans on the horizon to allow United Nations Working Groups and Special Rapporteurs or independent human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, access to document human rights violations.
“The Kingdom’s human rights record remains appalling. While any signs that Saudi Arabia is committed to improving human rights are to be welcomed, the measures accepted today alone are not going to stop the authorities from imprisoning peaceful critics or ending gross discrimination against women and girls,” said Said Boumedouha.
Saudi Arabia has persistently implemented repressive policies that stifle freedom of expression, association and assembly in defiance of international criticism. Peaceful demonstrations and gatherings are banned. Many people have been jailed merely for posting harmless messages on social media.
Saudi Arabia has also carried out an unrelenting campaign of intimidation and harassment against local human rights activists with scores detained and sentenced to lengthy prison terms after grossly unfair trials in recent months.
A new vaguely-worded anti-terrorism law granting sweeping powers to the authorities, has raised fears of a renewed crackdown on peaceful dissent in the name of defending national security.
The vast majority of the recommendations Saudi Arabia has accepted today at the UN Human Rights Council are vaguely worded promises to “consider” changes rather than concrete pledges to implement them. For example, Saudi Arabia accepted to “consider ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)” – which the authorities have been doing since at least 2009 – and yet rejected recommendations that urged them to ratify the same treaty.
“The quantity of recommendations accepted is immaterial. Without concrete steps resulting in visible improvements on the ground the process will appear little more than a brazen attempt by Saudi Arabia to whitewash its human rights record,” said Said Boumedouha.
“By signalling a willingness to consider some human rights measures the authorities are taking baby-steps in the right direction, but there is still a long and arduous road ahead.”
The authorities have also persistently failed to address longstanding systemic discrimination particularly against women and minorities. Despite accepting a recommendation to dismantle an entrenched system of male guardianship over women, they have refused to acknowledge the existence of such a guardianship system and claimed that laws in Saudi Arabia guarantee equal rights to women and men. By and large women in Saudi Arabia are still treated like second-class citizens.
Out of 225 recommendations, Saudi Arabia fully accepted 145, partially accepted 36, gave no answer to six, and rejected 38. Treaties rejected by Saudi Arabia at the Human Rights Council include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Saudi Arabia also declined to withdraw reservations from others such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
Sustained crackdown on human rights activists and freedom of expression
Since early 2013, most of the founding members of Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) have been imprisoned in connection with their work. The three remaining independent human rights organizations forced to operate without a license were also forcefully shut down. Their members are currently on trial.
Today Mohammad al-Otaibi a founder of the Union for Human Rights, a local NGO that was shut down less than a month after it was established last year, has been called for questioning about his activism and statements to the media. Tomorrow, Fowzan al-Harbi, a founding member of ACPRA will have his next court hearing when he might be sentenced to a long prison term for his peaceful activism.
Two weeks ago the Ministry of Interior announced that measures would be taken against activists who collude with international organizations to damage Saudi Arabia’s national interests.
This month, the Saudi Arabian authorities also banned hundreds of books from being displayed in the Riyadh International Book Fair, including works by the famous Palestinian poet Mahmood Darwish and books on the right of women to drive.