Saudi Arabia: President Obama must not shirk responsibility to tackle human rights during visit

President Barack Obama must break the US administration’s silence on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record by taking a strong public stand against the systematic violations in the Kingdom during his visit there this week, said Amnesty International.

The US president is due to arrive in Saudi Arabia today. His visit coincides with a local campaign calling for an end to the driving ban for women in the Kingdom. Amnesty International is asking President Obama to express his dismay at the discrimination against women by appointing a woman as his official driver during the visit.

“It is crucial that President Obama sends a strong message to the government of Saudi Arabia that its gross human rights violations and systematic discrimination are unacceptable. A failure to do so would undermine the human rights principles the USA purports to stand for,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

“For too long, the USA has shied away from publicly confronting Saudi Arabia over its human rights record, largely turning a blind eye to a mounting catalogue of abuses. This is an opportunity for the President to demonstrate that he will stop sacrificing respect for basic human rights, including equality and non-discrimination, for the sake of economic interests and political expedience.”

President Obama’s visit also comes as Saudi Arabia has stepped up its crackdown on human rights activists and introduced an anti-terror law that virtually criminalizes all forms of peaceful dissent.

Human rights defenders in the Kingdom have been harassed, rounded up and imprisoned in a ruthless campaign to crush peaceful activism. The authorities continue to ban peaceful public gatherings and have consistently refused to pass a law that would enable independent human rights groups to be established. They have also sought to control and block social media.

“The government of Saudi Arabia has no qualms about crushing anyone who dares to criticize its methods. It has repeatedly and ruthlessly used repressive tactics to quash all forms of dissent,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

Amnesty International is asking President Obama to meet local activists and to raise the plight of women, among a host of other human rights issues, with the authorities. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that forbids women to drive. Women also continue to face entrenched discrimination on many other levels. Under its restrictive guardianship system, women need the permission of a male guardian to get married, travel, undergo certain types of surgery, accept paid employment or enrol in higher education.

“As well as appointing a woman driver during his visit, President Obama should try to meet Saudi women who have defied the driving ban,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

Migrant workers and the country’s Shia Muslim community also face widespread and systematic discrimination.

Torture and other ill-treatment during detention is rife and carried out with impunity. Courts routinely rely on “confessions” extracted under torture. And corporal punishment such as flogging and amputation continue to be used extensively.

“President Obama should not travel to the country without pressing Saudi Arabia’s authorities to end their crackdown on freedom of expression, association and assembly, to stamp out the discrimination against women and minorities and halt all forms of torture and other ill-treatment,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

“Selectively criticising only the human rights violations of some while ignoring those of allies betrays the victims and weakens the international human rights system.”