Five ways for Saudi Arabia to deliver true human rights reform

Earlier this week Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud made a public vow to “modernize” Saudi Arabia signalling key reforms could be on the agenda in the Kingdom. 

Since the Crown Prince was appointed as official heir to the throne in June 2017 he has launched a slick PR campaign to improve the country’s image on the world stage. 

Just weeks ago the authorities announced that women in the country will finally be granted the right to drive a car. While this is undoubtedly a step forward for Saudi Arabian women, and a testament to the women’s rights activists who campaigned for the right for many years, it is extremely overdue and does not make up for the fact that they face widespread discrimination in other walks of life.

Commentators have hailed the Crown Prince’s promises of reform as signs that change is on the horizon for Saudi Arabia. But it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture: Saudi Arabia remains one of the world’s worst abusers when it comes to human rights. The months since the Crown Prince’s appointment, have seen no improvements, instead, its already dire rights record has continued to deteriorate.

Here are five crucial things Saudi Arabia’s authorities urgently need to do to prove they are truly committed to reform:

  • End use of the death penalty

Saudi Arabia remains one of the world’s top executioners. So far this year at least 110 people have been put to death – 70 of them since July. People in Saudi Arabia are routinely sentenced to death after unfair trials in some cases after they have suffered torture or other ill-treatment to force them to “confess”. The death penalty has also been used as a political weapon to silence dissent and to target Shi’a minorities. Four juvenile offenders are also on death row for offences committed while they were under the age of 18.

  • Stop cracking down on freedom of expression

Human rights defenders in the country continue to come under repeated attack and face widespread harassment and persecution in a bit to suppress their peaceful activism. Virtually all the country’s prominent independent activists are currently behind bars simply for exercising their rights to freedom of expression. In recent months the authorities have also carried out a wave of arrests detaining at least 20 religious figures, writers, journalists, academics and activists.

  • Stop persecuting the Shi’a minority

Members of the Shi’a Muslim community in Saudi Arabia have long faced discrimination as well as arrest, imprisonment and harassment in a bid to intimidate them into silence. In particular the authorities have targeted activists in the Kingdom’s predominately Shi’a Eastern Province who are suspected of taking part in or supporting protests or expressing views critical of the government. Most recently the death penalty has been used as a political tool to punish members of the Shi’a community for daring to protest against their treatment and crush dissent. At least 34 Shi’a men are currently on death row after being convicted on national security charges.

  • End systematic discrimination against women

Despite a recent announcement that women will finally be allowed to drive, women in Saudi Arabia still face widespread discrimination under the repressive guardianship system, where every woman has a male guardian who has the authority to make decisions on her behalf. Saudi Arabia urgently needs to reform laws that treat women as second class citizens in comparison to men particularly in terms of family matters such as marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance.

  • Stop killing civilians in Yemen conflict

According to Amnesty International’s research Saudi Arabia which leads the military coalition in Yemen, along with all parties to the conflict, has committed serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in apparently unlawful attacks, some of which should be investigated as war crimes.

The Saudi Arabia-led coalition has killed and injured thousands of civilians during the Yemen conflict in recent years – many of them children. According to the UN Secretary General’s annual Children and Armed Conflict report 683 children were killed or injured by the Saudi-Arabia led coalition in 2016. The Saudi Arabia-led coalition has also used cluster munitions – lethal explosive weapons which are inherently indiscriminate and are widely banned under international law because of the horrific injuries they can cause to civilians.