28 February 2017—Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), in response to the statement made today by Bandar bin Mohammed al-Aiban, the head of Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission, during the High Level Segment of the Human Rights Council (HRC), is concerned by Saudi Arabia’s continued lack of commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights. Mr. al-Aiban used the opportunity to discuss ostensible reform efforts, highlight the threat of terrorism, and extol its efforts to help the “brotherly Yemeni people.” ADHRB would like to call attention to Saudi Arabia’s continued refusal to reform, its use of the specter of terrorism to target and imprison Human Rights Defenders and peaceful dissidents, and its continued violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law in Yemen.
Refusal to Reform
In his speech, Mr. al-Aiban noted that Saudi Arabia is entering its fourth term on the Human Rights Council. However, despite being a member since 2009, Saudi Arabia has refused to reform its human rights practices. In December 2013, the HRC submitted 225 recommendations to the Saudi government as part of its Second Cycle Universal Periodic Review. The government either completely or partially accepted 187 of the recommendations. In his speech, Mr. al-Aiban stated that the government is working on complying with all of the recommendations. ADHRB found that as of June 2016, Saudi Arabia has only fully implemented one of the 225 recommendations. Of the 187 recommendations accepted by the kingdom, 113 have not been implemented.
Mr. al-Aiban also noted in his speech that Saudi Arabia cooperates with the Special Procedures of the United Nations, and recently allowed two Special Rapporteurs into the country to conduct visits: the Special Rapporteurs on poverty and countering terrorism while preserving human rights. Despite this, the Saudi Arabia has refused to allow the mandates of several Special Rapporteurs to visit the country. The Rapporteurs on torture, extrajudicial killings, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, all have outstanding visit requests.
More broadly, in addition to refusing to allow the mandates of Special Rapporteurs to visit the country, the government has refused to sign on to a number of international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of the Their Families. It has also refused to sign the optional protocols to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention Against Torture (CAT), and Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
Mr. al-Aiban highlighted that the Saudi government has pursued several legislative and policy reforms, including the passage of a law on civil societies and the incorporation of the Human Rights Commission into its ruling structure. While the government has passed a law on civil associations which has streamlined the process of registering civil society organizations, authorities have yet to actually license independent human rights and civil associations. Instead of making prospective organizations obtain permits from a number of government agencies and ministries, the law grants the Ministry of Social Affairs the power to incorporate or dissolve any civil society organization it considers to be detrimental to “national unity.” This broad mandate allows the government to effectively bar the formation of any organization it does not like.
Even as the government passed legislation allowing it to close civil society organizations, it brought the Human Rights Commission closer to the royal family and the ruling structure. As a national human rights institution, the Human Rights Commission is ostensibly bound to operate according to the Paris Principles. Among the guidelines of the Principles is the importance of being independent of the government. However, ADHRB has found that the Human Rights Commission is not independent, as it reports directly to the king, who also appoints its membership.
In April 2016, the government announced Vision 2030, a grand plan to diversify the country’s economy away from oil and closer to other forms of economic development, including the service sector. According to Mr. al-Aiban, Vision 2030 will also include a commitment to human rights, including empowering women. In September 2016, thousands of Saudis demonstrated their desire to grant women more rights and signed an online petition calling on the government to abolish the country’s restrictive male guardianship system. However, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is largely responsible for overseeing the implementation of Vision 2030, had previously stated that “it just takes time” before women can be well integrated into the country’s workforce. In response to calls for allowing women to drive he stated that he “is not convinced about women driving”. Despite the country’s ostensible steps towards economic and social development, including empowering women, Saudi Arabia remains unwilling to grant women more rights. Similarly, despite public claims of their willingness to reform, the Kingdom has failed to take significant steps to do so.
Suppressing Criticism with Counter-Terror Measures
During his speech, Mr. al-Aiban discussed the challenges of terrorism, calling it a major threat to human rights, and outlining the strides that Saudi Arabia is making in fighting the “epidemic of terrorism.” Saudi Arabia has consistently used counter-terror measures to target and prosecute Human Rights Defenders and peaceful dissidents. Beginning in 2013, Saudi authorities targeted the members of the human rights and political reform civil society organization, the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA). While the public prosecution tried two of the organization’s most prominent members –Mohammed al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid – in the country’s standard court system; many of the remaining ACPRA members were tried in the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), reserved for terror cases. The Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) is run by the Ministry of Interior, and operates parallel to the standard court system. The SCC is established according to the 2014 anti-terror law, which adopts a broadly vague definition of terrorism. This has enabled ‘crimes’ relating to freedom of expression and association to fall under the purview of the Court.
In addition to the members of ACPRA, the Saudi government has tried numerous other peaceful dissidents in the SCC. In 2014, the SCC sentenced prominent Shia cleric and social justice advocate Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr to death. Sheikh al-Nimr preached non-violence and rejected terrorism and the use of force. The same year, the SCC sentenced Ali al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher, and Dawood al-Marhoon to death, all of whom were charged for alleged crimes committed as minors. While the government justified its actions, by asserting their involvement in terror-related offences, an opinion by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention rejected this claim, noting that all minors had been tried and sentenced on the basis of their involvement in peaceful anti-government protests.
At the HRC, Mr. al-Aiban also discussed the war in Yemen, noting the continued aggression by the Houthis and former forces of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, Saudi Arabia is deeply involved in the war in Yemen as the leader of a coalition of several states that have conducted hundreds of airstrikes, targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure, all while denying their culpability in the strikes. Saudi Arabia is also leading the naval and aerial blockade that has helped leave Yemen close to famine and without access to necessary medical supplies. Under Saudi Arabia’s lead, the coalition has conducted hundreds of airstrikes on hospitals, schools, refugee camps, markets, infrastructure, and a funeral hall. In addition, the naval and aerial blockade have restricted the import of critical supplies of food and medicines.
Despite clear evidence that Saudi airstrikes have purposely and disproportionately hit civilian targets, the Saudi government has disputed these claims. In 2016, it set up a body to investigate alleged human rights abuses and violations of international human rights law, the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT). According to Saudi state media, the JIAT is an independent body composed of 14 military and legal advisors from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. All of the members of the JIAT are citizens and employees of the states that are engaged in the coalition’s bombing campaign, thus creating a conflict of interest. On 5 August 2016, the JIAT released its findings on eight cases of alleged human rights abuse and cleared the coalition of unlawful activity in six cases. The JIAT also disputed the casualty figures, stating that there was “no breach of protocol or the rules of the international humanitarian law” by the coalition force in any of the incidents.
Contrary to Mr. al-Aiban’s statement on Saudi Arabia’s progress in the promotion and protection of human rights, Saudi Arabia has shown little serious engagement with the international community on human rights and has demonstrated a refusal to reform its practices and laws to comply with international human rights standards. ADHRB is gravely concerned about the trajectory of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and its refusal to acknowledge, and act upon, the many areas in which it needs to make progress.
“Instead of taking the opportunity of today’s High Level statement to recognize the work that must be done to uphold human rights in the country, the Saudi government has chosen to ignore the deep-seated problems and abuses and to reject its obligations as a four-time member of the Human Rights Council,” states Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB. “The international community cannot stay silent as Saudi Arabia continues to flout international standards of human rights, particularly while it is a member of the Council, and should serve as an example. States must demonstrate that the Human Rights Council is a place reserved for states with a conscience. The Council should remove the Kingdom’s membership until it upholds a minimum threshold of human rights protection for its subjects.”
Reform can only take place if the Government of Saudi Arabia takes the necessary steps to bring the country in line with international standards. Therefore, ADHRB calls upon the Government of Saudi Arabia to ratify the ICCPR and ICESCR as well as the optional protocols to the CEDAW, CAT, and CRC and to work with the United Nations, in particular with the Special Procedures to ensure that its international obligations are upheld. Saudi Arabia must move forward with its Vision 2030 and concomitant plan to empower women and seriously work to implement the recommendations that were accepted during its Second Cycle Universal Periodic Review.