CERD Releases its Concluding Observations on Racial Discrimination in Saudi Arabia

15 May 2018 – On Friday 11 May, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) released its concluding observations for its review of Saudi Arabia. In its observations, the Committee voices a number of concerns about Saudi Arabia’s treatment of its racial minorities and offers recommendations to bring the kingdom’s practices in line with international human rights standards. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) welcomes the Committee’s concerns and calls on the Government of Saudi Arabia to work with the Committee to fully and seriously implement the recommendations to end discrimination against racial minorities.

Ahead of its review of Saudi Arabia’s practices and legislation concerning racial minorities, the Committee called on the kingdom to provide detailed information about specific legislation prohibiting racial discrimination, measures taken to strengthen the existing legal framework, the kafala system of labor sponsorship, and measures taken to end prejudice against migrant workers from Asia and Africa.

The Committee also welcomed the participation of non-state stakeholders throughout the review process. To this end, ADHRB submitted a written statement to the Committee ahead of the kingdom’s review. The statement focused on discrimination against migrant workers within the context of the kafala system. It noted that despite Saudi Arabia’s stated adherence to the principles of CERD, racial minorities face severe discrimination. ADHRB supported its written statement in remarks delivered orally in front of the Committee’s Rapporteurs and during the question and answer session. ADHRB’s written statement highlighted the poor treatment of migrant workers, the gendered and sexualized abuse of female domestic migrant workers, and prejudice against Saudis of African descent. The oral remarks during the question and answer session focused on migrants’ lack of access to justice and the government’s failure to enforce existing laws that could protect the rights of migrants, as well as broader structures promoting discrimination.

In its concluding observations the Committee noted several positive actions by the government, listing 11 legislative and policies measures the government has taken to strengthen protections for racial minorities. However, the Committee also raised a number of serious concerns, ranging from the kingdom’s broad reservations to the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the lack of specific legislation prohibiting “direct and indirect” racial discrimination, lack of awareness by victims of discrimination of their rights and ability to appeal to a court, the continued abuse of the kafala system of labor sponsorship, lack of protections for female migrant domestic workers, barriers in access to justice and judicial remedies, and discrimination against persons of Asian and African descent.

Many of the themes and issues identified by the Committee were raised in ADHRB’s written statement, oral remarks, and comments made during the question and answer session. Throughout our engagement with the Committee, we repeatedly highlighted migrant workers’ lack of access to justice, through a combination of lack of knowledge about the Saudi legal system and intimidation by employers. ADHRB drew attention to the fact that while Saudi Arabia has claimed it ended the kafala system, the system remains in place and employers continue to abuse it – confiscating passports, withholding wages, and forcing workers to live in substandard housing. ADHRB also continually reiterated concerns about the plight of domestic workers, who are largely migrant women and who face gendered and sexual violence. Moreover, ADHRB commented on the prejudice faced by Saudis of African descent, including in the fields of education and employment.

Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB: “The scope of CERD’s concerns and recommendations demonstrate that the Saudi government has by and large failed to address systematic and widespread discrimination against racial minorities in the kingdom. If taken seriously, the Committee’s recommendations could dramatically improve the situations of racial minorities in the country. If the government rejects or fails to act on them, it will continue to flout international standards regarding the treatment of minorities. The kingdom must accept the Committee’s recommendations and work to implement them in spirit and in letter. The international community, including the source countries for migrant labor, must pressure the Saudi government to ensure the government works transparently and seriously.”

ADHRB welcomes the Committee’s concluding observations and calls on the Government of Saudi Arabia to implement CERD’s recommendations in total. ADHRB further calls on the Saudi government to cooperate fully with the Committee to ensure that racial and ethnic minorities are treated equally in law and practice.