UN Releases NGO Reports for Saudi Arabia’s 3rd Cycle UPR

On 24 August 2018, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) released its summary of non-state stakeholder’s submissions on Saudi Arabia’s third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) ahead of the review itself in November 2018. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) submitted six reports in conjunction with nine partner organizations, the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR), the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, the World Organisation against Torture within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, CIVICUS, PEN International, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), and Reprieve.

The submissions, labeled JS1, JS2, JS6, JS9, JS10, and JS11, address a wide range of thematic issues, including extrajudicial violence, religious discrimination, the death penalty and capital punishment, the kingdom’s counter-terror system and restrictive legal framework, human rights defenders and the laws used to target them and activists and dissidents, torture, women’s rights, civil society space and organizations, freedom of assembly and association, freedom of expression and opinion, and the arrests of journalists, bloggers, and critics of the government.

Since Saudi Arabia’s second UPR in October 2013, the human rights situation in the kingdom has deteriorated sharply, with a noticeable increase in repression since King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud elevated his son Mohammad bin Salman to the position of Crown Prince in June 2017. Since becoming Crown Prince, bin Salman has worked to suppress and eliminate rivals in the royal family and consolidate the different branches of the security forces beneath his command. He has also overseen a widespread campaign of repression, arresting dissidents, critics, and anyone who speaks out against the government, religious system, or royal family. In July 2017, bin Salman and his father established the Presidency of State Security (PSS), a body that answers solely to the Prime Minister – the king – and his son – bin Salman, and that has is empowered to carry out domestic intelligence gathering and deal with domestic security. Since July 2017, the PSS has carried out three mass waves of arrests of dissidents and critics, in September 2017, November and December 2017, and in late May 2018, in addition to individual arrests of human rights defenders, dissidents, and activists.

The UN’s compilation of NGO submissions addresses a number of important thematic issue areas that we have addressed in our reports with our partners. Among them include the kingdom’s national human rights framework; its implementation of its international human rights treaty obligations; civil and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights; and rights of specific persons or groups – including women.

Saudi Arabia’s national human rights framework is lacking. Importantly, it “does not have a constitution that establishes an institutional human rights framework.” Instead, its legal framework, including its Basic Law – de facto constitution – and other laws – including the Press and Publications Law, Cybercrime Law, Law on Associations, and 2014 and 2017 Counter-terror laws – restrict internationally-recognized human rights. Within this legal framework, security forces regularly violate the human rights of the kingdom’s citizens and non-citizen residents, through arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, executions, restrictions on women’s rights, religious discrimination, and denial of the rights to free expression, opinion, assembly, and association. Despite numerous human rights violations, Saudi citizens and non-citizens are largely unable to secure justice through the kingdom’s criminal justice system. Although Saudi Arabia “committed itself to bringing its criminal justice system in line with international standards” during its 2nd UPR cycle, it has not made any progress to this effect.

Numerous NGOs, including ADHRB and our partners raised serious concerns about the kingdom’s counter-terror framework and the use of this framework to arrest and prosecute peaceful critics and dissidents. An important piece of this framework is the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), which was established in 2008 to try terrorist members of Al-Qaeda and later the Islamic State, but which has been used since 2014 to try peaceful activists and dissidents on state security charges. Among those who have faced trials in the SCC are the members of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) and many other human rights defenders and dissidents, including Mohammed al-Otaibi and Abdullah al-Attawi, Israa al-Ghomgham, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, Nadhir al-Majid, and Essam al-Zamel.

The compilation of non-state stakeholders’ submissions also details frequent violations of civil and political rights, including the right to life and liberty. ADHRB and its partners ESOHR and Reprieve noted that the kingdom uses the death penalty and capital punishment against dissidents, including men who were minors at the time of their alleged crime. We called attention to the fact that there are at least 42 men on death row, most of them Shia, and seven of them minors at the time they allegedly committed their crime, for “terror charges stemming from participation in peaceful assemblies and protests.” We further noted the religious aspect of the use of the death penalty by highlighting the broader permissive climate of violence against Shia Muslims. We noted the security operation against Awamiyah, a Shia majority town in the Eastern Province, that resulted in at least 24 deaths and the widespread use of excessive force against Shia residents.

In addition to discriminating against its Shia population, Saudi Arabia restricts other fundamental freedoms like the rights to freely assembly and form associations. In our collaboration with CIVICUS and ESOHR, we highlighted the 2015 Law on Associations which, rather than protecting and promoting civil society, restricts the formation and operation of independent civil society organizations. Indeed, in combination with the 2007 Anti-Cybercrime Law, the Government of Saudi Arabia has moved to effectively close all space for independent associations and free expression and opinion. Under this restrictive framework, security forces have arrested many human rights defenders, activists, and journalists and bloggers on the claim that their speech and associations pose a threat to the security of the state.

Women in Saudi Arabia face increased discrimination due to the kingdom’s unique system of male guardianship over women and their lack of legal protections. The UN report notes that “women and girls face discrimination in in law including the Civil Status Code, Labour [sic] Code and Nationality Act, and in practice.” While the kingdom has made some progress in advancing women’s rights, it has failed to implement accepted UPR recommendations to end the guardianship system. Indeed, while the government granted women the right to drive in June 2018, only weeks before the decree came into force, security officials arrested almost a dozen women’s rights defenders, including many of the women and activists who had campaigned for an end to the ban on driving. Among those arrested are Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, Hatoon al-Fassi, Samar Badawi, and Naseema Alsada demonstrating a remarkable step back from progress.

Since Saudi Arabia’s last UPR in 2013, the kingdom has failed to implement the vast majority of recommendations offered, despite accepting many of them. Instead, it has deepened repression, arresting human rights defenders, activists, journalists, and bloggers on bogus state security and counter-terror charges. The kingdom has also engaged in widespread torture in prisons and sentenced defendants to lengthy prison terms or to death based on coerced confessions. While Saudi Arabia has long been understood to violate human rights on a large scale and with impunity, these violations have increased in size and scope since the elevation of bin Salman. A symbolic measure of this increased repression and feeling of impunity, has been the arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and likely extrajudicial killing of dissident, expatriate journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. In light of this, it has become more important for states to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its human rights abuses.