“In many parts of the world we are seeing the space for civil society shrinking. In many parts of the world, human rights defenders, journalists and NGOs are being intimidated and harassed. If we are serious about our commitment to human rights, then we need to work for their protection” said Heiko Maas, the German Foreign Minister.
Indeed, Germany is committed to guaranteeing the protection and promotion of human rights, not only under its national jurisdiction but also within the European Union (EU) and broader international framework. Whether in its Basic Law or under the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, Germany believes that all human beings should possess “inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights”. Germany is also supportive of civil society engagement and the work of human rights defenders, both of which are agents for the promotion and protection of human rights.
Germany has even adopted the protection of human rights defenders in third countries as a vital commitment. In addition, the German foreign minister has spoken against the oppression and intimidation of human rights defenders globally on numerous occasions and has highlighted the ways in which Germany supports these actors worldwide by having their “embassies be more proactive in reaching out to these groups”. In practice, however, the German government has failed in enhancing women’s rights at the bilateral level and has proven itself ineffective regarding protecting women activists in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has a long history of oppressing and punishing human rights defenders, whether through travel bans, engaging in incommunicado detentions, or other forms of reprisals to prevent activism and the participation of human rights defenders in international human rights forums. This was even intensified when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud came to power in June 2017. Female human rights defenders are especially targeted, and they are constantly and systematically persecuted for their activism.
The targeted repression of women’s rights defenders in Saudi Arabia began following the decision to lift the driving ban on women. Until 2018, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world that legally prohibited women from driving. Then in May 2018, there was a crackdown by the Saudi government to silence women’s rights defenders who were advocating for equal rights and reform of the patriarchal male guardianship system. This system requires that every woman must obtain the authorization of her male guardian, usually the father (if unmarried) or the husband (if married), to make a range of decisions, such as getting a job, accessing health care, or applying for a passport.
As a result, many of those women who vocalized their dissent were arrested. There are currently 13 women on trial, all of whom were arrested for exercising their right to freedom of expression. In prison, almost all of them have endured acts of torture, sexual abuse, and other violent ill-treatment. While eight of them have been temporarily released, five still remain in detention. Among them is Loujain Al-Hathloul, a women’s rights defender and blogger who has been fighting for gender equality and women’s right to drive since 2013. In 2014, she herself even drove across the Saudi border with the United Arab Emirates as an act of protest, and she posted a video about this activism on YouTube. She was detained for 73 days for her action. In 2018, Al-Hathloul was arrested once again after attending a review session on Saudi Arabia at the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. She was first charged, alongside seven other women, before the Specialized Criminal Court, a court established ostensibly for cases of terrorism. She was denied access to a lawyer and charged with “communicating with external hostile powers, providing financial support to external parties, and luring and exploiting minors to work against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”. She was held in solitary confinement for 287 days before she attended her second hearing.
The Canadian Foreign Minister criticized these arrests and called for the release of the women’s rights defenders. As a volatile act of reprisal, the Saudi government expelled the Canadian ambassador and recalled its own envoy from Canada. The EU did not stand in solidarity with Canada – this includes Germany, despite that multiple human rights defenders, including Loujain Al-Hathloul, sought aid from the German ambassador in Saudi Arabia.
On several occasions, Germany, acting alongside the EU or as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, has expressed its concerns regarding the women’s rights situation in Saudi Arabia. It has been affirmed how Saudi Arabia is one of the most discriminatory and retrograde countries regarding women’s rights. Recently, in September 2020, Michael Freiherr von Ungern-Sternberg, the German ambassador to the UN, spoke on behalf of the EU and called once again on Saudi Arabia “to end the prolonged detentions of women’s rights defenders.”
It is not the first time that countries are expressing their concerns for the human rights violations in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In fact, there have been countless reports of acts of torture, including electric shocks, flogging and sexual assaults. International human rights actors also denounce the use of national security provisions against the individuals who are exercising their right to freedom of expression. On several occasions, UN experts have expressed how shameful it is that counter-terrorism measures are being leveled against activists to suppress human rights work. Nevertheless, the kingdom persists in denying allegations of torture and unfair trials and has overall failed to address the serious human rights concerns being raised.
The ongoing repression and torture against human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia, including women’s rights defenders, are undermining the credibility of the reform process in the country. Saudi women are often victims of harassment and oppression: Anyone who expresses criticism will most likely face prison sentences or more stringent punishments. Indeed, the Kingdom preaches for its reform agenda “Vision 2030” through economic and social transformations, especially through women’s empowerment, yet this is hard to believe in view of the recent wave of arrests and alleged torture of women’s rights activists.
These events reveal not only the level of oppression Saudi Arabia is displaying toward dissent, but also portrays how vital it is for prominent EU countries like Germany to act. However, Germany has strong bilateral relations with the Kingdom, particularly in international trade. For one, Saudi Arabia is Germany’s second most important Arab trading partner. Also, Germany is the fourth-largest supplier of Saudi Arabian imports. Unfortunately, as Germany continues its efforts in strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia, female human rights defenders in the kingdom will continue to be subjected to reprisals for their activism. Germany must take a leading role as powerful voice in the EU community and should pressure the Saudi government to immediately and unconditionally release all human rights defenders and ensure that they can all carry out their human rights activities without fear of retribution.