By Sarah Ben-Moussa
On Jan. 2nd, 2016, Saudi Arabia executed 47 people, including Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Shiite cleric who was convicted for speaking out against the Saudi Arabian regime and calling for more rights for the country’s Shiite minority. This caused a significant uproar in the human rights community, which was concerned with the use of the death penalty and unfair trials. The executions also escalated tensions with Iran, which condemned the arbitrary nature of the charges levied against al-Nimr, as well as the use of the death penalty.
Ironically, these executions come after Faisal bin Hassan Trad, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador at the U.N. in Geneva, was elected chair of a Consultative Group for the U.N. Human Rights Council at their 30th session in September 2015. Following heavy criticism of this development, the U.N. emphasized that the five members of the Consultative Group were not elected by any U.N. body, but instead appointed by five regional groups and serve in a personal capacity to objectively assess and recommend candidates for U.N. human rights experts positions, for the year in which they are elected. Despite this, Saudi Arabia’s new power to recommend experts and influence the inner-workings of the U.N. human rights framework is disturbing.
In the wake of this recent mass execution, coupled with the irony of Trad’s election to the UN human rights group, a reexamination of the dreadful human rights situation in Saudi Arabia is more necessary than ever. Moreover, more attention must be paid to how the international community treats Saudi Arabia’s continuing human rights abuses with a starting double standard.
SAUDI ARABIA’S RAMPANT HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES
Saudi Arabia boasts one of the most dismal human rights records in the world. From gender inequality to lack of freedom of expression and widespread issues in the criminal justice system, the country is far from upholding its international human rights obligations.
Women face systemic discrimination based on their gender and remain subordinate to men legally and in practice. They are inadequately protected against sexual and gender-based violence, and encounter legal difficulties when pursuing claims based on marital issues, divorce, child custody and inheritance. Male guardianship over women (“mehrem”), although it may not be legally prescribed, seems to be widely accepted, severely limiting women’s freedoms, including their right to access education, get married and travel. In addition, women are not allowed to legally drive in Saudi Arabia and are banned from exposing parts of the body.
In the face of this criticism, the state has reaffirmed that their application of Sharia law guarantees fair gender equality and that their legislation does not differentiate between men and women. However, in 2008 (the latest report available online), the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women pointed to the failure of the state party to fully incorporate the principle of equality between women and men and to define discrimination on the basis of sex within their legislation, an area that has yet to be addressed.
The criminal justice system in Saudi Arabia is plagued with human rights violations. Since there is no official penal code, judges and prosecutors can criminalize many types of behavior and activities. Many human rights organizations have noted that Saudi Arabian courts fail to respect due process and carry out unfair trails. Authorities arbitrary arrest and detain people for long periods of time, often for longer than six months without trial, in direct violation of the Convention Against Torture (CAT). Children are often detained arbitrarily and placed in detention conditions that do not comply with international standards set forth by the Convention on the Rights of a Child (CRC). Torture or inhumane treatment has reportedly been used to extract the pre-trial confessions, which have been the basis of convictions. Those convicted of crimes may be subject to cruel, degrading or inhumane punishments such as flogging or stoning. Saudi Arabia has also acted in violation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) by targeting and arresting Shiite leaders and activists, imprisoning them after unfair trials and sometimes going so far as to issue death sentences for advocating for minority rights.
Furthermore, as evidenced by recent executions, freedom of speech, expression and assembly are extremely restricted in Saudi Arabia. Human rights defenders and those who speak out against the government face arrest, imprisonment, torture and execution. Since the government refuses to recognize or register political or human rights groups, citizens have no legal way to set up independent, non-charity organizations.
THE ALI AL-NIMR CASE: A FRIGHTENING EXAMPLE
One case that highlights Saudi Arabia’s problematic record on human rights—and the world’s compliance with the country’s abuses—is that of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, nephew of recently executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Like his uncle, the charges upon which he was brought remain unclear—he was arrested for allegedly protesting the Saudi Arabian government when he was 17 years old. Ali al-Nimr, now 20 years old, faces a beheading execution sentence handed down by the Saudi Arabian courts last August. In addition, he has been sentenced to crucifixion after death to serve as a warning to others.
This extreme sentence has become a public representation of Saudi Arabia’s failure to comply with international human rights law. Ali al-Nimr’s sentence has been criticized as a violation of the CRC, which Saudi Arabia has ratified. In addition to this, Saudi Arabia has also been criticized for its failure to investigate reports of torture against Ali al-Nimr, in direct violation of the CAT, which they have also ratified. A group of independent U.N. experts have condemned the ruling, pointing out that unfair methods of torture were used to collect a confession, and called for a fair retrial. Among charges levied against him were being part of a terrorist organization, carrying weapons, and targeting security patrol cars.
There have also been reports that Ali al-Nimr was denied regular access to a lawyer, most notably at the time he signed a confession. The legal remedies he could have pursued, even with representation, are somewhat unclear. As discussed above, there is no formal penal code in Saudi Arabia—Islamic Sharia law is the law of the land and is used by judges based on precedent and the established rules of jurisprudence. There are however, regulations and laws passed by the government to cover broad offenses. Notably, their counter-terrorism laws have criminalized behavior such as “calling for atheist thought” or “contacting any groups or individuals opposed to the Kingdom”, which can be applied retrospectively. Amnesty International notes that the lack of clarity in the laws and judicial system is a violation of the international principle of legality, which provides that criminal liability be limited to clear and precise provisions, as well as Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which protects individuals from being prosecuted for “any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed.”
Despite these blatant issues with Ali al-Nimr’s case, the United States and western allies of Saudi Arabia have remained deafeningly silent about his impending execution and crucifixion.
THE NEED FOR ACCOUNTABILITY
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of holding Saudi Arabia accountable for its human rights violations is the leniency and appeasement of the international community. During their Universal Period Review, the head of the delegation of Saudi Arabia reaffirmed Saudi Arabia’s commitment to respect and promote human rights and support the international mechanisms, particularly the UPR. But mounting evidence continues to show the opposite, especially in the wake of recent executions and the Ali al-Nimr decision. Although there are numerous U.N. reports criticizing the Saudi Arabia, they do not exist in a vacuum, and often times, resolutions and solutions can cave to the political and economic alliances between state parties. Addressing human rights violations within Saudi Arabia continues to be a problem of downplaying and politicking, as was evident when a coalition of mostly Western nations recently abandoned their call for an inquiry into human rights abuses in the conflict in Yemen, when faced with a sizeable Saudi Arabian opposition.
While the Islamic State faces international condemnation for its egregious human rights abuses, including beheadings and torture, similar abuses conducted in Saudi Arabia do not receive the same level of scrutiny from the United States and other western countries, largely because of the energy and security interests involved in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia receives a level of deference to its human rights abuses not afforded to many other regimes on the international stage whose geopolitical and economic situations do not provide strategic value to influential states’ parties.
The numerous human rights violations of Saudi Arabia cannot be accepted as an inevitable truth—they cannot be brushed aside as the byproduct of a religious monarchy, nor can they give way to relationships built upon geopolitical instability and energy. They must instead be vigorously analyzed and pursued, out in the open. It is the imperative that the international community continues to have an open, critical discourse about the Saudi regime, in a way that so many within its borders do not have the freedom to do.
Sarah Ben-Moussa is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.
The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.
Photo Credit: Stephen Downes/Creative Commons