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The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

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Saudi Arabia’s dismal human rights record and the complacency of the international community

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 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.


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.


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

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Migrant abuses in the Gulf: a chance to pressure the Kafala system

By Chris Beall

The sheer scope of Qatar’s development plans, in preparation for the country’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup, is nothing short of impressive. Deloitte forecasts that this small, gas-rich Gulf nation will spend an estimated $200 billion on new construction and infrastructure projects by the tournament’s 22nd opening ceremony. For comparison, Brazil’s 2014 World Cup cost approximately $15 billion, while South Africa spent roughly $3 billion on their 2010 games. Qatar’s construction portfolio contains no less than eight planned stadiums, a new international airport, a metro system, expanded roadways and a wave of new hotels to shelter the influx of international tourists attending the games.

However such an ambitious price tag becomes far less impressive, when you consider that the bulk of these projects rest on what is essentially modern slavery. The conditions faced by the migrant workers currently laying the concrete for these projects comprise just the latest nightmarish manifestation of transnational labor.

According to a September 2013 article by The Guardian, Qatar’s World Cup plans will end up costing the lives of approximately 4,000 laborers by the start of the tournament. The nation’s 1.5 million member migrant workforce—primarily Nepali and Indian workers—is on pace to lose about a dozen members per week, as laborers are literally worked to death amongst the nation’s scorching heat and hellish working conditions.

Thankfully, the slavery involved in Qatar’s World Cup plans has garnered a relatively surprising amount of international attention in the last year or so. Whether it’s the international popularity and prestige of the FIFA World Cup, or some other factor, a rare sort of light has been shone on labor practices in Qatar specifically. Go google “Qatar World Cup,” and—at least from a mere baseline exposure standpoint—it’s refreshing to see that the word “slavery” is robustly scattered among the results.

While it’s hard to excuse the lack of concrete measures that have been taken in light of this international attention, it would also be reprehensible to ignore the fact that this is not solely a Qatar problem. Though the state of labor generally under neoliberalism presents a complex human tragedy that spans the entire globe, the specific practices deployed under Qatar’s uniquely massive state-spending project represent just one dramatic example of labor practices in the wider Gulf region: a set of migrant worker policies known as the kafala system.


The kafala system, from the Arabic verb “to vouch” or “to guarantee,” consists of a series of labor practices where Gulf employers may sponsor migrant employees—usually South Asian—for a period of contract labor, typically for purposes of construction, manual labor or domestic service. The system is widely practiced in nations on the Arabian Peninsula, as well as in the Middle East broadly, as far west as Jordan and Lebanon. Although accurate numbers are hard to come by, it is estimated by the Migrant Forum in Asia that at least 25 million migrants were employed in 2010 across the Middle East under the system.

Like transnational labor generally, the idealized logic that makes the kafala system possible is based on the concepts of remittances and opportunity, where unskilled workers from impoverished nations may temporarily emigrate to better paying labor markets, in hopes of sending wages home to support and enhance the lives of their families and local communities. What makes the kafala system unique, however, is the concept of sponsorship, where employers and the migrants themselves place highly competitive contract bids with international labor brokers, in order for employers/sponsors to acquire a state of personal responsibility over their incoming workers. Sanitized of its nuances, the idea is to create a protection mechanism, where individual employers become quasi-legally responsible for the well-being of these migrant workers. In fact, the system’s foundations stem from a Bedouin cultural practice, which allows temporary grants of protection and tribal membership to strangers. If you were wandering across the desert and stumbled across a Bedouin community, the inclusion and hospitality promised under kafala would allow that community to feed you, shelter you and protect you, until you freely and voluntarily decided to go on your way.

This benevolent logic is one thing, but how the system translates into modern practice is quite another matter entirely. According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on the kafala system in Saudi Arabia, the combination of high-cost recruitment and broker fees, along with the assumption of legal responsibility over kafala workers, encourages psychological feelings of ownership among sponsoring employment providers, opening the door to all of the traditional abuses of slavery. Although many migrants in these countries are provided adequate living conditions by their hosts, it is common practice for kafala sponsors to retain complete possession of a sponsored migrant’s visa and passport, thereby controlling their workers’ ability to move elsewhere, change employers or even return to their home country.

Under the guise of patronage, the kafala system also allows for gaping legal loopholes, commonly utilized to bypass host-country labor laws. At one level, the kafala framework is immensely privatized, extending sponsorship-granting privileges to individual citizens, a process that individualizes what would otherwise be thought of as a state role in immigration enforcement. The obvious result is diminished oversight concerning the potential for abuse among incoming migration flows. Likewise, in conceiving of kafala workers as individually-sponsored guests rather than state-sponsored contributors to host-nation economies, traditional worker protections (such as Saudi work-hour caps and minimum rest day requirements) do not apply to kafala migrants, HRW documented.

Worse, even in undeniable cases of blatant abuse and exploitation (the sexual abuse of domestic workers, for example), kafala migrants are often left without any semblance of a means of redress. Although such practices are technically illegal, and should be punished in court, kafala migrants face a social stigma and perceived lack of credibility that effectively block access to host-nation justice mechanisms. Those who do manage to access host-nation judicial systems often find themselves subject to dubious counterclaims of theft or witchcraft, resulting in either dropped charges entirely or their own prosecution, HRW reported. With the complete absence of legal aid or procedural protections, kafala migrants who suddenly find themselves as defendants can and occasionally do receive harsh sentences, from jail time to public whippings, and in some cases, beheadings.

The result of these practices is a system of transnational labor that normalizes and systematically enables the abuses of slavery within many contemporary Middle Eastern societies. The human rights abuses cultivated by kafala labor—non-payment of wages, involuntary confinement, forced starvation, physical beatings, rape and court-ordered beheadings—should each raise alarm among both human rights advocates and transnational entities conducting business in the region, whether multinational corporations or organizations like FIFA.


The important work of human rights organizations and awareness groups like Migrant-Rights.org has had some traction on influencing the discourse surrounding today’s kafala system. Although little has tangibly improved, many Gulf governments have shown some signs of sensitivity when it comes to political pressure and criticism of these labor policies. In 2008, Bahrain banned the kafala system outright, although such a shift never translated from rhetoric into substantive change. Qatar has also used this same kind of facial-reform language lately, in light of its own mounting criticism. Meanwhile, in the Emirates, Dubai has recently witnessed a rare series of public migrant strikes, as laborers there protest their slave-like working conditions.

Notably, Saudi Arabia has also launched a series of migrant labor reforms, which now allow many of the nation’s estimated nine million kafala workers to switch jobs or change employers without their sponsor’s consent. Although these reforms were launched primarily as a way of targeting Saudi national unemployment, and only apply to the employees of firms that do not meet set citizen-worker quotas, such a change in policy reveals that when these governments find it within their interest to alter the kafala system, and consequentially improve the lives of their migrant workers, they are perfectly capable of doing so.

Which makes the case for increased international scrutiny right now all the more sensible. At a moment when the abusive human rights practices of long term U.S. adversaries like Cuba and Iran have entered the spotlight of public discussion, it would be an especially fitting moment to break Washington’s silence concerning the troubling human rights practices of our traditional partners as well. Some of our closest allies in the Middle East today are the most entrenched practitioners of kafala labor. Between the international community’s current normalization efforts with longtime Gulf-rival Iran, and the billions of international dollars flowing toward Qatar’s World Cup, there is an atypical sort of alignment here for international players to leverage positive change in the region. We should take advantage of that. It would mean failing millions of the world’s most vulnerable migrants, were we to not seize this rare opportunity.

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: the apostrophe/Creative Commons