Saudi Arabia Vies for a Seat on New UN Human Rights Council
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Although the public’s perception of the protection of human rights has improved dramatically over the past two years in Saudi Arabia, human rights activists say that the kingdom still has a long way to go before it can put itself forward as a model nation.
This comes as the kingdom announced its candidacy for a seat on the soon to be formed United Nations Human Rights Council, a move that has caused surprise among human rights activists both here and abroad because of the many ongoing human rights problems the country faces. Elections for the new body are being held by the UN’s General Assembly in New York on May 9.
“The Saudi government has decided that this will be a good public relations coup by putting themselves forward in this way, but it is a Pandora’s Box which will backfire on the country,” warned Bassem Alim, an outspoken human rights lawyer in Jeddah. “The kingdom today has serious problems with human rights, especially when it comes to judicial procedures for detainees, due process and trial procedures.”
But the Saudi government does not think so, saying in its official letter to the UN announcing its candidacy for a seat on the council, “Saudi Arabia has a confirmed commitment with the defense, protection and promotion of human rights. This commitment has been manifested in its performance as a member of the Commission on Human Rights. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia pursues the policy of active cooperation with international organizations in the field of Human Rights and fundamental freedoms.”
The UN is replacing its old Geneva-based Human Rights Commission with a new council, after years of complaints that some of the worst human rights abusers, such as Cuba, China, and Sudan were regularly elected to the commission and managed to thwart any criticism of their human rights records by the UN. So far, 65 countries have announced their candidacies for the 47 seats.
In a bid to keep the worst human rights offenders off the new council, the UN announced that any new member would have to get an absolute majority of the General Assembly members voting for it, i.e. 96 countries, and that a pledge to uphold human rights would have to be put forward by each contender. In addition, each country elected to the council would voluntarily open itself up to regular inspections by UN officials and would submit itself to a regular review of its human rights record. Violators will be subject to being voted off the council.
To its credit, the Saudi government has been trying to improve its human rights record by allowing the formation of the first-ever national human rights group, the National Human Rights Society, in March 2004. This quasi-governmental group has offices across the country and has looked into everything from prison conditions, women’s rights and child abuse. But critics of the group find that it is hampered by its unwillingness to publicly release the contents of its reports that are sent to the government on a regular basis.
The Saudi press has been full of stories over the past year of rights abuses that the NHRS has looked into, with one report saying the group had investigated 5,000 cases of child abuse and domestic abuse since 2004.
“Thirty percent of the 5,000 cases involve domestic violence including physical and sexual abuse by family members as well as financial and psychological abuse,” said Suhaila Hammad, NHRS’ research director.
Despite this sudden spike in public attention aimed at domestic abuse, foreign workers and Saudis accused of plotting either against Islam or the state still remain at the mercy of a judicial system that usually works against them.
With six million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia doing jobs that range from being maids and drivers to white-collar jobs as managers and doctors, the number of abuses against them is also high. Contract substitution, low salaries, long working hours and sexual assault are just some of the problems faced by foreign workers. A slow and cumbersome labor court system, means that these workers rarely get redress through it.
According to former Philippine ambassador Roy Señares as many as eight in every 12 Filipino maids abroad suffer from some form of sexual abuse. The 900,000 strong Filipino community here uses informal groups of its own citizens to help abused maids escape from abusive employers and seek refuge at Philippine diplomatic missions until they can be sent home. But these groups operate in a gray zone without official recognition.
The recent case of the young Saudi journalist Rabah Al-Quwayi, who was arrested a few months ago for his postings to Internet chat rooms that criticized how Islam was being interpreted in the kingdom, and only released in late April when a high government official intervened, shows just how badly the country needs judicial reform.
It is for these reasons and many others that several human rights groups agree that the kingdom has not done enough to improve its human rights record, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. HRW has announced on its website a campaign to keep what it calls the worst human rights abusers off the new council.
“The good news is that many of the worst violators – including Sudan, North Korea, Belarus, Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, and Nepal – have not even dared to run for the new council,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Now it is up to UN members to exclude other abusive governments so that the council can be a real champion for human rights.”
Saudi Arabia is one of those countries that HRW would like to see excluded from the council.
“We hope that Saudi Arabia is not elected to the council,” said Christophe Wilcke, the officer in charge of the Saudi desk at HRW, in a phone interview from New York.
“Saudi Arabia is a gross violator of human rights and does not treat human rights as an enforceable legal obligation,” said Wilcke, who was part of a HRW delegation that visited the kingdom for three weeks last February.
“The biggest problems in the kingdom remain the judicial system, a lack of women’s rights, the maltreatment of migrant workers, religious discrimination and detention without trial,” he added.
The Saudi mission to the UN in New York was contacted to react to these allegations, but did not respond.
The kingdom is signatory to four major UN conventions, namely the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).
But Saudi Arabia still has not signed two of the major human rights conventions, namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of 1966.
Although the kingdom is not alone in not having signed these two conventions (countries like Malaysia and the US have also not signed some of the major treaties), many view this reluctance to adopt them as a sign of hesitation in fully respecting human rights.
“The two most important documents of the UN, the ICCPR and the ESCR, have not been signed by Saudi Arabia, and they’ve made significant reservations to the conventions they’ve signed because of conflicts with Shariah,” said a Saudi human rights activist in Riyadh who requested anonymity.
“On the implementation side nothing much has changed. Although the kingdom has signed four conventions, they have had little effect on the ground,” explained the activist. “Being on the council is not going to have much effect on the kingdom except that it signals the kingdom’s continuing acceptance of international law which it fully acceded to in 1995 when it was elected to the UN Human Rights Commission. Until then it had always insisted its system of Shariah (Islamic law) was superior to anything international law could put forward.”
So while the Saudi government projects the kingdom abroad as a defender of human rights, the reality on the ground is quite different.
“It’s too little, too late to persuade people that Saudi Arabia has changed,” said Wilcke. “The freedom of the media has gotten better but that is because of newspapers trying to push the limits. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of other freedoms.”
Alim agrees, saying that the Saudi government has been allowed too much latitude in interpreting laws when it comes to deciding how long suspects can be held.
“The problem is that we do not have a constitutional court to rule on laws,” said the lawyer. “We have an Interior Ministry that does not always play by the rules. The ministry has always found ways to bend the rules to its advantage.”