As the deadly COVID-19 virus spreads around the world, causing countries and communities to close in on themselves to deal with this unprecedented situation, the world cannot ignore the impunity with which some States continue to flout the most basic individual rights and freedoms. One prime example is Saudi Arabia, which, as current chair of the G20, recently convened an extraordinary virtual summit to “coordinate” efforts to respond to the pandemic and address its economic and social consequences. It is difficult to accept that this country has the legitimacy and credibility to assume such a role in view of both the internal and external policies pursued by its leaders. Here’s why.
One cannot deny that Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, not stellar to begin with, has been worsening, especially after Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was made Crown Prince in 2017. Since then, the regime has systematically silenced any dissent and has racked up a worrying toll of human rights violations, against both Saudi and foreign citizens. Saudi authorities act with total impunity with the international community looking on. This can no longer be tolerated, nor go unpunished: an essential first step is establishing a United Nations independent expert to monitor the human rights situation in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), in the form of a special rapporteur.
Saudi policy continues to incorporate torture, murder, and restrictions on fundamental rights and freedoms, including the right to life, freedom of expression and opinion, freedom of assembly and association, freedom of belief and movement, women’s rights, minority rights, and migrant workers’ rights, coupled with alleged war crimes in Yemen. Saudi authorities persistently persecute peaceful activists by labelling them as terrorists or agitators and using anti-terror and security laws against them, following a pattern of rife violations. Suspects are often beaten to extract confessions; they are denied access to legal support and family visits; they are exposed to corporal punishment; and remain in excessively protracted pre-trial detention, with any pleas for fair investigation of these violations falling on the deaf ears of judicial authorities.
The best known examples of Saudi abuse are the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the detention of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul for driving, and the death penalty sought for Salman al-Awdah following a tweet about peace and reconciliation. These, however, are but emblematic of an underlying pattern of violations that occur on a daily basis with the Crown Prince’s seal of approval, coupled with apparent international oblivion, despite some censure from the U.N. Human Rights Council and the European Parliament.
It is time to shine a bright light on Saudi Arabia to create a moment for accountability and truth-telling, as called for by U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions Agnès Callamard. The approach of the G20 Summit, which is currently scheduled to be held in November in Riyadh, could be just that moment. In an attempt to clean its international image, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has undertaken progressive-looking measures, including lifting some of their bans on women’s rights. This pre-G20 whitewashing, however, does not make up for years of persecutions and human rights violations, nor does it mean the Saudi authorities have changed their stripes. But the G20 does provide a window of opportunity to uncover the unacceptable policies of the Saudi regime and raise international awareness about how staying silent is the same as condoning the Kingdom’s systematic human rights violations.
The best way to seize this moment is by creating a U.N. Special Rapporteur on Saudi Arabia, who can constantly monitor what is happening inside the country, compile credible information about violations, interact with both governments and civil society organizations, raise awareness, and engage in advocacy campaigns. Among the many actions a special rapporteur can do, including communications to States and other actors on alleged abuses or violations, they can receive and assess complaints by individual citizens about human rights issues, if foreseen by their mandate. For Saudi Arabia, this would be a critical step to provide an avenue for victims of human rights abuses to have someone who would actually listen to their experiences and act on what they have to say. Country-specific special rapporteurs are already in place in countries with cross-cutting human rights issues, such as the Palestinian occupied territories, North Korea, and Iran. The fact that a country mandate on Saudi Arabia has not yet been created says a lot about how entrenched impunity is for the Saudi authorities within the international community.
The independence and transparency of a U.N. special rapporteur would send a signal to the Saudi authorities that their impunity can’t last forever. It could facilitate dialogue and cooperation with the Saudi government, which has been lacking so far. It could encourage human rights defenders and civil society to continue their work within the country, providing them a safe platform for voicing their concerns, and transmitting their appeals for justice and redress. The Saudi authorities would find themselves forced to face their obligations as U.N. members and could finally be held accountable for their gross and systematic violations. Ultimately, the creation of a special rapporteur on Saudi Arabia would also send a powerful message to other governments perpetuating a similar pattern of non-compliance with international human rights standards.
This campaign for the creation of a UNSR on Saudi Arabia was launched in Geneva on March 10 during a panel discussion convened by No Peace Without Justice (www.npwj.org). This piece recalls a key outcome of the event, which featured Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, and UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Agnès Callamard. NPWJ is an international NGO campaigning for the protection and promotion of human rights, democracy, the rule of law and international justice.
Image: A Saudi man, wearing a protective mask as a precaution against COVID-19 coronavirus disease, walks past a mural showing the face of King Salman bin Abdulaziz, in Riyadh on March 15. Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images