Defending Women’s Rights Is Not Terrorism: A Saudi Prosecution on Human Rights Day

On Dec. 10, Human Rights Day, a terrorism court in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia started proceedings against Loujain Al-Hathloul, a respected defender of women’s human rights. Al-Hathloul is one of the Kingdom’s most prominent and well-known human rights activists. She has campaigned on numerous issues, most notably against the driving ban that prevented women in the Kingdom from driving cars alone, a prohibition that has been gradually eased since 2018. She has argued vociferously against the legal system of male guardianship.

Al-Hathloul’s striving for gender equality and non-discrimination for women is a direct expression of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”  Article 2 of the declaration also affirms the rights of all persons to the freedoms outlined in the document “without distinction, including …  sex.”  Al-Hathloul has stood for election in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, consistent with the right in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration, but while being recognized as a candidate, did not secure her name on the ballot. She has stood up at every turn for the rights of women, at great personal cost.

Al-Hathloul was arrested in May 2018 and has been held in detention for almost two years.  For the first 10 months of her detention, she was not charged with any offence, nor brought to trial. The charges that now bring her before a terrorism court include breaching Article 6 of the Kingdom’s Anti-Cybercrime Law, which punishes the production and transmission of material deemed to impinge on public order, religious values, public morals, and private life. She is accused of having “communicated with people and entities hostile to the King,” “cooperated with journalists and media institutions hostile to the King,” having “provided financial support to foreign adversaries” and having “recruited persons for information detrimental to the security of the Kingdom.”

The Terrorism Court has already been the subject of scrutiny from United Nations entities. Both the Committee Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention have expressed concerns about this court, which was established in 2008 to try cases of terrorism. The committee and the working group found that the court is insufficiently independent of the Ministry of the Interior to be considered truly independent. It is a singularly exceptional court,  not composed of independent judges but of a panel appointed by the Ministry of the Interior.

Both of us, as experts on human rights defenders and on human rights in countering terrorism, respectively, are appalled that the defense of women’s human rights is being defined as terrorism, processed by a terrorism court, and subject to exceptional legal processes. These charges underscore the ludicrous scope of counterterrorism law in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an issue that has been addressed at length by Fionnuala’s mandate. Mary, whose daily work is defending those who defend rights, described her alarm at the way in which a woman human rights defender who is claiming the ordinary rights to expression, assembly, and association finds herself before a terrorism court, a problem not unique to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but brought into sharp focus by this case. We are both adamant that advocacy for women’s human rights is not to be defined or punished as terrorism, and that this kind of retrogressive and harmful stance underscores deep problems of gender discrimination, indeed gender discrimination stitched into the fabric of society in Saudi Arabia.

We insist that the misuse of counterterrorism and security measures against women human rights defenders must end. As with the case of the three Egyptian human rights defenders charged with terrorism just two weeks ago, the abuse of these measures must stop. Moreover, U.N. entities that support and enable counterterrorism, including through their cooperation with the Kingdom, must also live up to their due-diligence obligations and ensure that enabling the abuse of counterterrorism is not done in our collective name. If that principle is true in general, it is particularly true on Human Rights Day, an occasion originated by the United Nations itself, when the protection of women (and men) human rights defenders should be foremost in all our minds.

IMAGE: This picture taken early on Nov. 19, 2020, shows a projection on the Louvre Museum in Paris by Amnesty International members depicting jailed Saudi human rights activists including Loujain Al-Athloul (C) and reading “Mr Macron, demand their release,” ahead of the virtual G20 summit. (Photo by THOMAS COEX / AFP) (Photo by THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images).

 

About the Author(s)

Mary Lawlor

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders. Adjunct Professor of Business and Human Rights in the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), School of Business, Trinity College Dublin. Follow her on Twitter (@MaryLawlorhrds)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism. This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity. Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. You can follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).