Saudi Arabia Talks Human Rights in Geneva, Represses Rights at Home

by Adam Coogle Adam Coogle is a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, which he joined in 2010. He has written extensively based on his investigations into human rights abuses in the region. Adam received an M.A. in Arab Studies at Georgetown University in 2009, focusing on cultural anthropology in the MENA region. While at Georgetown, he completed a 15 month residency in Damascus, where he studied Arabic and worked with Iraqi refugees for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He was a Fulbright fellow in Jordan during 2005 and 2006, conducting research and studying Arabic. 12.03.2014

Last week, the president of Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission, the kingdom’s governmental human rights body, addressed the opening of the 22nd session of the UN Human Rights Council, which his country recently joined.  He told the council, “I … confirm my government is pressing ahead towards achieving its commitments in the field of human rights, and voluntary engagements made upon submitting its candidacy…” He followed this by announcing a $1 million Saudi donation to the council.

But a series of recent events inside the kingdom stands in sharp contrast to the country’s attempts to engage internationally on human rights.

For example, Saudi Arabia’s assault on peaceful criticism and independent civil society continues unabated. A new terrorism law decreed in January contains broad provisions that limit free expression and violate the right to due process.

Prominent civil and political rights activists Mohammed al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid marked one year in prison on March 9, convictedon charges stemming from their peaceful criticism of the government’s human rights abuses and membership in the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, an independent rights organization that Saudi authorities consider subversive. The men are currently on  hunger strike to protest prison conditions.

Jeddah activist Waleed Abu al-Khairi s now on trial before Saudi Arabia’s terrorism tribunal on charges such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and “making international organizations hostile to the kingdom.” He recently lost an appeal of an October 2013 conviction in a separate case, in which he was sentenced to three months in prison for signing a public statement critical of Saudi authorities. He told me he expects a summons to turn himself in “at any moment.”

In spite of marginal progress on women’s rights in 2013, women in Saudi Arabia continue to require permission from a male guardian for basic life functions such as getting a passport, undergoing certain medical procedures, or attending university.

Saudi Arabia presses on with a campaign to throw out hundreds of thousands of migrant workers found in violation of labor laws, despite the fact that these restrictive laws are part of a labor system that leads to rampant human rights abuses. A recent riot erupted at a crowded detention facility in Mecca hosting workers awaiting deportation, causing at least one death and numerous injuries.

It’s clear Saudi Arabia’s efforts to burnish its human rights record in Geneva are at best, mere window dressing – at worst,  an attempt to obscure repression at home.

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