UN human rights rebuke sends 'powerful statement' to Saudi Arabia, say campaigners

UN human rights rebuke sends 'powerful statement' to Saudi Arabia, say campaigners
A statement signed by at least 36 countries condemning Saudi human rights abuses has been commended by human rights groups.
3 min read
08 March, 2019
Women's rights campaigners and other activists have been detained by Saudi authorities [Getty]

Human rights groups and activists have welcomed a rare UN rebuke of Saudi Arabia for human rights abuses this week, but urged the body to do more to free detained activists.

The statement was signed by at least 36 countries, including all members of the European Union, and read out at the United Nations Human Rights Council meeting on Thursday.

It follows the mass detention by Saudi authorities of human and women's right campaigners, who have been reportedly tortured and sexually abused by their jailers and could face the death penalty.

"The joint statement to Saudi Arabia at the UN Human Rights Council sends a strong message to Saudi authorities that it needs to end its abusive treatment of activists and dissidents," John Fisher, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch.

"Council member states should stand in solidarity with detained Saudi activists, press for their immediate release and maintain scrutiny of Saudi Arabia until there is substantial improvement in its rights record and meaningful reform."

The statement was read out by Iceland's ambassador to the UN Harald Aspelund.

"We call on Saudi Arabia to take meaningful steps to ensure that all members of the public, including human rights defenders and journalists, can fully and freely exercise their rights to freedom of expression, opinion and association, including online, and without fear of reprisals," the statement said.

It was the first public rebuke of Saudi Arabia since the United Nations Human Rights Council was formed in 2006, and was widely welcomed by human rights groups.

Saudi Arabia is a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council of the 47 nation body, which is reserved for states that contribute to the "promotion and protection of human rights", principles that Riyadh are widely viewed as flouting.

Some Saudi activists have criticised the body for not taking a tougher stance against Riyadh's flagrant human rights abuses.

"The UN Human Rights Council (HRC)'s reprimanding of Saudi Arabia is highly ironic, given that the Kingdom is a member of the body," Sarah al-Otaibi, a women's rights activist who has written widely on Saudi Arabia, told The New Arab on Friday.

"Beyond censure, the HRC must contemplate whether a country that unabashedly sleighs journalists, detains activists, and commits war crimes deserves a seat. If the HRC does not prioritize such a redress, concerned individuals must pressure it to do so."

Saudi Arabia has jailed a number of peaceful human rights activists following a clampdown under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom's effective ruler.

Women's rights campaigners were detained following the crown prince's much-publicised announcement last year that he would end a ban on women from driving in the kingdom.

Among those jailed was Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi woman who had campaigned against the gender discriminatory driving ban.

UN human rights experts said on Monday that Saudi Arabia has widely used counter-terror laws to suppress dissent.

"It includes people who are engaged in promoting or inciting sit-ins, protests, meetings or group statements. Anyone who harms the unity or stability of the kingdom by any means. These are notoriously slippery terms," said Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the UN special rapporteur on protecting human rights.

The UN Human Rights Council also reprimanded Riyadh for the murder of critical Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year.

Khashoggi was brutally killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October by a murder squad sent to Turkey by the Saudi crown prince, Turkish and US intelligence have claimed.

Riyadh has also been criticised for human rights abuses and the high civilian death toll in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has launched air strikes on rebel areas.