Saudis brave themselves for first UN rights review


The three-year-old Saudi Human Rights Commission is expected to call at a meeting in Geneva for patience and understanding in its effort to develop better laws and practices in the country.

But rights groups, while acknowledging the milestone, say Riyadh is still not doing much to implement protections.

“For years, Saudi Arabia has made promises to do a better job of protecting rights,” Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director Sarah Whitson said in a statement ahead of the review.

“The international community should ensure that its review of Saudi Arabia does not just produce more promises, leaving the Saudi people empty-handed.”

The review is Saudi Arabia’s first under the UN council’s quadrennial review structure, in which international rights groups submit their views and the country under review reports on its own progress.

The key issues are debated and recommendations are made, to be accepted or rejected by the country. The conclusions are not binding, but rights activists hope to hold the country to its own claims.

Rights groups have been scathing of Saudi Arabia for years. The country is singled out for its high rate and uneven application of executions — 102 in 2008 and 153 in 2007.

Groups cite the country’s strict Islamic policies that subject women to a male guardian’s permission to travel, work and marry, for instance.

They also complain of unpoliced abuse of women, torture, widespread arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention without charge or trial and jailing of political activists, like government critic Matrook al-Faleh, arrested in May 2008 and held for 235 days without charge, trial or access to lawyers until January 10 when he was released without explanation.

The Saudi criminal justice process “fails to meet the most basic standards of fairness and prisoners’ rights,” Amnesty International said in a February filing for the Saudi review.

“Political dissent, freedoms of expression, religion, association and assembly are severely curtailed in law and practice,” it said.

The critics also say the country’s Islamic sharia-based legal system has few fixed standards or precedents for consistent charges and judgements, giving the cleric judges vast authority based on their own interpretation of Islamic texts.

The official Human Rights Commission’s submission in its defense cites steady progress in joining international treaties and crafting laws in various areas like court procedures.

It also pleads for patience with its challenge of dealing with “inherited customs and traditions” which “require particular types of adaptation and might take a long time … to adjust to change.”

“We are new at this,” Mohammed al-Khunaizi, a member of the Human Rights Commission’s board, told AFP. “Some people here don’t even understand what human rights means.”

But the commission’s defense says very little about the actual situation or specific cases.

And the country has in the past year refused visit requests from several UN special rights rapporteurs and Amnesty. Human Rights Watch says it has not had access since March 2008.

Human Rights Watch’s Christoph Wilcke acknowledged the the commission’s work has made it “legitimate to talk about human rights.”

But he told AFP that some key rights laws have been passed but never implemented and others drawn up but never passed.

“The government keeps making promises, but nothing happens … The government is using tradition as an excuse for not starting something.”

“They are achieving something, there is no doubt about that,” said Amnesty’s Lamri Chirouf.

“Unfortunately, the situation on the ground remains very bleak.”

Khunaizi said the commission struggles daily with an ever-mounting caseload totalling some 6,500 cases since it began work in late 2005.

Most of them are dealt with through phone calls and letters to often very uncooperative authorities, he said.

“We need to move gradually, to let the government and the people accept our role,” Khunaizi said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *