Publication date: 13/03/2020

On 4 March 2020, ALQST, along with the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and the Right Livelihood Foundation, held a United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) side event entitled "Saudi Arabia’s cosmetic reforms and PR offensive to whitewash human rights abuses". Speakers, including an EU MEP and two family members of victims, highlighted the discrepancy between the reformist image Saudi Arabia is attempting to present and the dire human rights situation on the ground, and called on the international community to increase efforts to combat impunity in Saudi Arabia

Moderator Julia Legner, Head of Advocacy at ALQST and Independent Human Rights Consultant, introduced the event by discussing Saudi Arabia’s recent trend of investing heavily in sports and entertainment, as well as enacting superficial reforms, such as allowing women to apply for a passport, reforms which do not address the issues at their core. At the same time, we are witnessing a harsher crackdown on freedom of expression and peaceful critics, with new waves of arrests and ongoing trials of peaceful activists, continued impunity for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a rise in the use of the death penalty, and ongoing violations in Yemen.

Areej al-Sadhan, sister of imprisoned Saudi humanitarian worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, spoke about her brother’s case. March 2020 marks two years since he was arrested at his workplace in the headquarters of the Red Crescent Society in Riyadh, and forcibly disappeared ever since. Al-Sadhan described the emotional toll his disappearence has taken on herself and the family, fearing the worst about Abdulrahman’s fate and wondering if he was alive, especially with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi on their minds. They went through this turmoil for 23 months, until finally, in 12 February 2020, her brother was allowed a one-minute call, and was able to tell his family that he was alive.

Al-Sadhan also spoke about the practise of enforced disappearance in Saudi Arabia, which has become systematic and widespread. Periods of enforced disappearances can last for weeks or months, while others can last for over a year, such as was the case for journalists Marwan al-Muraisy and Turki al-Jasser. International human rights law clearly forbids the practise, yet Saudi Arabia uses it to send a chilling message that no one is safe and as a form of psychological torture to torment families of victims. In an effort to try and improve its reputation, Saudi Arabia is now spending millions on PR campaigns, but al-Sadhan argued that their record can only be improved by credible action, such as by releasing prisoners of conscience. Now, with Saudi Arabia opening its doors to the world and gearing up to host the G20 in November 2020, would be a good time for such action.

Lina al-Hathloul, sister of imprisoned Saudi women human rights defender Loujain al-Hathloul, spoke about Loujain’s activism, including advocating for the lifting of the female driving ban, for the dismantlement of the male guardianship system, and to open domestic shelters for abused women. Her campaigning saw her arrested for 73 days in 2014, after she tried to drive across the border from the UAE into Saudi Arabia, and again in March 2018 after she attended a CEDAW meeting at the United Nations, and she was issued a travel ban.

Al-Hathloul described her sister’s latest arrest in May 2018, when Loujain was arrested from her home. Her family had no information for around a month, until they found out she was being held in an unofficial location. When visits began in August 2018, it was clear to them that she was being tortured. She was held without trial for 10 months, and was finally brought to trial in March 2019. Contradicting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s earlier comments in a Bloomberg interview in October 2018, in which he said that the women’s rights activists were in prison because they were spies, the charges against them related solely to their activism, including contacting human rights activists, NGOs, and diplomats. The trial was suspended in April 2019, during which time Loujain was being held in solitary confinement, and it resumed again in January 2020, with the same charges being repeated.

Francesca Garbagnati, assistant of EU MEP Alessandra Moretti, who was unable to attend the event, spoke on behalf of Ms.Moretti. Moretti described MBS’ “carrot and stick” approach, in which he introduced Vision 2030 and a programme of social reforms on the one hand, but squeezed the space for fundamental rights and freedoms on the other. This can be seen with issues such as the crackdown on free expression and association, including the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and imprisonment of human rights defenders, on women’s rights, with the male guardianship system still prevailing in many areas including health, marriage, and citizenship, and the war in Yemen, the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

As such, Moretti urged the international community to delve deeper into the situation, and argued that hosting sporting events or granting certain socio-economic rights cannot be used to sacrifice fundamental rights. With the G20 scheduled to take place in Saudi Arabia in November 2020, and with their presidency built upon pledges including empowering women, the EU has a vital role to play in holding Saudi Arabia to account, including establishing a common position on human rights and trade, including arms sales. She mentioned Moretti’s recent written question to the EU Commission about Saudi Arabia’s G20 presidency, which can be read here. Ms. Moretti's full speech can be read here.

Yahya Assiri, Saudi human rights defender and Director of ALQST, described MBS’ initial PR campaign before he became Crown Prince as relatively successful, with many leaders viewing him as a “reformer”. However, this soon changed once he became Crown Prince, and was met by an increase in human rights violations. Despite MBS’ promise in 2018 to reduce the use of the death penalty, 185 individuals were executed in 2019, the largest number in recent Saudi history. He initiated the war in Yemen, which has become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. He has arrested anyone speaking out, even those who have stayed silent, and has refrained from releasing prisoners of conscience, unlike is often custom with new leaders. Torture has also become worse than it was in the past, with brutal methods being used including electric shocks, sexual harassment and psychological torture.

On what can be done, Assiri emphasised the importance of speaking out and highlighting cases. While the regime advises silence, saying that public pressure will make things worse, this is not true, as family members of victims like Abdulrahman al-Sadhan and Loujain al-Hathloul have found out. This is the same on the state level too. When states do not speak out, perhaps due to their strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia, this only encourages the regime to carry out more violations. Saudi Arabia may say that reform is coming, and urges a patient approach, but such reform has not happened, not even basic steps like the release of prisoners of conscience. In view of the ongoing and serious human rights violations, there is a strong need for collective pressure, including at the UN and EU level, to end impunity and hold the Saudi authorities to account. 

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