On March 12th, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) published its recommendations on Saudi Arabia, addressing some of the serious concerns raised by FIDH, its member organisation GCHR and Al Qst about the appalling situation of Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs). The Committee urged Saudi Arabia to stop repressing women human rights defenders. The situation in the country was previously reviewed by the CEDAW Committee on February 27, which was the occasion for representatives of Saudi Arabia’s government to develop a misleading narrative on human rights, especially denying the numerous violations and discriminations against women.
The latest signs of openness, such as the yet-to-be-implemented right to drive for women, have not only been used in a consistent manner to sell a new image for Saudi Arabia at the international level, but also to divert the attention from more critical issues such as the male guardianship system or the bombing of civilians in Yemen. Hiding behind concepts of traditional values and cultural specificity, Saudi representatives’ public relations efforts went from explaining how women were free to make their own choices in all aspects of life, to denying the mere existence of the male guardianship system, of a dress code, or even of a gender pay gap. They stated that Saudi Arabia was protecting civilians and respecting international humanitarian law in Yemen and that women human rights defenders were protected by the NGO law of December 2015, contradicting NGO reports unanimously denouncing the use of vaguely worded repressive laws and practices discriminating women, restricting their freedoms in all aspects of life, and crushing any dissident voice in the country.
“Our organisations, who were present to report on the harsh repression of women human rights defenders and the terrible situation of women in the country, denounce the campaign of misinformation led by Saudi Arabia, and remain committed to a systematic deconstruction of alternative facts communicated by this ultra-repressive regime.” said Yahya Assiri from ALQST.
The CEDAW Committee paid special attention to the male guardianship system, under which women are required to seek formal permission from their guardian to carry out standard everyday activities such as obtaining a passport, opening a bank account, renting an apartment, registering at a university, or accessing justice. Our organisations exhorted the Committee to demand the immediate abolition of this system by a Royal Decree, and to implement severe sanctions against all administrations, businesses or entities which would continue asking women for their guardian’s permission. The Committee said it was concerned about the persistence of the male guardianship system and recommended Saudi Arabia to “accelerate its efforts to repeal all remaining discriminatory provisions in its national legislation, in particular legal provisions that require a male guardian’s authorization for women’s exercise of their rights”.
During the review, CEDAW Committee members also insisted on the lack of legal protection of women human rights defenders. The Law on Associations and Foundations of 6 December 2015, which governs civil society organisations, is used as a repressive tool by the regime, and does not allow the creation of organisations working on legal, political or human rights issues. While the women’s rights movement has been more vigorous than ever, women’s rights defenders keep risking their own freedom and safety to reclaim their very basic rights. Activists -men and women- are still being arrested, charged and condemned to harsh prison sentences for “terrorism” and “cyber criminality” only for demanding their rights of expression and assembly. The Committee recommended that Saudi Arabia stop harassment of women human rights defenders and ensure that they are able to exercise their freedom of expression and association, and refrain from any reprisals against them and their relatives.
Despite considerable efforts to improve its image on the international scene, Saudi Arabia remains a particularly repressive authoritarian regime, which violates women’s rights and systematically targets any attempt to criticize its rulers. Our organisations will keep monitoring and responding with real facts to any disinformation attempts by the Saudi government. They will also systematically counter any cosmetic announcements that do not match with genuine reforms required from Saudia Arabia by the Convention and its other international obligations, including those related to women’s rights, fundamental freedoms, and civic space for independent civil society.