ODVV interview: Saudi Arabia remains a serial...
Reports by the international organizations indicate that Saudi Arabia continues to remain a major human rights violator. In 2018, Saudi authorities carried on with their campaign of arbitrary detention, trial and conviction of peaceful protesters. 146 executions were carried out this year and the kingdom's involvement in the military campaign in Yemen claimed numerous innocent lives.
A distinguished human rights lawyer tells the Organization for Defending Victims of Violence that despite introducing social reforms, Saudi Arabia remains a serial human rights violator and doesn't welcome criticism of its actions and policies.
"The Saudi government is an authoritarian regime and doesn’t tolerate dissent of any kind, either at home or abroad," said Arjun Sethi, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center.
"If the regime was confident in its human rights record, it would proffer evidence exonerating itself. Instead it proceeds with raw force, whether it be in the form of cluster munitions in Yemen or threatening to sever relations with an ally like Canada," he added.
Arjun S. Sethi is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Georgetown University Law Center and Vanderbilt University Law School. He is the author of the recent book "American Hate: Survivors Speak Out." Arjun Sethi's writings have appeared in such publications as The Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Politico Magazine.
In an interview with ODVV, Arjun Sethi shared his views about the situation of human rights in Saudi Arabia, the rights of religious minorities and women and the international reactions to the violations of human rights in this country. The following is the text of the interview.
Q: A lot has been said about social reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia; however, international organisations such as the Human Rights Watch state in various reports that human rights are being violated in this country grossly. What's your take on that? Is Saudi Arabia committed to the principles of human rights when it comes to its citizens?
A: Saudi Arabia remains a serial human rights violator both at home and abroad. Social reforms intended to redistribute wealth are always welcome but cannot absolve the regime of its human rights atrocities. Plus roughly 10 million migrant workers continue to suffer systemic abuse and exploitation. Passport confiscation, withholding of wages and forced labor are commonplace. In some ways, the social reforms are a cosmetic distraction from the underlying problem: an authoritarian regime that acts with impunity.
Q: One of the major human rights challenges of Saudi Arabia is how to deal with authors, bloggers, activists, clerics and human rights defenders who express their critical views in their writings and speeches. These people are usually sentenced to harsh penalties by the Saudi judicial system. Does the Saudi regime have the capacity to take up criticism and reconcile with its critics?
A: Freedom of speech, press, and association are human rights that every nation should guarantee. In Saudi Arabia, pro-reform activists and peaceful dissidents are regularly detained, tortured, and tried in the Specialized Criminal Court, a sham tribunal with few judicial safeguards. Blogging, criticism, and protesting are enough to draw the ire of the Saudi regime. Judges and prosecutors regularly convict people under broad, vague charges like “breaking allegiance with the ruler” or “trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom.” The Saudi judicial system fails almost every recognized human rights metric.
Q: Amnesty International and other world bodies have criticized Saudi Arabia for its heavy military involvement in Yemen and killing the innocent civilians. Do you think leaving Yemen and putting an end to the humanitarian crisis in the impoverished country is on Saudi Arabia's agenda?
A: Yemen is facing one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern history. The Saudi-led coalition continues to indiscriminately bomb and shell civilians, target humanitarian organizations, and obstruct the delivery of food and medical supplies. Homes, hospitals, schools, factories, markets, and mosques are regularly targeted; cluster munitions are still being used; and millions in Yemen are hungry or dying from disease. The Saudi regime seems to content to either murder the people of Yemen or force them to die of hunger and sickness. The regime has repeatedly violated international humanitarian law and those responsible for committing these war crimes should be arrested and prosecuted.
Q: Women have recently been allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia after a long ban. Does this development herald more freedoms for women and the reduction of pressures on women activists?
A: Certain rights have been extended to women in Saudi Arabia recently, but in no way has the regime eased the repression of women activists. In addition, women still face difficulties traveling abroad, obtaining a passport, working, and marrying. Nor do they have the right to choose their dress: women must wear an abaya and headscarf. Moreover, many migrant workers are domestic workers and continue to experience abuse and discrimination. Sexual assault, withholding of wages, and servitude remain commonplace.
Q: The officials of the US administration who usually voice concern about the violation of human rights in other countries almost never say anything in criticism of the situation of human rights in Saudi Arabia. Are they concerned that questioning the human rights violations in this Arab country might endanger their amicable mutual relations?
A: The US is complicit in war crimes in Yemen. The US government has provided logistical and intelligence support to Saudi forces, and continues to sell billions worth of arms to the Saudi regime. The US should immediately terminate all support of the Saudi led military campaign in Yemen.
Q: What's your viewpoint on the status of religious minorities in Saudi Arabia? Do they have the freedom to practice their faith? What's the position of the Saudi government on the religious minorities, especially the Shia Muslims?
A: Religious minorities face systemic and institutional discrimination in Saudi Arabia. Shia, and other minority communities, are not allowed to build houses of worship and practice their faith freely. Religions other than Islam are demonized in school curricula and government affiliated religious authorities regularly impugn these diverse traditions. Many minority faith activists, in particular Shia dissidents, languish in jail because of their religious and political beliefs.
Q: What do you think about the recent spat between Saudi Arabia and Canada over the latter's criticism of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia? Why did the Saudis get so angry at a simple tweet and escalated the tensions to the point of severing the bilateral relations?
A: The Saudi government is an authoritarian regime and doesn’t tolerate dissent of any kind, either at home or abroad. If the regime was confident in its human rights record, it would proffer evidence exonerating itself. Instead it proceeds with raw force, whether it be in the form of cluster munitions in Yemen or threatening to sever relations with an ally like Canada. Dissent is anathema to authoritarianism. Indeed it’s why the Saudi regime censored and blocked my human rights reporting in December 2015. If they did that to me living thousands of miles away, imagine what they do to activists inside their own borders?
By: By Kourosh Ziabari