ODVV interview: Human rights in Saudi Arabia in conversation with Maya Foa

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Publish Date : 04/30/2018 11:25
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Saudi Arabia has recently been severely reprimanded over its human rights violations by international organisations, mostly the Human Rights Watch, which has offered a disappointing picture of the situation in this country.

Aside from its heavy involvement in the wars in Yemen and Bahrain, Saudi Arabia is still failing in several areas, including in criminal justice, women's and girl's rights and migrant workers. It's reported that over 9 million migrant workers fill manual, clerical and service jobs in the Persian Gulf country, constituting more than half of the workforce, but many of them suffer different sorts of abuse and exploitation, "amounting to conditions of forced labour."

In January 2018, UN human rights experts decried the Kingdom's continued use of counter-terrorism and security-related laws against intellectuals and human rights defenders, urging the release of all those detained for exercising their rights nonviolently.

In a statement issued on 2 January 2018, the group of experts deplored the targeting of religious figures, writers, journalists, academics and civic activists in a "worrying pattern of widespread and systematic arbitrary arrests and detention."

In an interview with Organisation for Defending Victims of Violence, Reprieve director Maya Foa talked about the rise of the number of executions in Saudi Arabia, arbitrary detention of activists and worrying situation of human rights in Saudi Arabia.

Maya Foa is a graduate of Oxford University in French and Italian, a 2015 Soros Justice Fellow and director of Reprieve, a non-profit organisation of international lawyers and investigators who work to "fight for the victims of extreme human rights abuses with legal action and public education".

Following is the text of the interview.


Q: In January 2018, the UN human rights experts took an unprecedented action in condemning the extrajudicial and extra-legal detention of Shia clerics, authors, university professors and journalists in Saudi Arabia, warning against the worrying increase in the systematic use of anti-terrorism and anti-security laws. Do you see this situation, which has apparently been intensified with the coming to power of the new Crown Prince in June 2017, compatible with the social reforms he is credited with introducing, including giving the women the right to drive or lifting the 35-year-long ban on cinemas?

A: Figures compiled by the team at Reprieve show that since Mohammed bin Salman came to power in June 2017, the rate of executions in Saudi Arabia has doubled, from 67 in the eight months before he became Crown Prince, to 133 in the eight months after. If that rate of executions continues then 2018 could see 200 executions, the highest number ever recorded in Saudi Arabia in one year.

We also know that there are 18 young men currently facing imminent execution for protest-related offences. They have all been charged under the wide-ranging “anti-terrorism” laws which effectively criminalise any public criticism of the government or royal family. Eight of those young men were children at the time of their alleged offences which makes their death sentences illegal under international law.

So, while the reforms that have been announced are both overdue and welcome, they mask a serious increase in the use of the death penalty and a crackdown on dissent in the Kingdom that is very concerning.


Q: Great Britain usually maintains close ties with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and I've read about Repreive and many other rights groups criticising and questioning the massive UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia and Prime Minister Theresa May's approval of multi-billion-pound worth of arms sales to the Saudis, which are being used as ammunition in the Yemen war. Do you think the Government has any actual plans to reconsider its arms and weapons policy or that anything will change following Mohammed Bin Salman's UK visit?

A: Reprieve does not work on the issue of the arms trade but we do have plenty of evidence of the British government offering assistance to Saudi Arabia that could contribute to human rights abuses.
The UK government has, for example, provided cybersecurity assistance and training to the Saudi security forces including the appointment of three UK cyber experts to help improve and strengthen cybersecurity capacity aimed at combatting terrorism. This, of course, is all in the context of anti-terrorism laws being used as an excuse to crack down on peaceful protests.

In addition, the UK College of Policing has provided forensics training to the Saudi Ministry of Interior since 2009. In 2016, documents obtained by Reprieve revealed that that training included mobile phone analysis and IT digital forensics.

A number of the young men Reprieve has assisted in Saudi Arabia have been sentenced to death and now face imminent beheading on the basis of evidence gained from their mobile phone and social media accounts. This evidence is precisely the type that UK police officers have been training their Saudi counterparts to gather.

If anything, UK cooperation with Saudi Arabia is increasing. As the government looks for new trading opportunities following the UK’s departure from the EU, it appears ministers are willing to overlook serious human rights violations in return for trade.


Q: The Human Rights Watch's 2018 report on Saudi Arabia gives a gloomy picture of the state of human rights in the kingdom. It specifically names detention of clerics, suppression of legitimate freedoms of the people, arbitrary arrest and persecution of children, violation of the rights of girls and women and ignoring the rights of workers and paid employees, who are mostly from African countries, as some of the noticeable instances of how things work in this country right now. Saudi Arabia is a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council. What makes the international community and the Saudis unable or reluctant to improve the situation?

A: The appointment of Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council shocked many around the world and those of us in the human rights community particularly. This calls into serious question the legitimacy of the UN’s main human rights body and its ability to improve the situation for victims of human rights abuses around the world.

In order to improve the situation, the international community, and particularly countries like the USA and the UK with close trading and economic ties to the Kingdom, need to make human rights a priority in an engagement. There should be a clear requirement for human rights safeguards in any security, justice or military cooperation and those conditions should be made public so their effectiveness can be properly assessed.

The UK has a framework in place called the Overseas Security and Justice Assistance Guidance (OSJA) which requires a human rights risk assessment to be made before any cooperation in the fields of security and justice can take place. But these assessments are not automatically made public and when organisations like Reprieve have forced the government to reveal them, they have often been shown to be merely a box-ticking exercise. The OSJA process needs to be improved and made significantly more transparent, and there needs to be a proper mechanism for complaints and concerns about potential human rights abuses to be properly and independently assessed.



By: Kourosh Ziabari


“ ODVV interview: Human rights in Saudi Arabia in conversation with Maya Foa ”