ODVV interview: The execution of Shiite clergy...
A human rights expert says the execution of Shiite clergy in Saudi Arabia is an "unjustified and odious practice" that doesn't fit into the Crown Prince's vision of reform in the country, marked by the recent developments, including the opening of cinemas to the public and giving the Saudi women the right to drive cars.
Mark P. Lagon is a Distinguished Senior Scholar at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He had served as the President of Freedom House and was an Adjunct Senior Fellow for Human Rights at the Council on Foreign Relations. From 2007 to 2009, Prof. Lagon was the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large and Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
In an interview with Organisation for Defending Victims of Violence, Prof Mark Lagon shared his views about the state of human rights in Saudi Arabia, the rights of immigrant workers, the kingdom's involvement in the Yemeni crisis and the international response to the violations of human rights in the Arab country. The following is the text of the interview.
Q: The human rights situation in Saudi Arabia has been fiercely criticized in the recent months by international organisations who have voiced their opposition against the arbitrary detention of writers, journalists and political activists. Do you consider the removal of the longstanding ban on the right of Saudi women to drive cars and the opening of the doors of cinemas to the public a signal of the improvement of the situation of human rights in this country?
A: The lifting of the driving ban is a welcome step forward, and it removes a hypocritical barrier to the fuller contribution of women to the Saudi economy the kingdom purports to seek. Women driving and cinemas are signs of liberalization, but larger openings for women being freed of escort and consent of males needed to go about their daily life and openings for the free flow of ideas and knowledge uncensored will better serve the dignity and prosperity of the Saudi people. The intensification of restrictions on dissent and journalists cut in the opposite direction from the discrete driving and cinema reforms. The practice of dramatic forms of execution are an outlier in the world and an affront to human dignity.
Q: International media call Mohammad bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia a politician who introduced many social reforms. Do you believe that his reforms are serious and tangible, considering Saudi Arabia's governmental structure and his treatment of the critics of the state?
A: Mohammad bin Salman authentically wishes to modernize and enervate the Saudi economy, whether breaking its monolithic reliance on oil or building consumer spending and tourism domestically. However, his consolidation of power has adopted methods akin to Xi Jinping in China; in the name of modernizing, using anti-corruption efforts selectively to control rivals in elite families and amass more power for the supreme leader than seen in decades. Indeed, detention of less powerful royals and ruthless squashing of dissent have been means to exaggerate a threat in order to justify consolidating singular power even before becoming the King.
Q: One of the major issues which the recent Human Rights Watch report on the situation of human rights in Saudi Arabia discussed critically is the rights of the foreign workers which come from countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and African countries, but don't receive sufficient wages and are sporadically abused by their employees and are literally stranded in Saudi Arabia. What's your take on that?
A: As former CEO of the leading US anti-trafficking non-profit Polaris, I view these problems as longstanding problems in the Kingdom and the [Persian] Gulf. The reliance on a huge number of foreign workers fosters the Saudi elite’s contention that they must be kept under careful control as a major presence in the Kingdom. Despite some reforms since I visited the [Persian] Gulf twice in 2007 and 2008 as U.S. Ambassador to combat human trafficking, withholding of passports, squalid living quarters, inhumane hours, low pay diminished by garnishing fees from workers, and veritable debt bondage allow extreme exploitation.
Q: Saudi Arabia boasts of being the spiritual leader of the Muslim world. What's your viewpoint about the freedoms of the religious minorities in this country? What is the reason the legitimate freedoms and liberties of religious minorities, such as the Shiites, are denied?
A: Saudi Arabia hosts the greater Muslim population of the world for pilgrimage, and is indeed important as such. But the Sunni majority implement not only an acutely repressive policy against the slightest manifestation of non-Muslim religious practice, but an equally aggressive policy against Shiites. The execution of Shiite clergy as an alleged threat to the Kingdom is a particularly unjustified and odious practice. Finally, while working with the US to counter networks of terrorists and extremists, massive Saudi subsidization of fundamentalist religious education worldwide is as much a threat to pluralism and stability abroad as its religious repression is within the country.
Q: Do you think Saudi Arabia will leave the Yemen war in the near future? As confirmed by the Human Rights Watch, the military presence of Saudi Arabia in Yemen has led to gross violations of human rights and the killing of more than 5,200 civilians as of November 2017. What's your prediction for the future of Yemen while Saudi Arabia continues to play a not so much constructive role there?
A: I do not think Mohammad bin Salman and the Saudi Government will pull back from Yemen anytime soon – despite the humanitarian harm to children and other civilians, and the fact that their policy does not tangibly advance Saudi economic or security interests. Iran’s influence throughout the region is not positive for human rights nor US interests – from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to supporting the government of Yemen. Nonetheless, Saudi policy in Yemen, in the name of countering Iran, undoubtedly harms rather than advances just governance, stability, and peace in that country. And it is abetted by US intelligence-sharing, assistance, and refuelling of Saudi aircraft responsible for indiscriminate use of force.
Q: As one of the members of the UN Human Rights Council, what do you think Saudi Arabia should do to improve the rights of its own citizens and stop the blatant violation of the right of the Yemeni civilians?
A: While not alone in that regard, Saudi Arabia is not exactly a model of liberties among the Human Rights Council’s membership. It could improve its record meeting obligations under treaties it has ratified, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The most important steps it could take include ending or at least markedly circumscribing use of the death penalty, including in particularly cruel forms and against Shiite clergy; punishment of non-Islamic and Shiite believers exercising their freedom of conscience; requirements for females’ escort and consent by male relatives; and restrictions on freedoms of the press and expression. As a matter of human rights and the humanitarian law of war, it must cease targeting, maiming, and killing civilians in Yemen as documented by the Council, UNICEF, and numerous credible nongovernment organizations.
Q: What is your viewpoint on the performance of the United States and European governments in addressing the violations of human rights by Saudi Arabia? In May 2017, the US President Donald Trump confirmed $110 million of arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite opposition by the Congress due to Saudis' conduct in Yemen. Do you think Saudi Arabia will change its approach to human rights without receiving a serious warning from its Western allies?
A: Some European powers, notably Sweden, have been forthright in at least rhetorically raising Saudi rights abuses. However, the United States has gone from a policy before Trump of criticizing Saudi Arabia, and other allies, such as Bahrain or Egypt, while maintaining close working partnerships and arms sales. Now the Trump administration has muted public criticism of rights abuses, and ratcheted up arms sales. There is no assurance that private or public condemnation of Saudi abuses will lead to their curtailment if active economic and security cooperation continue undisturbed. But what is assured is that if there is no public or private chiding from a historically leading voice on human rights, the US cannot expect any serious political and civil liberalization in the Kingdom. If anything, President Trump and his son-in-law as Mohammad bin Salman’s interlocutor are encouraging illiberal style of rule contributing to a pressure cooker which spurs rather than quells extremism.
By: Kourosh Ziabari