ODVV interview: Trump administration values...
A professor of law at the Yeshiva University believes the United States government under President Donald Trump refuses to openly criticize Saudi Arabia for its human rights violations in order to make sure it will not lose profitable arms deals with the kingdom. "The Trump administration takes the position that billions of dollars in arms sales and Saudi cooperation in the realm of counterterrorism are too important to risk for the sake of human rights," said Prof. Gabor Rona. Prof. Gabor Rona says the Trump administration has taken an "extreme position in line with its misguided 'America First' policy, that human rights is no longer a priority" when in conflict with American financial and security interests.
Gabor Rona is the International Legal Director of Human Rights First, a nonprofit, non-partisan human rights organization based in New York City and Washington D.C. He has also served as the legal advisor in the legal division of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva.
In an interview with the Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, Prof. Gabor Rona responded to some questions about Saudi Arabia's human rights record, reforms introduced by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the international reactions to Saudi Arabia's human rights violations. The following is the text of the interview.
Q: Many critics have discussed the reasons why the U.S. President Donald Trump has kept silent on numerous instances of the violation of human rights by Saudi Arabia and doesn't raise his voice in criticism and condemnation. One of the major examples is the detention of women rights activist Samar Badawi who was awarded the International Women of Courage Award in 2012 by the U.S. Department of State; however, the United States doesn't criticize her imprisonment presently. What's your take on that?
A: Following the Second World War, the United States was a driving force in the establishment of multilateral systems designed to promote, monitor and protect human rights. These include the United Nations, several major international human rights declarations and treaties, and various international mechanisms to monitor States’ compliance with human rights and to punish violators.
U.S. administrations have advanced or retreated from this role to varying degrees. The Trump administration has taken an extreme position, in line with its misguided “America First” policy, that human rights is no longer a priority, especially when in conflict with American financial and perceived or real security interests. Official U.S. policy toward Saudi human rights violations, whether suppression of political opinion at home, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, lack of due process of law, or gross violations of the law of armed conflict abroad – the seemingly deliberate and continuing targeting of civilians in Yemen – is in line with the new U.S. policy. The Trump administration takes the position that billions of dollars in arms sales and Saudi cooperation in the realm of counterterrorism are too important to risk for the sake of human rights.
This position will be tested with recent allegations that a Saudi dissident was murdered in Turkey, on the instructions of the highest levels of Saudi authority. However, it is clear that the Trump administration values profits for its arms industry and cooperation from the Saudi regime in its counterterrorism efforts, over human rights. In taking this position, the Trump administration fails to appreciate that violations of human rights by the Saudis at home and U.S. military support for such violations abroad create the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism. I might add that whatever “license” the Saudi regime might have thought it had to murder a dissident journalist on foreign soil, that sense of license was no doubt fueled by the President of the United States’ shameful tilt toward authoritarian regimes and leaders, and more specifically, his vilification of the media as “enemy of the people.”
Q: Saudi Arabia's military involvement in Yemen has so far cost the lives of thousands of civilians, including children and women. The United States, Britain and other Western countries have played a central role in the prolongation of this conflict by selling arms to Saudi Arabia in big numbers. Do you think the United Nations and other international organizations have played an efficient and constructive role in putting an end to the Yemen crisis?
A: The United States doesn’t only sell arms to the Saudis. It also provides intelligence and refueling operations to support the Saudi coalition’s military operations in Yemen; operations in which the Saudi coalition is known to be engaged in systematic war crimes involving the targeting of civilians. Within the United Nations, the protection and enforcement of international peace and security is the task of the Security Council. However, given the power of any permanent Security Council member to veto any resolution, Saudi allies such as the United States can prevent the Security Council from acting. Other international bodies have done little or nothing in response to systematic Saudi war crimes in Yemen.
Q: Despite being considered illegal under the constitution of Saudi Arabia, there are many reports about the use of violence and torture against the political prisoners in the jails of Saudi Arabia. Are the human rights organizations and international bodies able to preclude torture and mistreatment of prisoners in Saudi Arabia?
A: Human rights organizations have been active in naming and shaming the Saudi government for its suppression and violation of human rights at home and in advocating for reforms. There is little more they can do. International bodies can do more. Saudi Arabia is now a member of the UN Human Rights Council. Other state members of the Council should act to remove Saudi Arabia. The UN Security Council could, but will not refer Saudi Arabia for investigation by the International Criminal Court. Regional institutions such as the European Union and international financial institutions could be taking more aggressive measures to sanction and isolate the Saudi regime so long as it continues to violate human rights.
Q: Women in Saudi Arabia were given the right to drive cars after a longstanding ban. Is the right of driving enough for the Saudi women? Are there other important rights the Saudi women should enjoy and be entitled to, but are currently being denied?
A: Equality is central to human rights. International human rights law makes it crystal clear that women and men should enjoy the same rights, including to marriage, divorce, inheritance, employment, health care, participation in the political process, protection from sexual and domestic abuse, etc. Saudi Arabia is a long way from recognition and respect for these rights and from ending discrimination against women. Discrimination against women is often sought to be justified by reference to cultural and religious values that are also recognized in international human rights law. It is true that rights often conflict with other rights. In such cases, societies must balance the costs and effects of choosing one over the other. While the freedom to exercise one’s religion should not be unreasonably denied, it should and must give way when it constitutes discrimination against a long-disadvantaged class, including women.
Q: The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is credited with introducing social reforms and forging close ties with the Western countries. Why do you think Saudi Arabia's human rights record still looks critical as testified by such organizations as the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International despite the Crown Prince's reforms?
A: I think I’ve addressed this in my answers, earlier. Establishment of the right of women to drive is the “shiny object” used by the Saudi regime in its international charm offensive. Many in the West naively expected that this reform would symbolize a broader commitment to reform. There is little evidence of such a commitment and significant evidence to the contrary.
By: Kourosh Ziabari