(Geneva) – Other countries should use the rare opportunity for scrutiny of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record on October 21, 2013, to press for concrete steps to end abuses. Country representatives gathering in Geneva for the United Nations Human Rights Council’s periodic review of Saudi Arabia should press for actions that include the immediate release of Saudi activists jailed over the past year solely for peacefully advocating reform.

Saudi Arabia has convicted seven prominent human rights and civil society activists since the beginning of 2013 – including Abdullah al-Hamid, Mohammed al-Qahtani, Mikhlif al-Shammari, and Wajeha al-Huwaider – on broad, catch-all charges, such as “trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom,” “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” and “setting up an unlicensed organization.” Saudi courts are currently trying others, including the human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, on similar charges and authorities have harassed and placed travel bans on dozens more. 

“Many countries have problematic records, but Saudi Arabia stands out for its extraordinarily high levels of repression and its failure to carry out its promises to the Human Rights Council,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “Countries should use this opportunity to send a strong, unified message that Saudi Arabia needs to make critical human rights reforms.” 

Despite longstanding reform promises, the government of Saudi Arabia has failed to make substantive changes, Human Rights Watch said. In particular, it should improve its arbitrary criminal justice system, abolish the system of male guardianship over women, and throw out discriminatory aspects of its sponsorship system for foreign workers, which leave workers vulnerable to abuses including forced labor. Saudi Arabia also stands out for its failure to heed the recommendations of its most recent Human Rights Council review, in February 2009.

Human Rights Watch submitted its own human rights assessment of Saudi Arabia to the Human Rights Council in advance of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), highlighting key concerns and necessary steps to address them.

The UPR comes just weeks before Saudi Arabia’s bid for a three-year seat on the Human Rights Council. States will choose 14 countries to replace the ones scheduled to rotate off. 

One other immediate step that countries should urge is for Saudi Arabia to immediately end its longstanding denial of access for the UN’s own rights monitors. Seven UN rapporteurs have requested access to the kingdom since 2009, but none have been allowed to visit.

Saudi Arabia should also sign and ratify core UN human rights treaties and agreements such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

“Saudi Arabia’s exceptionally poor record of cooperation with the UN and its refusal to ratify major human rights legislation should be key features of the Universal Periodic Review,” Stork said.

Other key concerns include:

  • An arbitrary criminal justice system, which violates the most basic international human rights standards through systematic violations of due process and lack of fair trial rights. Since 2009, authorities have convicted and jailed scores of men and women under vague politicized charges that place impermissible limits on the right to free expression, association, and assembly for expressing their peaceful political and religious opinions. Saudi Arabia lacks a criminal penal code, leaving individual judges and prosecutors with wide latitude to define and punish alleged criminal behavior based on individual interpretations of Islamic law.
  • Lack of an associations law, forcing independent non-charity organizations to operate illegally and leaving activists liable for criminal prosecution for “setting up an unlicensed organization.”
  • Despite some improvements on women’s rights, the failure to abolish fully the male guardianship over women, as Saudi Arabia promised during its 2009 human rights review. Women are required to get permission from male guardians for basic life functions such as to conduct official business with the government agencies, leave the country, or have certain medical procedures. Women remain barred from driving in Saudi Arabia.
  • A discriminatory foreign worker sponsorship system, which gives employers inordinate power over workers and leads to abuses including non-payment of salaries, physical and emotional abuse, and even forced labor and slavery. Workers remain barred from switching employers without permission, even to escape abusive situations, and every worker must obtain an exit visa signed by their employer to leave the country.

The UN General Assembly resolution that established the Human Rights Council says that member states should “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and “shall fully cooperate with the Council.” 

“Saudi Arabia’s record of repression and of breaking its promises to improve its human rights practices raise serious questions about its fitness for membership in the Human Rights Council,” Stork said. “Saudi Arabia needs to take concrete, visible steps before the council elections to show it’s willing to improve its abysmal rights record, including freeing the jailed activists.”