United Nations institutions have recently racked up an impressive string of credibility-damaging decisions regarding Saudi Arabia and its horrendous human rights record. Fresh off member states electing Saudi Arabia to the UN Commission on the Status of Women despite the Saudi government’s systematic violation of women’s rights, UNESCO, the UN’s educational, scientific, and cultural agency, held its 7th International Forum of NGOs this week in Riyadh – where the government does not allow independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or activists to function and puts advocates of human rights in jail. The event was co-organized with the MiSK Foundation, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s personal philanthropic organization.
To be sure, Saudi Arabia took an important step in November 2015, when it finally approved an NGO law that allows organizations that don’t provide charity to exist and operate for the first time. The law has serious flaws, however, empowering the authorities to refuse to license or abolish any organization on vague grounds such as contradicting “public manners” or “national unity.” The law also bars NGOs from participating in events outside the country, receiving foreign funding, or collaborating with international organizations without government approval.
And this law appears to provide protection when the Saudi authorities continue to vigorously prosecute and imprison independent human rights activists for setting up “unlicensed organizations,” sentencing them to prison terms of up to 15 years. In October 2016, authorities launched a politically motivated prosecution of human rights activists Mohammad al-Oteibi and Abdullah al-Attawi for founding a short-lived human rights organization in 2013 – waiting three years to bring the charges.
There is certainly an argument that UN agencies and others should work with Saudi authorities to improve the human rights situation, including encouraging greater respect for freedom of association. But to host a prestigious NGO event in Saudi Arabia is a slap in the face to the more than a dozen Saudis languishing in prison merely for trying to set up independent organizations, and an unearned reward to the government officials who put them there.