Last week, the British Foreign Office celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Human Rights Day by highlighting the courageous work of human rights defenders around the world.
When it comes to Saudi Arabia, however, the UK government’s support for human rights defenders is virtually nonexistent. It has been silent about the credible reports of torture, sexual harassment, and assault of Saudi women activists, who are detained in Saudi prisons for their peaceful activism.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and international media outlets have received reports that Saudi authorities have tortured and abused at least four detained female activists using electric shocks, whippings, and forcibly hugging and kissing them. At least one of the women reportedly attempted to commit suicide multiple times.
Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on women’s rights activists started just weeks before it lifted the ban on women driving in June, a cause for which many of the detained activists had campaigned. UK Prime Minister Theresa May welcomed the lifting of the driving ban as an “important step towards gender equality,” and then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had expressed strong support for the “reformer” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, advocating that Britain’s role should be to “encourage him along his path.” Yet the UK has not spoken out to protect the activists who made the reform possible.
In a welcome move, May did deliver strong messages during her meeting with Mohammed bin Salman at the G20 in December on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. She also encouraged Saudi Arabia to seek a political solution to the Yemen conflict. The UK in the past has strenuously avoided strong criticism of the Saudi-led coalition’s repeated violations in Yemen, some of which are likely war crimes.
But May did not raise the fate of the detained women activists.
If the UK is serious about championing human rights defenders globally, it should urgently act on the shocking reports of Saudi Arabia’s brutal torture of women’s rights activists and publicly demand that Mohammad bin Salman and his government release all detained activists immediately.