Human rights groups across regions oppose Saudi Arabia's candidacy

April 28, 2009

Your Excellency:

On May 12, 2009, your government will vote for new members to the UN Human Rights Council (Council). We, the undersigned international human rights organizations, join human rights groups from the Arab region in urging your government to not vote in favor of the reelection of Saudi Arabia to the Council this year.

The resolution establishing the Council requires that its members “fully cooperate” with the Council, including the independent human rights experts it appoints, and “uphold the highest standards” of human rights. Saudi Arabia meets neither of these two criteria.

Rather than “fully cooperate” with the Human Rights Council, Saudi Arabia has:

  1. Rejected Recommendations under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Saudi Arabia’s submission to the UPR failed to provide meaningful factual information about human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. The national report also contained no pledge to accede to key human rights treaties. Furthermore, the Human Rights Commission, a governmental entity which prepared the report, stated that it had involved all nongovernmental stakeholders, but well-known human rights activists reported to international human rights organizations that the commission had not consulted them. The Saudi government delegation gave limited and vague responses to the concerns raised by states during the universal periodic review, dismissing criticisms as unfounded due to a misunderstanding of Islam, Shari’a Law, and Saudi culture. Rather, Saudi Arabia pointed to Shari’a and the Quran as evidence of Saudi Arabia's commitment to human rights. While the rules of the review were generally followed, Saudi Arabia summarily rejected numerous recommendations, saying that they did “not conform to its existing laws, pledges, and commitments or do not refer to existing practices in Saudi Arabia.” These included recommendations that the government withdraw its reservations to CEDAW, ratify and implement the Optional Protocol to CEDAW, declare a moratorium on the death penalty with a view toward abolishing it, eliminate corporal punishment, and end the practice of incarcerating, mistreating, and applying travel bans against individuals on the basis of their political or religious beliefs.
  2. Failed to accept visits requested by numerous special procedures of the Council. As of April 2009, Saudi Arabia has six outstanding requests for visits from the Council’s special procedures. Requests from the experts on freedom of opinion and expression, trafficking in persons, and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions all predate the formation of the Council. Since Saudi Arabia joined the Council, the experts on torture and on freedom of religion or belief and the working group on arbitrary detention have also requested visits. Saudi Arabia has only accepted visits by two special procedures to date: the special rapporteurs on the independence of the judiciary (2002) and on violence against women (2008).
  3. Failed to respond to written requests from the Council and its experts In the past four years, Saudi Arabia has only responded to 13 of the 47 letters of allegation and urgent appeal sent by the Council’s experts. It also responded to only one of the twelve questionnaires sent by Council experts within the deadlines. The government facilitated the visit of the special rapporteur on violence against women but failed to fully cooperate with the rapporteur’s follow-up questions. Yet, in its state report to the Universal Periodic Review, the government incorrectly stated that it “repl[ies] to all allegations received.”

These repeated failures to “fully cooperate with the Council” amount to an obstruction of its legitimate work and undermine the Council’s ability to effectively protect human rights.

In addition, Saudi Arabia has failed to ratify the two fundamental international human rights treaties: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, despite official promises since at least six years to do so.

Saudi Arabia’s domestic record similarly does not meet the Council’s membership standards. Rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion and belief are not recognized in law and severely restricted in practice. From 2007 to 2009, Saudi security forces have arrested and detained, and courts have sentenced, persons for peaceful expression of opinion on internet websites, through private email, and in small public assemblies. The domestic intelligence forces have held thousands of detainees without charge or trial for over five years in some cases. Trials of terrorism suspects begun in 2009 are conducted in secret, in summary fashion, without legal representation for defendants and in violation of other fair trial standards. Saudi Arabia is one of only five countries in the world to retain the death penalty for children.

Government policy discriminates against women, foreign workers, and religious minorities. The government systematically suppresses the rights of 14 million Saudi women. Women require permission of their male guardians to work, travel, study, marry, receive health care or access public services and they are still not allowed to drive. Strictly enforced sex segregation adds to these barriers and hinders a Saudi woman’s ability to participate fully in public life. At least 1.5 million women domestic migrant workers suffer widespread abuses of their labor rights without the possibility of redress and many are subject to frequent verbal, physical, and sexual assault. Eight million migrant workers suffer discrimination in labor practices and access to the justice system. Saudi religious minorities cannot freely worship and suffer discrimination in employment, the education and religion-based justice system.

Membership on the Human Rights Council has not led Saudi Arabia to tangibly improve its human rights record. During this election, we urge UN member states to make clear to Saudi Arabia that to be considered a candidate, the government must demonstrate tangible improvements in the worst areas of its human rights record and step up its cooperation with the Council.

General Assembly members should not consider Saudi Arabia’s candidacy until the kingdom has demonstrated its willingness to:

  • Cooperate fully with the special procedures of the Human Rights Council, and ensure the procedures are strengthened within the Council.
  • Cease to restrict freedom of expression and association and peaceful assembly.
  • Ensure detainees have the right to judicial review and to fair and transparent trials.
  • End the juvenile death penalty.
  • End official discrimination against women by abolishing the male guardianship system.
  • Improve migrant workers’ labor protections and conditions and their access to the justice system, with particular attention paid to migrant domestic workers.
  • End official discrimination against religious minorities and enact reforms to permit freedom of religion and belief.

Excellency, support for Saudi Arabia, despite its failure to respect human rights, would set a dangerous precedent, and greatly undermine the legitimacy of both the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. Despite the current lack of alternative candidates in Asia, we ask that you simply not write-in Saudi Arabia on the ballot. By doing so, the General Assembly will send an important message about protecting the integrity of the UN human rights system, and give hope and encouragement to Saudi citizens in their ongoing struggle for reform and human rights.

With assurances of our highest respect,

Signatory civil society organizations:

African Democracy Forum (Kenya)

Ain O Salish Kendra (Bangladesh)

Asian Human Rights Commission (China)

Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (Philippines)

Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Thailand)

Asian Migrant Center (China)

Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (India)

CARAM Asia (Malaysia)

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (India)

Corporacion Humanas (Chile)

Democracy Coalition Project (United States)

East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (Uganda)

Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (Eritrea)

Fondation Humanus (Cameroon)

Freedom House (United States)

Human Rights Watch (United States)

Informal Sector Service Center (Nepal)

Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law (Nigeria)

International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (Iran)

International Federation for Human Rights (France)

Justice and Peace Netherlands (Netherlands)

Legal Aid Society of Uzbekistan (Uzbekistan)

Migrant Forum in Asia (Philippines)

The Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center, A.C. (Mexico)

Partnership for Justice (Nigeria)

Pax Romana ICMICA/MIIC (Switzerland)

People's Watch (India)

Programme Against Custodial Torture and Impunity in India (India)

South Asians for Human Rights (Sri Lanka)

West Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (Togo)

Signatory women’s civil society organizations:

All Women's Action Society (Malaysia)

Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development (Thailand)

International Women's Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (Malaysia)

Association Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc (Morocco)

BAOBAB for Women's Human Rights (Nigeria)

Human Rights Centre "Citizens against corruption" (Kyrgyzstan)

Kadın Emeğini Değerlendirme Vakfı/Foundation for the Support of Women's Work (Turkey)

National Alliance of Women Human Rights Defenders (Nepal)

Shymkent Women's Resource Center (Kazakhstan)

Women's Learning Partnership (United States)

Women's Rehabilitation Center (Nepal)

Solidarity partners network "People changing the world" (Kyrgyzstan)

Zi Teng (Hong Kong, China)