Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system – if you can call it that – has suddenly started to attract increased international scrutiny. Reports of the crucifixion sentence for a teenage protester and the planned lashing of Karl Andree, a British grandfather caught with a few bottles of homemade wine, have been deeply unflattering for a state that likes to keep its domestic human rights record off the agenda.
Saudi Arabia is, for once, being excoriated in headlines around the world. And despite protestations to the contrary, it seems likely that those headlines might have had some impact on the UK government’s withdrawal from a prison consultancy bid worth almost £6m.
Cancelling that deal is all very well, but it shouldn’t take a death sentence for a British national for the UK to act. Saudi Arabia, as is well known, is a gross and systematic abuser of human rights. As with many other countries that deny fundamental rights to their citizens, it shields itself from global scrutiny not by improving its performance, but keeping those violations under wraps.
Saudi Arabia is also very keen to wield its influence on the world stage, especially in the wake of the Iranian nuclear deal, which it regards as a serious security threat. It’s precisely for that reason that we should pay attention to the way it treats its own citizens – and in particular, to the criminal sanctions it imposes upon anyone under its jurisdiction.
Home and away
Saudi Arabia’s hallmark is the radical dissonance between its global aspirations and its domestic and regional behaviour. It clearly has its eyes on positions of prestige at the UN, and it cultivates an image as a regional powerhouse involved in “solving” local conflicts (in Yemen, say), all while simultaneously striking a deeply protective posture on its domestic and international responsibilities.
This year alone, Saudi Arabia has sought the presidency of the United Nations Human Rights Council (a move that was blocked through diplomatic means) and has taken its own military and political initiatives in Yemen and Syria.
Meanwhile, despite its vast wealth, the country apparently failed to welcome refugees fleeing conflicts in the region. Rights to adequate housing, food, water, healthcare and a livelihood are neither protected nor upheld. And it has been roundly criticised for yet another catastrophic stampede at the Hajj, a new bone of contention in its already frigid relations with Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses are many and broad. Torture and ill-treatment are common, widespread and generally committed with impunity. The death penalty and corporal punishment are routinely ordered by the courts in criminal cases. Access to justice, fair trials and due process are denied, with many convictions based on confessions extracted under duress.
Discrimination against the Shia minority is rife. Migrant workers face serious abuse and are offered precious little government protection. Human rights defenders are harassed, detained and prevented from undertaking their work. Freedoms of expression, assembly and belief are regularly violated by law enforcement agencies and by government agents.
Storm in a teacup
Saudi Arabia also has an appalling record of discriminating against women. Using economic, political, education and health criteria, the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index in 2012 ranked Saudi Arabia 131 out of 135 countries.
The country’s governorship system effectively means that women are unable to participate in society. Somewhat perversely, Saudi Arabia is party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The committee that monitors states’ compliance with their obligations arising under that treaty has expressed grave concerns about Saudi women’s rights.
Similar concerns have been raised by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Committee Against Torture. UN experts have spoken out against summary executions by firing squad and beheading. UN independent experts have also made recommendations on torture and ill-treatment, racism and xenophobia, arbitrary detention, and freedoms of belief and of expression within Saudi Arabia.
But of course, very little media attention is devoted to these issues until Saudi Arabia puts its head above the parapet, as it has on this latest case. And even then, lucrative international contracts aside, little can be done to effect significant change from afar.
Saudi Arabia is protected by its Gulf neighbours, and by its political allies within the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation. The country’s oil reserves and wealth, its ties with the US, and its position among allied Muslim states mean that this latest media storm is very much confined to a teacup.
The cancelled British contract or the diplomatic fallout over Yemen and Syria are all very well, but the Saudi regime is still not being held to account for its gross and systemic violations of its citizens’ human rights.