Saudi Arabia: 40 Organisations urge the UN Human Rights Council to hold Saudi Arabia accountable

WORLD |– As the Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard presents today to the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) her findings into the extrajudicial killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, 40 civil society organisations publish a letter sent to 48 ministries of Foreign Affairs from all regional groups at the UN, urging them to establish a mechanism to report on the human rights violations in the country and urge the Saudi government to immediately and unconditionally release all those arbitrarily detained, abolish the male guardianship system, and establish an immediate moratorium on the use of the death penalty.  

"No State is above scrutiny for its human rights record,” said the organisations, which include the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR).  

The organisations highlighted that the provisional release of some activists demonstrates that HRC scrutiny can contribute to positive human rights outcomes on the ground, particularly with respect to the cases of detained women human rights defenders. But for this scrutiny to remain effective, it must be sustained. 

Over a dozen Saudi women human rights defenders were arrested starting in mid-May 2018 after the lift of the driving ban. Some of them were tortured and threatened with rape, yet no perpetrator has been held accountable. In March 2019, 36 countries at the HRC called on Saudi Arabia to release all individuals detained for exercising their fundamental freedoms, including ten women human rights defenders who were individually named.  

Since then, nine of them were referred to trial after almost ten months of detention without a charge, but they are facing unfair trials; seven were provisionally released; and many have not been charged nor referred to trial and remain arbitrarily detained. The authorities’ crackdown on freedom of expression has continued. In April 2019, the Saudi government arrested at least fourteen bloggers, writers and family members of women human rights defenders. This included the son of Aziza Al-Youssef, one of the women’s rights activists who was provisionally released on 28 March 2019.  

The human rights situation in Saudi Arabia has also deteriorated on other fronts, including through the increased use of the death penalty. Many of the 37 individuals who were executed on 23 April 2019 had been tortured into confessing and all of the individuals were convicted in unfair trials.  

On 19 June 2019, UN Special rapporteur onextrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executionsDr. Callamard released her report on her investigation into the murder of Khashoggi which found that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible for his extrajudicial execution.  

Dr. Callamard highlighted that the "operation against Khashoggi has to be understood in relation to this organised and coordinated crack-down, one that included repeated unlawful acts of torture and physical harm” and that "impunity has been found repeatedly to be a major driver of the high incidence of murders of journalists and human rights defenders.”  

The government’s zero-tolerance policy for any form of dissent hit particularly hard the brave women’s rights activists, who were tortured and are still languishing behind bars, over a year after their arrest. They include Loujain Al-Hathloul, who was the first to be arrested, and Nouf Abdulaziz, as well as Samar Badawiand Nassima Al-Sadah, who were arrested on 30 July 2018. Badawi will finally be taken to court on 27 June, but it is unclear if other women human rights defenders will be in court then either, including Al-Sadah who has never been in court. 

Saudi Arabia, as a member of the HRC, is obligated to uphold the highest standards for the promotion and protection of human rights and to cooperate fully with HRC mechanisms. It should immediately implement the recommendations issued by the Special Rapporteur, which include "demonstrating non-repetition by: releasing all individuals imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their opinion and belief; independently investigating all allegations of torture and lethal use of force in formal and informal places of detention; and independently investigating all allegations of enforced disappearances and making public the whereabouts of individuals disappeared”. 

The letter to 48 governments is part of the ongoing advocacy of national, regional and international civil society organisations to push for the immediate and unconditional release of Saudi activists and guarantee that they can continue their activism without threat of reprisal.