GENEVA: Saudi Arabia’s rights record came under fire at the United Nations yesterday, critics accusing the kingdom of jailing activists without due process and abusing the basic rights of Saudi women and foreign workers.
At the UN Human Rights Council, Britain called for abolition of the Saudi system of male guardianship for women and was joined by the United States in raising cases of forced labour imposed on migrant workers.
The US delegation also voiced concern at Saudi restrictions on freedoms of religion and of association, while Germany called for a moratorium on its use of the death penalty.
“Many countries have problematic records, but Saudi Arabia stands out for its extraordinarily high levels of repression and its failure to carry out its promises to the Human Rights Council,” Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement to the meeting.
Saudi Arabia, which hosts 9 million foreign workers out of a total population of 28 million, was taking all steps needed to protect their rights and provide appropriate conditions, said Bandar bin Mohammed Al Aiban, president of the Saudi Human Rights Commission.
They included a ban on outdoor work in the heat between mid-day and 3pm from June to August, when temperatures are usually higher than 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and can soar to 50 degrees.
“With regard to women’s rights, the Islamic Shariah (law) guarantees fair gender equality and the state’s legislative enactments do not differentiate between men and women,” he said.
Saudi women were full citizens able to dispose of their property and manage their affairs without seeking permission from anyone, he said. Britain said more women should be placed in positions of authority and the Saudi government should end the guardianship system.
The rules restrict women’s legal rights in marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, property ownership and decision-making in the family, as well as choice of residency, education and jobs, UN experts have said previously.
Amnesty slams Saudi
Meanwhile, Amnesty International yesterday said Saudi Arabia had failure to act on UN recommendations and “ratcheted up the repression” since 2009, with the arbitrary detention and torture of activists.
The London-based watchdog’s statement was released ahead of the Geneva meeting and comes after Riyadh rejected a seat on the UN Security Council, citing the international body’s “double standards” and inability to resolve regional conflicts.
“Saudi Arabia’s previous promises to the UN have been proven to be nothing but hot air,” said Amnesty’s Mena director Philip Luther, accusing the kingdom of relying “on its political and economic clout to deter the international community from criticising its dire human rights record.”
In its report titled “Saudi Arabia: Unfulfilled Promises,” Amnesty criticised “an ongoing crackdown including arbitrary arrests and detention, unfair trials, torture and other ill-treatment over the past four years” in the kingdom. “Not only have the authorities failed to act, but they have ratcheted up the repression” since 2009, said Luther.
“For all the peaceful activists that have been arbitrary detained, tortured or imprisoned in Saudi Arabia since, the international community has a duty to hold the authorities to account,” he said.
Amnesty renewed calls for Saudi authorities to release two prominent rights activists handed heavy jailed terms in March.