05 November 2018

By: Christopher Gawronski

05 November 2018

By: Christopher Gawronski


On 5 November 2018, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group of the UN Human Rights Council conducted its third periodic review of the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia.

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States. It is a State-driven process, under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, which provides the opportunity for each State to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfil their human rights obligations. The UPR is designed to ensure equal treatment for every country when their human rights situations are assessed. The ultimate aim of this mechanism is to improve the human rights situation in all countries and address human rights violations wherever they occur.

Source: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/UPR/Pages/BasicFacts.aspx

The review began with a presentation of the National Report by Mr. Bandar Al Aiban, President of the Saudi Arabia Human Rights Commission. Mr. Al Aiban highlighted the country’s efforts to combat human trafficking, improve women’s rights and provide support to many developing countries and people in need in other parts of the world.

Following the presentation, other States made comments, commendations and criticisms, asked questions, and offered recommendations to Saudi Arabia for human rights improvements. Of particular note were the many concerns expressed about freedom of the press and of expression in the light of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the continuing use of male guardianship over women, and labor conditions of migrants. The Saudi delegation responded to numerous points raised by member countries and offered some closing remarks at the end of the review.

On Friday, 9 November 2018, the UPR Working Group adopted the Report on Saudi Arabia, which contained a total of 258 recommendations. Saudi Arabia was given until the 40th Session of the Human Rights Council to consider whether to accept or reject the recommendations.

The full report of Saudi Arabia’s UPR process includes:

  • Presentation of the National Report
  • Interactive Dialogue and Recommendations from States
  • Background information
    • Saudi Arabia’s acceptance of international human rights treaties
    • Summary of UN Documentation
    • Summary of Stakeholder Submissions

Read the full text

Presentation of the National Report

In its presentation, Saudi Arabia indicated that out of the 225 recommendations made by countries during its previous UPR in 2013, it had accepted 151 in full, 37 partially, and took note of 37.

Mr. Bandar Al Aiban opened by reviewing Saudi Arabia’s progress in human rights development since its last UPR. Saudi Arabia’s efforts to promote human rights are based on the principles of the Islamic Sharia and the wisdom of the country’s leadership. Saudi Vision 2030 contains numerous programs and plans promoting human rights in the kingdom, and a national human rights strategy is under development containing six themes.

Since the last UPR, Mr. Al Aiban noted that the kingdom has adopted national legislation to combat human trafficking, a significant problem in the region. Significant progress has been made in modernizing the judiciary and updating the criminal law system. This work has included new court procedures, along with judicial and lawyer training, and more independent prosecutorial authority. A robust legal and institutional framework has been established that criminalizes violations of human rights and promotes education about human rights, and the kingdom has passed laws to address radicalism and promote moderation.

Mr. Al Aiban continued by describing the kingdom’s efforts to combat corruption and promote participation of civil society organizations in the review of proposed government actions, including numerous organizations focussed on human rights. He stressed that freedom of expression is guaranteed by law, needing only to be in line with public order, ethics and morality; personal speech cannot promote hatred. Regarding the reporter Jamal Khashoggi, the kingdom has expressed its regret for his death and directed that there be an investigation and prosecution in accordance with pertinent laws.

Women’s rights have enjoyed great progress during the reporting cycle. Mr. Al Aiban explained that women now have the right to vote and run for local office, they have access to senior positions in government and organizations, and they no longer require someone else’s approval to receive services directed at women. There is a new law regarding domestic violence and new facilities to assist victims of domestic violence. The number of women working in the kingdom has reached over 2.3 million, including 550,000 in the private sector. There has also been an improvement in the protection of children’s rights through new child protection laws, programs to reduce violence in public schools, and services for children exposed to mistreatment.

Saudi Arabia has been active in promoting human rights of foreigners. It is responsible for maintaining security around the two Holy Mosques for the safety of pilgrims from around the world. It has provided strong support to the Yemeni people against actions of Houthi militia undermining the Yemeni government and political reconciliation. Saudi Arabia continues coordinating with international organizations to deliver humanitarian aid to Yemen, including over USD 2 million so far. Saudi Arabia has also made a deposit to the central bank of Yemen to support its currency and economy. Saudi Arabia has received around 2.5 million Syrians since the start of that crisis, providing health care, education and the right to work in the kingdom. It has also provided support for Syrian refugees in other countries.

Mr. Al Aiban explained that over half a million students have been accepted into the kingdom from Yemen, Syria, Myanmar, and also many stateless individuals. Plus, the kingdom has provided assistance to developing countries in the form of debt relief of over USD 6 billion. He noted that the kingdom is actively considering joining additional human rights treaties, and that such treaties have the same legal force as domestic law before the Saudi courts. Saudi Arabia cooperates with special procedures of the Human Rights Council and responds to human rights complaints. The kingdom has issued an invitation to two rapporteurs to visit the country: the rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights and the special rapporteur on the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.

Mr. Al Aiban closed by saying that Saudi Arabia pays special attention to the recommendations of the Human Rights Council and the various treaty bodies of which it is a member. It desires to continue to improve the human rights situation within the kingdom and at the international level while pursuing Saudi Vision 2030.

Interactive Dialogue and Recommendations from States

Many countries began by commending Saudi Arabia for its progress in social development and the creation of Saudi Vision 2030 for sustainable development. Several countries positively noted progress on women’s rights and participation in workforce, increased funding for education, and actions against human trafficking. Particularly generous comments came from allied Arab countries, especially Yemen and Bahrain who praised Saudi Arabia’s efforts in protecting children. Numerous countries of the Global South, including Cuba, Venezuela and China, also offered generous comments.

Numerous countries were concerned about Saudi Arabia’s role in the death of reporter Jamal Khashoggi, its failure to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), its continued use of the death penalty especially for minors, the system of male guardianship over women, and Saudi Arabia’s reservations to various human rights treaties. Some countries, especially in South Asia, noted concerns about the legal rights and labor conditions of migrant workers. Many countries voiced concerns about gender equality and freedom of expression. Qatar and Iran made particularly critical comments regarding Saudi Arabia’s actions against Qatar and its role in the conflict in Yemen. Several Western countries voiced grave concerns about the treatment of journalists and suppression of freedom of expression and association.

Numerous recommendations were offered by States during the interactive dialogue. The most common were that Saudi Arabia should ratify ICCPR, ICESCR, and the convention on migrant workers, abolish or place a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, further enhance women’s rights and overall gender equality including abolition of the male guardianship system, help bring an end to the Yemen conflict, ensure freedom of expression and protection for human rights defenders, and a transparent investigation into the death of Jamal Khashoggi. Many countries also suggested continued efforts to combat human trafficking, improving rights and opportunities for people with disabilities, and restricting use of terrorism laws against free expression. Other recommendations suggested that Saudi Arabia should become a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, ensure the rights of religious minorities, make corporal punishment illegal, provide tracking of people in detention, establish more independence for the judiciary, and protect children from being used in armed conflict.

The Saudi delegation appreciated the comments and recommendations made by the participants. Over the course of the interactive dialogue, Saudi Arabia responded to a number of issues and questions, many of which are summarized below.

• Juvenile justice: The law provides specific safeguards for children during the investigation of alleged crimes by children.

• Freedom of expression: The law protects freedom of expression for the media, including electronic media, and requires prosecution of all who violate this right.

• Women’s rights: Saudi Arabia has taken steps toward empowerment of women in many areas, especially labor market participation, including training for women in management and a ban on wage discrimination between men and women.

• Migrant workers: All migrant workers enjoy protections in the labor law, relations between workers and employees are handled by contracts, and a special system has been set up to counter human trafficking.

• Humanitarian assistance and relief: The King Salman Centre was set up to provide humanitarian relief around the world and has provided significant aid to Yemen.

• Accession to ICCPR and ICESCR: This is under consideration while domestic legislation is being reviewed for compatibility with the treaties.

• Death of Khashoggi: Saudi Arabia will carry out a fair investigation of the death of Khashoggi in accordance with national laws.

• Judicial independence: National and sharia law ensures independence of judges and judiciary.

• Sharia law: This is integral to the Saudi legal system and provides protection to many members of society.

Mr. Al Aiban closed by thanking the countries for their comments. He reiterated that Saudi Arabia is committed to carrying out a fair investigation of the death of Jamal Khashoggi and that all persons involved in the crime will be prosecuted in line with domestic laws. Mr. Al Aiban thanked delegations for their positive comments on Saudi Arabia’s progress and assured that the recommendations would be carefully considered. He said Saudi Arabia aims to achieve the highest possible standards in human rights and would continue to develop its institutional framework to protect human rights. Finally, he commended the role played by the Human Rights Council in promoting human rights across the planet.

Background Information

To prepare for the review, the Working Group received two reports compiled by the OHCHR. One gave an overview of the reports of treaty bodies, special procedures and other relevant UN documents pertaining to human rights in Saudi Arabia (A/HRC/WG.6/31/SAU/2). The other report was a compilation of the 31 contributions of stakeholder groups submitted specifically for the UPR process (A/HRC/WG.6/31/SAU/3). Below is a combined summary of the main issues raised in both reports.

Scope of international obligations and cooperation with international human rights mechanisms and bodies

Several UN entities and NGOs pointed out Saudi Arabia’s failure to ratify certain human rights treaties, recommending that Saudi Arabia become a party to those treaties and remove any reservations to the treaties. Recommendations were also made to ratify several treaties relating to labor and migrant workers. Numerous NGOs noted Saudi Arabia’s failure to follow through on its commitment after the last UPR to accept all requests for country visits for Special Procedures mandate holders and that there are 13 pending requests for such visits dating back to 2004.

National human rights framework

Several UN committees noted Saudi Arabia’s enhancement of its Human Rights Commission but expressed concern that it lacked true independence and sufficient resources to carry out its mandate. One UN entity recommended training programs for law enforcement and judicial personnel on investigation and documentation of torture.

Several NGOs expressed concern about the role of Sharia law in the judiciary and the insufficient codification of criminal procedures. One NGO also recommended establishment of an NHRI compliant with Paris Principles and setting up mechanisms to monitor treaty body recommendations.

Implementation of international human rights obligations, taking into account applicable international humanitarian law

Cross-Cutting Issues

UN entities welcomed the Saudi Vision 2030 and its most recent national development plan but recommended a better understanding of poverty in the country including collection of better data on the issue.

Serious concerns were expressed by UN entities and many NGOs on the use of the 2014 counter-terrorism law. Concerns included definition of crimes that are too broad and include non-violent expression and human rights advocacy. NGOs were concerned about the use of the law to prosecute human rights defenders. UN entities noted that due process deficiencies, such as 90-day incommunicado detention, deprived accused people of safeguards against torture.

Civil and Political Rights

Numerous UN entities and NGOs expressed concern about the continued and increasing use of the death penalty, especially on children. Some NGOs also expressed concern about the high proportion of foreign nationals and religious minorities that are targeted by the death penalty.

There were many reports by NGOs of human rights abuses by security forces. One group of NGOs reported that the use of excessive force by security officials led to numerous civilian deaths in 2017. Another NGO reported on arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances resulting in inhumane treatment. Still others noted the mass arbitrary detention of over 200 explained as “fighting corruption” and “national security.”

Concerns were raised by UN entities about the treatment of women and children by Saudi military operatives in Yemen, including the military recruitment of boys as young as 11. They and many NGOs were also concerned about the impact of impact of Saudi military actions on the Yemeni civilian population and environment based on reports of many civilian facilities destroyed, the number of civilians killed by Saudi-led airstrikes, and restrictions on the flow of goods to civilians.

UN entities and several NGOs voiced concern about the ill-treatment and torture of persons in detention as well as the use of imposed corporal punishment, including flogging and amputation. Overcrowding and poor conditions in detention facilities and the existence of secret detention facilities were also a concern.

Many UN entities and NGOs voiced concern over restrictions on the freedom of expression and assembly, especially with regard to human rights defenders, NGOs, journalists and others making peaceful criticism of the government. Several specific situations were provided that raised concerns about the overuse of pre-trial detention, the detention and disappearance of some individuals without explanation, and the apparently arbitrary detention of human rights activists, especially women’s human rights defenders, and application of serious criminal prosecution to non-violent criticisms of the government.

Many NGOs and one UN body noted ongoing religious discrimination, including active censorship of minority religious beliefs, the use of vague crimes such as “blasphemy” and “apostacy” to prosecute the public religious practices of non-Muslim religions and non-Sunni sects, and the destruction of Shia mosques and heritage sites in Saudi Arabia.

UN entities commended Saudi actions to combat human trafficking, but concerns remained regarding trafficked children used by gangs or as camel jockeys. Also, the UN entities and NGOs were concerned about forced labor imposed by employers and insufficient legal prohibitions or penalties for such activity.

One UN committee and an NGO expressed concern about the status of women relative to family law. There were issues regarding the ability of women to seek divorce, and discrimination against women in inheritance, custody issues, and other family law matters.

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

UN entities recognized progress in promoting women’s employment but expressed concern about ongoing discrimination against women in types of work, wages, and sexual harassment. NGOs expressed concern about discrimination against women, minorities and migrant workers. This included the inability of workers to organize and the exclusion of domestic workers from the labor law. Two UN entities expressed concern about social protection for women and the level of economic inequality, especially for marginalized groups.

One UN committee recommended legalization of abortion, comprehensive health services for women, and provision of reproductive health education in schools. UN entities also expressed concern about educational opportunities for all children, especially girls in a non-discriminatory manner, while one NGO was concerned about suppression of Shia education facilities.

Rights of Specific Persons or Groups

UN entities and several NGOs continued to be concerned about the large number of reported domestic violence incidents and overall discrimination against women and girls in Saudi society. They also noted how the male guardianship system and other laws and social practices are harmful to women and girls and limit their daily activities. Overall participation of women in decision-making in political and public life remains low.

UN entities and NGOs noted the persistence of child and forced marriages, the application of life imprisonment to child offenders, and discrimination against children born out of wedlock. UN entities also expressed concern about the application of corporal punishment, lack of reporting of sexual abuse against children and the stigmatization of victims, and the use of child labor, especially using children as beggars.

UN entities recommended a comprehensive approach to guaranteeing rights for persons with disabilities and expressed concern about the use of segregated educational institutions for children with disabilities.

Two UN committees and one NGO were concerned about discrimination against ethno-religious minorities, especially Shia groups due to a variety of reported situations that violated their human rights.

Several UN entities and numerous NGOs expressed serious concern about the state of labor laws and their lack of enforcement regarding migrant workers. The continued use of the sponsorship system exposed migrant workers, especially women and children, to serious abuse. Two groups were particularly concerned about expulsion of non-nationals and possibilities of refoulement, while several NGOs noted that consular officials were not promptly informed of actions taken against their nationals.

Many NGOs and two UN committees were concerned about the occurrence of statelessness in Saudi Arabia, especially as a result of not allowing Saudi women to pass their nationality to their children on an equal basis with men. A group of NGOs noted the size and problematic treatment of the stateless population in Saudi Arabia.

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