Holding Saudi Arabia accountable to its own promises

October 4, 2021

In 2018, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record was reviewed at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. Three years later, the Martin Ennals Foundation, together with ALQST and the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), prepared a report for the mid-term point of Saudi Arabia’s Universal Periodic Review, assessing the state of implementation of the recommendations made in 2018. Our findings indicate that Saudi Arabia’s commitments to human rights are far from being met.

Refusing to “walk the talk”

Our analysis (read the report here) shows that  the few actual changes that were made to Saudi Arabian human rights policies, such as allowing women the right to drive in 2018, proved to be largely cosmetic. In addition, new concerns have emerged over the broad use of vague or ill-defined legislation, including the Counterterrorism and Cybercrime laws to penalize freedom of speech, particularly when it comes to challenging political authorities.

Saudi Arabia committed itself to ensure and promote equality between women and men in all areas of society and conform to their legal obligations under international human rights law, and they also accepted to amend the legal definition of terrorism, which is at the basis for convictions of many activists. Despite these commitments, Martin Ennals Finalist Loujain AlHathloul was sentenced in February 2021 to five years and eight months on charges related to national security. Instead of being celebrated for her contributions to protecting victims of domestic violence or women’s political participation leaders, Loujain was labelled a terrorist.

Retaliation against families of human rights defenders

Those paying for the Saudi government’s inaction on human rights reforms are the many courageous human rights defenders like Loujain. Detained for almost three years and subjected to torture, Loujain was released on February 10, 2021. She is, however, prohibited from leaving the country and unable to continue her activism as she is subject to a three-year probation period during which any perceived criminal activity could lead to her re-imprisonment.

Not only are Loujain and other human rights activists at risk of further reprisals, but so are their families. Family members suffer from cyber harassment, travel bans, and mental anguish from constant surveillance. As stated in our report, even though Saudi Arabia pledged to protect human rights defenders from reprisals for their human rights-related activities, retaliation or the threat thereof against family members is a strategy often used to manipulate the detainee into confessing or desisting from future activism.

These patterns can be observed in Loujain’s case. Subject to a travel ban and constant online harassment, Loujain’s siblings have not been able to reunite with their family in Saudi Arabia since early 2018. Under constant attack on social media, the AlHathloul family fears for its security and Loujain’s safety in Saudi Arabia.

Reforms without reformers

While Saudi Arabia was listed in nine of 11 UN reports regarding reprisals on human rights activists for their engagement with UN bodies, the country hosted the 2020 G20 meeting and will welcome thousands of visitors for the upcoming F1 Grand Prix in December 2021. By hosting such high-profile sporting events, the Saudi government wants the international community to believe that it has changed. However, as our report clearly shows, there is a huge gap between Saudi Arabia’s external image and its internal legislation. The country’s civic space is rapidly shrinking and with activists behind bars or banned from continuing their work, reforms should be recognized as mere window-dressing. As Loujain’s sister Lina AlHathloul argues: “If reformers are behind bars, you can’t believe the reforms.”