Celebrate 70th Anniversary of Human Rights – Support Reformists Instead of the Regime in Saudi Arabia
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” reads Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which celebrates its 70th anniversary today. That’s far from practice in Saudi Arabia, where the King is the Head of state, Head of government and Supreme commander of the armed forces. Three prominent Saudi human rights defenders, Abdullah al-Hamid, Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, and Waleed Abu al-Khair were supposed to receive one of the 2018 ‘Alternative Nobel Prizes’ in Stockholm late November, but were instead forced to spend another night in Saudi prisons. It is time for world leaders to side with the courageous reformists who are promoting more egalitarian and representative system of governance in the country, instead of the repressive ruling family.
For more than 80 years, the ruling family from the House of Saud has maintained a tightly controlled monopoly of power in Saudi Arabia and has joined forces with ultra-conservative Wahhabi clerics to support their oppressive rule. The country’s legislation is based on royal decrees and most aspects of political and economic life in the country is governed by the royal family.
Saudi Arabia has long been recognised as one of the most restrictive and hostile countries in the world for human rights defenders. The work of civil society is controlled by a rigorous set of laws which are used as a repressive tool by the government. Unsurprisingly, no independent human rights organizations have been able to register under the Law on Associations and several human rights defenders have been put on trial for establishing human rights organizations.
Al-Hamid and al-Qahtani are academics and co-founders of one of the few Saudi human rights organisations, the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), which is currently banned from the country. Abu al-Khair is the founder of another now banned human rights organisation, Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (MHRSA). He’s also known for his legal defence of prominent Saudi activists such as Raif Badawi, who in 2014 was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes.
They have vocally challenged the government through peaceful methods, calling for universal human rights and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. They demand the separation of powers and equality for all, including the abolishment of male guardianship which prevents women from exercising their most basic rights, such as enrolling in higher education, seeking employment, traveling or getting married without consent from their father, husband, brother or son.
The three human rights defenders together recently received the timely 2018 Right Livelihood Award, widely known as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’, “for their visionary and courageous efforts, guided by universal human rights principles, to reform the political system in Saudi Arabia”.
The Saudi government is, however, less enthusiastic about their work. As a consequence of the Laureates’ brave struggles for a more pluralistic and democratic society, they have been sentenced to between 10 and 15 years’ imprisonment on charges including “inciting disorder by calling for demonstrations”, “forming an unlicensed organisation” and “disobeying the ruler”. As they are currently in jail, they were not able to join the other 2018 Laureates from around the world who addressed the audience when the Awards were presented in Stockholm on the 23rd of November.
Abdullah al-Hamid, Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, and Waleed Abu al-Khair are, however, far from being the only prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia. Today, up to 100 human rights defenders are in detention in the country according to an assessment done by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and Saudi partners, including ALQST.
During the year of 2018, a number of prominent women human rights defenders were also arrested, as a consequence of Saudi’s ongoing clampdown on the work of women activists in the country. Some of them have been arbitrarily detained without charges since May. Following their arrests, the government launched a chilling smear campaign to discredit women’s rights defenders as “traitors”. They may face trial before the Specialized Criminal Court, which serves as a “counter-terror court”, and they risk lengthy prison sentences, as a consequence of their claims for equality and justice. Even more appalling is the situation of Saudi activists who face the prospect of execution for acts of peaceful dissent.
Ever since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on 10 December 1948, world leaders have overlooked these abuses when securing massive business deals with Saudi Arabia. Seven decades have passed and elected state leaders have looked away as the government repeatedly attacked many of those in Saudi Arabia who have dared to speak out against the injustice.
The time has come for change. World leaders and the international community must no longer tolerate that the Saudi government executes and imprisons those who are calling for reforms.
The international community must come together to demand that the Saudi authorities respect and protect the right to freedom of expression and association, starting by halting the prosecution and releasing all prisoners of conscience, including 2018 ‘Alternative Nobel’ Laureates Abdullah al-Hamid, Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, and Waleed Abu al-Khair.
The visionary and inclusive approach adopted by the 2018 Laureates to shape a positive future for their home country has been and continues to be, a great source of inspiration for many people in Saudi Arabia and the wider Gulf region. Let their courage be a guiding star to support the struggles of those bravely resisting the violations perpetrated by Saudi Arabia, inside and outside of the country.
Ole von Uexküll – Executive Director, Right Livelihood Award Foundation
Khalid Ibrahim – Executive Director, Gulf Centre for Human Rights
Lynn Maalouf – Middle East Research Director, Amnesty International
Phil Lynch – Director of the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
Yahya Assiri – Director, ALQST for Human Rights