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Human rights groups urge UN to use 'leverage' and probe Saudi abuses

UN Human Rights Council urged to pressure Riyadh and monitor rights situation
In 2017, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) oversaw a wide-ranging purge of the Saudi royal family.
In 2017, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman oversaw a wide-ranging purge of the Saudi royal family (AFP/File photo)

Leading human rights groups have urged the United Nations to scrutinise Saudi Arabia's treatment of advocates ahead of a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council (OHCHR) next month.

Experts from Amnesty International, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch said at an event on Wednesday that the OHCHR needed to address a number of key concerns at the summit - including women's rights, arbitrary detentions, the death penalty, and the conditions of migrant workers.

"It is really important that diplomats keep Saudi Arabia on its agenda and establish regular monitoring and reporting on its human rights situation," said Rothna Begum, senior women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"Without this, we will only hear what the Saudi authorities want us to hear on their so-called reforms."

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The 50th session of the UN Human Rights Council will commence on 13 June. Member countries will aim to fill a number of key vacancies, including the post of the special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Speaking at Wednesday's event, the rights groups said the UN must pressure the kingdom to allow international observers the ability to monitor the situation on the ground and the alleged reforms taking place in the country.  

"Rights activists and critics of Saudi authorities continue to be tried and sentenced as part of a renewed crackdown on peaceful activism," said Lina al-Hathloul, the sister of formerly detained rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul.

"Saudi Arabia has only its image and they want to show that they're opening up. So given this fact, the West has leverage."

The kingdom held a seat at the UN's top human rights body until last year but lost a bid to remain on the 47-member council amid outrage over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Analysts previously said that the loss exemplified the kingdom's deteriorating international image following the 2018 killing of the Middle East Eye and Washington Post columnist.

Civil society crackdown

Rights groups have repeatedly criticised Saudi Arabia's treatment of activists and dissidents, citing countless examples of torture against female and male prisoners of conscience.

Last year, data published by the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI) showed that Riyadh was one of the most disempowering countries in the world.

The study's findings were a product of the government's ban on protests, limits on free expression and civil society organisations, and the inability of citizens to vote or participate in public life.

In 2017, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was named crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and later launched a wide-ranging purge of the Saudi royal family, with many prominent members - including former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef -  detained at the Ritz Carlton hotel.

MBS also issued a series of reforms that were initially well-received by the West, such as allowing women the right to drive. However, these reforms came at a time when authorities launched a massive crackdown on civil society and free speech in the country.

Earlier this year, the kingdom executed a record 81 people in a single day. The last time Riyadh conducted a mass execution of this scale was in 1980, after 63 militants seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. 

"When we're talking about these reforms that we're seeing coming out of Saudi Arabia, it's incredibly important to have real objective accountability for them, to find out if they actually are real reforms or actually existing practices, if the reforms themselves are good or bad, none of which we can really assess without information being able to come out of the country," Begum said.

"One of the biggest issues is that the space and push for reforms remains limited and difficult to enforce."