UN giving 'green light' to Riyadh's human rights abuses

UN giving 'green light' to Riyadh's human rights abuses
5 min read
31 January, 2018
The international community must take a stand against Saudi Arabia's arbitrary detentions and disappearances, rights lawyer Rodney Dixon QC tells The New Arab.
Rodney Dixon QC (r) urged the UN to stand against Riyadh's abuses [The New Arab]

In November, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made global headlines when he arrested dozens of business leaders and royals in what he referred to as a "corruption sweep".

Two months earlier, at least 60 people were detained by the Saudi government simply because they disagreed with the country's political system.

Leading British lawyers Lord Ken Macdonald QC and Rodney Dixon QC are bringing light to the detentions, and the victims who have been rounded up for "crimes" as simple as starting an NGO - or even writing a tweet.

"Those detained have not been charged with any offence, and the information about the reasons for their arrests and circumstances of their imprisonment are very limited," read a report from the two lawyers.

"There is cause for serious concern about the treatment of many of those detained, including Mr Salman Al-Awda who has recently been hospitalised and others who are, effectively, 'disappeared'."

According to the lawyers, 31 victims have been forcibly disappeared, which is an exceptional cause for concern, given Saudi Arabia's record with arbitrary detentions, torture and even mass executions.

The two lawyers are well-respected senior members of Britain's legal establishment. Lord Ken Macdonald QC was formerly Director of Public Prosecutions for England and Wales, and head of the Crown Prosecution Service. Rodney Dixon QC, of Temple Garden Chambers, has represented presidents and governments around the globe. 

Together, they urged United Nations officials to withdraw Saudi Arabia's membership of the UN Human Rights Council. 

They also called on the UK government to highlight the abuses when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visits Britain.

There are people inside Saudi Arabia who are against the war on Yemen, but they are afraid to speak up

Less tolerant

With Riyadh's foreign policy becoming more hawkish, as the war in Yemen and the blockade on Qatar continues, the Saudi government is becoming less tolerant of domestic criticism.

"While the Saudi government continues to arrest people of various religious and political opinions, one thing the victims have in common is that they have all voiced opposition to Saudi government policy," Dixon told The New Arab.

"There are people inside Saudi Arabia who are against the war on Yemen, but they are afraid to speak up. Part of the reason behind the arrests is to deter people from airing their views freely."

One of the detainees, Salman al-Awda, was arrested after he tweeted that he was praying that Qatar and Saudi Arabia would reconcile. He was recently hospitalised after spending almost five months in solitary confinement. 

"The danger of solitary confinement is that detainees are cut off from the rest of the world," Dixon explained. 

"We simply do not know what is happening to the detainees because there is no way of getting access to them - this is a huge cause of concern, given Saudi Arabia's background in human rights and record with torture and executions. 

"While children were not among the dissidents who have been arrested since September, the kingdom has previously arrested children, meaning there are no limits as to how far the human rights situation can deteriorate," he told The New Arab.

International leverage

With Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's visit to the UK pending, the lawyers have urged the UK government to take a stance on Riyadh's rounding-up of dissenters, and use Britain's strong bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia to make clear its position on the arbitrary detentions.

Irrespective of the relations with the country, the human rights situation must be highlighted and it is of each country's responsibility to take action to protect basic universal laws and principles," Dixon said. 

"Therefore, we hope that upon Mohammed bin Salman's arrival, the UK government will use its strong relations with Riyadh by taking action and raising the human rights situation as an issue."

UN credibility at risk

While the report did not comment on the wider international political implications of the arrests, the lawyers urged the international community to take a stand in upholding international law.

For the UN to turn a blind eye entirely and consistently means its own reputation is diminished and it can be seen tolerating and in some way giving an indirect green light to such activities

One political concern, however, is the credibility of the UN Human Rights Council being put at risk with Saudi Arabia remaining a member. "The credibility of the UN has already been tarnished because of this, which is why action, sooner rather than later must be taken," said Dixon.

Saudi Arabia's membership of the council was widely condemned when it took up its position, on grounds of violating international law with potential war crimes in Yemen. 

The latest calls to suspend Saudi Arabia's membership do not only highlight violations taking place over the past few months, but reflect on the Riyadh regime's systematic violations of human rights which have been known years before Saudi Arabia even took up its membership.

Saudi Arabia's seat on the Human Rights Council "undermines the entire image of the UN system which is there to uphold the highest standards", Dixon told The New Arab. 

"When breaches of human rights rise to the level that they currently are in Saudi Arabia where there have been violations over a number of years, for the UN to turn a blind eye entirely... means its own reputation is diminished and it can be seen tolerating and in some way giving an indirect green light to such activities."

With previous attempts to hold Saudi Arabia to account rendered fruitless, and the ever-growing sense of Riyadh's impunity as a result of the international community's passivity, human rights lawyers and organisations are stepping up their fight as a matter of urgency, presenting accounts of victims that otherwise would have been silenced.

Calls to investigate the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia to elaborate on the limited information on the state of victims are becoming louder and more global, as demands for actions against the kingdom amplify across the world.

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