Saudi Arabia Shouldn’t Be Allowed to Rejoin the U.N. Human Rights Council

A state that tortures and executes children has no place in an international body that aims to protect human rights.

Young Saudis walk next to a portrait of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Riyadh Season Boulevard in the Saudi capital on Jan. 31.
Young Saudis walk next to a portrait of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Riyadh Season Boulevard in the Saudi capital on Jan. 31. Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images

This week, Saudi Arabia is bidding to rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council. After leaving the institution on Jan. 1 upon serving the maximum number of consecutive terms, the country is once again tossing its hat in the ring for a seat on the council. If Saudi Arabia succeeds, it will show the world that as long as a state has powerful friends and a limitless public relations budget, it can torture and execute its people, including children, with impunity.

Saudi Arabia’s poor track record on human rights is no secret. Last month, the killers of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was murdered at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018, saw their sentences reduced—something U.N. Special Rapporteur Agnès Callamard called the final act of a “well-rehearsed parody of justice.” (The individuals who ordered the execution continue to walk free.)

Meanwhile, the women’s rights defender Loujain al-Hathloul and her fellow activists remain in prison, awaiting trial for the supposed crime of advocating for women to have the right to drive. Hathloul’s family hasn’t been able to talk to her for two months, and they are terrified that she is being tortured again, after being whipped, electrocuted, and sexually assaulted upon her arrest in 2018.

This much alone should disqualify Saudi Arabia from membership in the Human Rights Council. But in the testimony I submitted to the council’s 45th regular session in Geneva as a capital defense lawyer, I focused on my own area of expertise: how Saudi Arabia uses the death penalty to crush dissent. Despite recent reports to the contrary, the kingdom is still a country where children can be executed for attending peaceful protests.

In April, it was widely reported that Saudi Arabia had eliminated the death penalty for minors. Four months later, the royal decree that supposedly mandates this reform remains unpublished. And while the kingdom’s Human Rights Commission has told journalists and diplomats that the decree will be applied retroactively, the families of young men on death row have been kept in the dark. This is just another expression of the secrecy built into the judicial system—after all, parents receive no warning when their children are executed, and the bodies are not returned.

The gulf between rhetoric and reality is a key feature of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia, and especially Vision 2030—his plan to diversify the economy, make it less dependent upon oil revenue, and promote tolerance and moderation in Saudi society. While the Vision 2030 brochure talks of becoming “an exemplary and leading nation in all aspects” within a decade, Saudis are still forbidden from forming trade unions, political parties, or human rights groups. While the Twitter account for the Saudi Human Rights Commission showcases pioneering female engineersdoctors, and diplomats, women who dare to speak up for themselves suffer appalling consequences.

The gulf between rhetoric and reality is a key feature of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia.

Nothing illustrates the contrast between the regime’s words and actions more than its use of the death penalty. In 2018, on his highly publicized tour of the United States, Mohammed bin Salman told Time that he planned to “minimize” the use of capital punishment. That same year, the government introduced the 2018 Juvenile Law, which would ostensibly limit the kingdom’s ability to execute minors. The Saudis told the U.N. Human Rights Council in November 2018, with no room for misinterpretation, that the Juvenile Law would protect children from execution. The following year, there were 185 executions in Saudi Arabia, the most ever during King Salman’s reign—including 37 people on a single day, at least three of whom were children at the time of their alleged crimes.

Under Saudi criminal law, there are three categories of death sentences: hudud death sentences are mandated by the interpretation of the sharia legal system favored in Saudi Arabia; qisas sentences are sought in retribution by the family of a murder victim; and tazir sentences are handed down by a judge. The 2018 Juvenile Law only applies to tazir death sentences. And while the royal decree announced this year has not been published, an unofficial version posted online has a similarly limited scope. So prosecutors are still able to charge children with capital crimes.

In one ongoing case, prosecutors are seeking hudud death sentences for five young men, including Mohammed al-Faraj, whose alleged offenses took place when they were minors. Faraj and his friends were arrested outside of a bowling alley in Medina when he was 15 while on vacation with seven friends, four of whom were also underage. The charges against him include sending text messages to a man supposedly wanted by Saudi security services and attending funerals in his hometown of Awamiyah, including that of his uncle, when he was just 9 years old. The crimes, according to the prosecutors, amount to waging war against God. Sources indicate that Faraj could begin his trial in late October.

I have witnessed the cruelty of Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system in my own work. My client Ali al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 at the age of 17. He was tortured into giving a false confession, convicted of supposed terrorism offenses for taking part in anti-government protests, and sentenced to death. Since exhausting his appeals, Nimr has spent five years wondering whether each day will be his last. The Saudi Human Rights Commission announced in August that his death sentence will be reviewed, along with those of two others convicted of childhood crimes, Dawood al-Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher. But the statement didn’t provide details on when or how this review will occur, and instead peddled platitudes about human rights being a “key pillar of the Vision 2030 platform for transformation.”

There are surely powerful people within Saudi Arabia who recognize that fundamental criminal justice reform is essential to achieving the kingdom’s Vision 2030 goals, but that sort of transformation still seems beyond reach. Indeed, Faisal al-Fadil, a member of the Shura Council, the kingdom’s formal advisory body, recently called for tazir death sentences to be scrapped—a change that would halve the number of executions—but this was in a private briefing, not public policy, and it is impossible to know whether it will lead to change.

For now, Saudi Arabia continues to enjoy prestige on the international stage without facing adequate scrutiny. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has constrained Saudi Arabia’s presidency of the G-20, heads of state are due to gather in Riyadh in November. The same day that Khashoggi’s five killers had their sentences commuted, Mohammed bin Salman called French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin to make arrangements for the summit.

Some progress finally came when the session to assess Saudi Arabia’s candidacy for the Human Rights Council got underway in Geneva on Sept. 14. A group of 29 countries led by Denmark released a joint statement expressing concern that “civil society, human rights defenders, journalists and political opposition still face persecution, detention and intimidation” in the kingdom. This was an important step, but it did not go far enough. As long as the Mohammed bin Salman regime enjoys the United States’ apparently unconditional support, it will continue to violate human rights without punishment.

As the 29 countries noted in their statement, members of the Human Rights Council “must expect public scrutiny of their human rights record.” Scrutiny without consequences is meaningless. A country that tortures and executes its citizens for exercising their right to free expression should not be on the council.

Taha al-Hajji is a Saudi Arabian capital defense lawyer and legal consultant for the European-Saudi Organisation for Human Rights. He lives in exile in Germany, having been threatened with reprisals for his work defending children from execution.

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