States express “deep concern” as Saudi Arabia bids to rejoin UN Human Rights Council

September 18, 2020

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A group of 29 States has expressed “deep concern” about human rights in Saudi Arabia, as the Kingdom bids to rejoin the UN Human Rights Council. Reprieve and the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) support this statement and echo its concerns, chiefly that the Saudi Arabian government has not followed promises of reform with action and continues to sentence people to death for non-violent drug offences and crimes committed as children.

The joint statement, led by Denmark, observed that Saudi Arabia is “curbing use of death penalty against minors”. In fact, despite repeated claims by the country’s Human Rights Commission that the Kingdom has abolished the death penalty for children, 13 people are still at risk of execution for childhood crimes.

In 2018, the Government of Saudi Arabia promulgated a Juvenile Law that withdrew the death penalty as a punishment for many crimes, but retained it for offences such as murder or apostasy. The Royal Decree issued in April 2020 merely reiterates this partial abolition. At least three people who should benefit from these limited legal reforms and have their death sentences quashed remain on death row.

The countries acknowledged “positive measures” that indicate Saudi Arabia is taking steps to “improve” the human rights situation, including restricting the use of flogging, but noted that these stand in contrast to continuing abuses and violations of international law.

“Civil society, human rights defenders, journalists and political opposition still face persecution, detention and intimidation,” they wrote. “We remain deeply concerned by reports of torture, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances and… the use of the counter-terrorism law and other security provisions against individuals peacefully exercising their rights.”

The statement highlighted the continued incarceration of at least five women human rights defenders, arrested in 2018 for protesting the country’s recently-lifted driving ban, and called for the release of all political prisoners.

Saudi Arabia stands for election to the Human Rights Council at this ongoing session. The 29 countries observed that election to the Council “comes with the expectation of upholding the highest standards” of human rights.

Ali al-Dubaisy, Executive Director of The European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, said: “The world is not fooled. Saudi Arabia trotted out a series of paper reforms in the summer that have changed nothing on the ground. 13 children remain at risk of the executioner’s blade in Saudi Arabia. Tell me, is that a country that should have a seat at the world’s most prestigious human rights body?”

Harriet McCulloch, Deputy Director of Reprieve, said: “The gap between the image Saudi Arabia presents to the world and the experiences of its citizens has never been wider. In 2019, despite the passing of the Juvenile Law the previous year, six people were executed for alleged offences committed when they were children. The Kingdom is still a country where children face death sentences for attending protests. Its appalling human rights record should disqualify it from a seat on the council.”