6 April 2018 – The three weeks of discussion at the UN Human Rights Council’s 37th session have seen a few EU Member States blowing the whistle on the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, while human rights issues in other Gulf countries remained quite overlooked.
While Bahrain’s human rights situation attracted strengthened attention from the European Union (EU) and its Member States (see our article), other Gulf countries, regrettably, did not received so much coverage during the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC)’s 37th session. Still, many Member States spoke out about abuses in Yemen and some about death penalty in Saudi Arabia. The EU also took a strong stand on the universality of human rights, while Qatar and Kuwait opposed cultural relativism to the fulfillment of human rights standards.
Ahead of the Council 37th session, the EU had claimed its determination to combat death penalty, which it considered “a serious violation of human rights and human dignity”, as one of its main human rights priority for 2018. It is, hence, without much surprise, that EU Special Representative for Human Rights Stavros Lambrinidis, recalled “the EU’s strong and principled position to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances”, speaking at a high-level side event on death penalty on February 28th.
Directly referring to Saudi Arabia, two Member States voiced their concerns over the ongoing use of death penalty. During the HRC37 opening session on February 26th, Denmark noted “with serious concern the continued use of executions”, with the Saudi Kingdom holding “a special responsibility in this regard.” On March 14th, Ireland reaffirmed “its strong and unequivocal opposition to capital punishment in all circumstances and for all cases” and declared “gravely concerned by the continued use of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia” under Item 4.
During this 37th session, the EU also firmly stressed the need to end “the culture of impunity” for acts of torture. In its 2018 human rights priorities, the EU had specifically raised concerns over the situation in Saudi Arabia, recalling its determination to oppose the use of “torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, in particular when used by law enforcement personnel and security forces.”
This 37th session has also seen a significant number of EU Member States expressing concerns over the ever-worsening humanitarian crisis and escalating war in Yemen, with civilians paying the highest tribute. In particular, Portugal, Netherlands and Austria (under Item 2), as well as Belgium, France, Czech Republic and Ireland (under Item 4) deplored the restrictions on humanitarian access, the indiscriminate attacks and the violations of international humanitarian law by all parties. The EU reiterated its call “to all parties to urgently agree to a ceasefire”, as the UNHCHR recalled that the “indiscriminate shelling and sniper attacks by Houthi and affiliated forces, as well as airstrikes conducted by the Saudi-led Coalition forces” remained the leading cause of civilian casualties.
Other Gulf countries
Regrettably, the EU and its Member States were less outspoken about other Gulf countries during this 37th session, despite continuing abuses against migrant workers in Qatar, mass convictions of peaceful protesters in Kuwait, persecution of pro-reform activists and continued assaults on free speech in Oman and in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to name just a few of the current numerous human rights issues.
Qatar and Kuwait have been, on the other hand, rather keen to promote cultural relativism regarding human rights. While Qatar stressed the importance not to impose certain models or practices specific to certain societies within the framework of the Human Rights Council, Kuwait claimed its right to “choose the values” it considered appropriate, in line with its cultural and religious background, to “promote human rights”.
As we celebrate this year the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, EU Special Representative for Human Rights the Stavros Lambrinidis has, for his part, emphasised the universality of human rights, which should be enjoyed by all, regardless of culture or religion;
“Human dignity, upon which human rights are based, is a universal concept celebrated in all cultures, religions, and world regions. It does not belong exclusively to the West or the East, the North or the South, and we should firmly stop all those who try to divide us on those grounds.”
It is worth noting that Lambrinidis also underlined the EU’s commitment “to supporting the free space of civil society to operate” and condemned ongoing reprisals against human rights defenders, while Gulf countries continue to crush peaceful critics and rights activists. In that regard, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders said she was hoping for a positive response of the Saudi government regarding a possible future country-visit.
While the ECDHR very much welcomes Member States’ statements on Saudi Arabia and on Yemen, and the EU’s steadiness to oppose death penalty and attacks on human rights defenders, we regret the absence of coverage of the human rights situations in Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and the UAE during this 37th session. We also recall that among the core principles of human rights lie their universality and applicability for all; therefore, no cultural or religious argument should be used to justify weaker human rights standards or abuses.