The EU-Saudi Dialogue: placing human rights at the centre of the discourse

International Womens Day

By ECDHR Staff,  21 March 2022

Saudi Arabia has been restricting freedom of expression further and further, by prohibiting any speech that criticises the government and increasingly controlling the media.  To this end, it has been targeting human rights defenders and sentencing them with terrorism charges. The justice system has been abusively sentencing Saudis to death penalty sentences, including children. The European Union needs to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its Human Rights violations.

The Saudi surveillance State: crushing freedom of expression

Freedom House gave Saudi Arabia a 7 out of 100 on its freedom of expression scale, indicating a sharp deterioration of the state of freedom of expression in the country. The Saudi Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and the press. Yet, since 2011, Saudi Arabia has been sharply restricting the space for civic engagement and violently repressing any claims for human rights and democracy. The repression has only worsened since the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as Crown Prince in 2017. Saudi Arabia truly turned into a police state prohibiting any critique of the government. 

In an effort to effectively crush dissenting voices, the Saudi authorities tightly control the media. They own most newspapers, television stations, and radio stations, and strongly influence privately owned media. They prohibit any content that criticises the royal family and the government. Moreover, any content that is considered to  “threaten the social stability”, to be pornographic, excessively violent, or derogatory to Islam is also forbidden. This control of media is also taking place online where the government uses automated bots and other accounts to influence the social media environment, and ultimately target and arrest users. Internet activists are being harassed or attacked by government supporters. Not only have journalists been targeted through vaguely defined crimes, but academic freedom is also strongly limited. The authorities routinely monitor classrooms to control whether they follow the curricula and teachers are not allowed to teach secular philosophy or religions different from Islam. The academics who criticise the government can be punished: for instance history professor and women’s rights activist Hatoon al-Fassi was arrested in 2018 for her comments on the Crown Prince’s reforms, and she still awaits trial to this day.

The targeted harassment of Human Rights Defenders 

The Saudi authorities have been targeting human rights defenders by depicting them as enemies of the state. The vague and overly broad anti-terrorism law is often deployed against human rights activists, reformers, journalists, and dissidents to harshly suppress and silence their peaceful activities. Defining terrorist activities as “any conduct…intended to disturb public order…or destabilize the state or endanger its national unity”, Saudi authorities arbitrarily arrest, detain, and prosecute all those who dare criticize the government. Similarly, the Anti-Cybercrime Law allows Saudi authorities to target HRDs who exercise their freedom of expression in the digital realm. The lack of independence of the judiciary enables Saudi courts to persistently breach criminal procedures including the right of due process, fair trial, and to receive legal assistance. In such a framework, law enforcement bodies are those primarily perpetuating human rights violations. Political dissidents are subjected to exhausting and pressuring interrogations, where torture and ill-treatment are deployed to coercively obtain false confessions of guilt. 

Women human rights defenders are also violently targeted. Since 2018, prominent women activists continue to be arbitrarily detained for advocating for the abolition of the driving ban and the guardianship system. Despite the release od some activists, they are still restricted by the government through travel bans and pending charges for alleged terrorist crimes. Such courageous figures include Loujain al-Hathloul and Nouf Abdelaziz, who were released in February 2021 after being subjected to torture, sexual violence, and ill-treatment while neither having access to effective remedy nor to legal safeguards.

Death penalty: a manifestation of an abusive system

The Saudi Law of Criminal Procedure perfectly fits in the described system of abuses and impunity. The Law gives authorities large discretion in rulings and sentences, allowing judges to sentence Saudis to inhumane treatment such as the death penalty and corporal punishment. After Saudi Arabia executed 185 individuals in 2019, there was a decrease in the use of the death penalty by 85 percent. However, a new rise in execution was recorded in 2021, with around 40 people executed between January and July and this year, 2022, marks a worrying escalation in the number of people executed by the Saudi government. There have been 92 people executed so far this year, with the March 12th mass execution of 81 individuals the largest known mass execution in the Kingdom’s modern history. According to Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, “many individuals today in Saudi Arabia are at imminent risk of execution.”

The Saudi government derives the lawfulness of such cruel forms of punishment from the precepts of Sharia. Children are not immune from such inhumane and unlawful punishments: on 15 June 2021, Mustafa al-Darwish was executed for his alleged participation in the 2011 and 2012 uprising protests, a “crime” he may have committed as a minor. 

In July 2021, the European Parliament issued an urgent resolution condemning the execution of Mustafa Hashem al-Darwish and urged the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to immediately convert the sentence of all other children currently on death row, in accordance with its obligations under the CRC. Saudi Arabia must “review the cases of all prisoners currently under a death sentence with the aim of commuting their sentences or offering a new and fair trial where the death penalty will not be imposed.” The European Parliament openly denounced the undemocratic Saudi political system where dissidents, journalists, and activists are severely and violently repressed. 

The EU-Saudi Human Rights Dialogue 

In September 2021, the first human rights dialogue between the EU and Saudi Arabia took place in Brussels. On that occasion, the EU reiterated its concerns about the worrying systematic human rights violations such as the deplorable use of torture and death penalty to punish human rights defenders for their peaceful activism. Despite the legal reforms issued by Saudi Arabia to promote human rights, including women’s full and equal participation in all spheres of the society, the government should increase its effort to translate such laws into practical improvements. 

Most importantly, the European Parliament called on the Saudi authorities to “immediately and unconditionally release all human rights defenders, women’s rights defenders, peaceful critics, and activists detained in Saudi prisons.” The EU should “set clear benchmarks” to monitor whether or not the Saudi will make concrete progress towards the promotion of democracy and human rights. Despite the EU-Saudi dialogue representing a first, positive step, the European Parliament should continue to advocate to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its crimes by prioritising human rights over member states’ national interests.