By Jaya Ramachandran
GENEVA (IDN) – Questioning Saudi Arabia’s membership on the Human Rights Council is a “distraction,” a “gross oversimplification,” and an “attempt to stigmatize”, according to Philip Alston, a prominent New York University (NYU) scholar who serves as the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
Alston, who presented a report on June 8 on Saudi Arabia, was responding to a question posed in the plenary of the 47-nation Human Rights Council by Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a Geneva-based human rights group monitoring the world body.
He did not address Neuer’s second question about Saudi Arabia’s recent election to another body, the UN’s women rights commission, which sparked a firestorm in Belgium – the country’s Prime Minister apologized for having helped elect Saudi Arabia – as well as in Sweden, Ireland and Norway, countries suspected of also having voted for the fundamentalist monarchy.
Responding to the testimony by UN Watch on June 8, Alston said: “I was asked by an NGO whether Saudi Arabia should be a member of this council. That’s not a question for me to answer, but I have to say that I think such questions are a distraction and a gross oversimplification and most unhelpful.
“I think what we need is to ensure engagement with countries like Saudi Arabia. The situation of women, the situation of other groups remains well behind the standards that we can expect, but they will only be improved through engagement and not through attempts to stigmatize.”
In the report on his mission to Saudi Arabia from January 8 to 19, 2017, Alston says:
Alston adds: “The place of human rights discourse in Saudi Arabia remains somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, government officials point to the ratification of several core international human rights treaties, its membership of the Human Rights Council, its preparation of a national human rights action plan, a sizeable Human Rights Department in the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and various other initiatives.
“On the other hand, some authorities also tend to view human rights as an alien concept and one that is not easily reconciled with the Kingdom’s Islamic character or the dominant role of the ruling family. They are also keen to invoke sovereignty and cultural traditions as limits on engagement with human rights. However, as in most countries today, societal change in the Kingdom is driven by both external and internal factors.”
He adds: One third of Saudi Arabia’s inhabitants are foreigners, its businesses are increasingly globalized, a high proportion of its educated elite have spent extended periods studying overseas, its citizens are avid consumers of the latest information and communications technologies, and international standards in many fields have become an integral part of the framework for public policymaking.
“The reality is that Saudi Arabia is now an integral and deeply connected part of the post-war global order, of which human rights is a key pillar,” Alston adds.
“It is therefore essential that the Government should recognize that its socioeconomic reform agenda is unavoidably linked to its human rights obligations. Vision 2030 highlights the objective that Saudis ‘live in accordance with the Islamic principle of moderation, are proud of their national identity and their ancient cultural heritage, enjoy a good life in a beautiful environment, are protected by caring families and are supported by an empowering social and health care system’,” says Alston’s report.
The Vision 2030 is apparently also “built on an effective, transparent, accountable, enabling and high-performing Government,” notes Alston. Those objectives are not in conflict with human rights, he argues.
In fact, the idea of a good life in which individuals and families are protected also lies at the heart of the human rights framework. It is compatible with human beings being “born free and equal in dignity and rights” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, art. 1), the notion that the family “is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State” (art. 16) and, among others, with the human right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family” (art. 25) and to social security (art. 22).
The emphasis Vision 2030 puts on the accountability of the Government also resonates with the fact that “the principle of accountability provides the overarching rationale for the establishment of an international human rights regime” (see A/HRC/32/31, para. 29). That principle operates at two levels: accountability to the international community and accountability of governments to their citizens and other rights-holders.
The UN human rights expert recalls that UN Secretary-General António Guterres during a recent visit to the Kingdom said that Vision 2030 “corresponds with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that the United Nations are promoting everywhere in the world”.
Alston notes, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in turn is based on the idea that sustainable development should be grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights treaties.
The international human rights community, he adds, has long drawn attention to human rights issues in Saudi Arabia such as the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of peaceful protesters, the use of the death penalty, discrimination against religious minorities and discrimination against women.
“While recent reports indicate all too little progress on most of those crucial issues, it should be acknowledged that there are other important human rights issues in the Kingdom that warrant attention, including those raised by Vision 2030. With regard to some of those issues, Saudi society is evolving in a potentially positive direction,” observes Alston.
Alston urges “the Government, together with Saudi society, to reassess both its human rights and anti-poverty policies in the light of the intrinsic relationship between the two.”
Further: The Special Rapporteur encourages the Government to build on his visit by engaging in an open debate with the international human rights community. It should follow through on the undertaking made during his visit to invite other United Nations special procedure mandate holders and international human rights NGOs.
It is also extremely important for Saudi Arabia to join the overwhelming majority of States, as soon as possible, by ratifying both the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, says Alston. [IDN-InDepthNews – 18 June 2017]
Photo: UN Secretary-General with Adel Ahmed Al-Jubeir, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
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