Photo: Saudi Minister of Labour and Social Development, Dr Ali Al-Ghafis opening the Forum. Credit: UN Watch. - Photo: 2017

UNESCO Criticised for NGO Global Forum in Saudi Arabia

By Ronald Joshua

GENEVA (IDN) – UNESCO, the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, and its Director-General Irinia Bokova are coming under sharp criticism for holding the UNESCO NGO Global Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

According to UNESCO, more than 400 NGOs and over 2,100 delegates from some 70 countries attended. Speakers included Olympic gold medallist Carl Lewis, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

“Regrettably, UNESCO mentioned nowhere at its 7th International Forum of NGO, or on the conference website, that Saudi Arabia prohibits independent NGOs and arrests, jails and even sometimes flogs human rights activists,” said UN Watch, a Geneva-based human rights organization founded in 1993 to monitor UN compliance with the principles of its Charter in a press release on May 7.

Women attending the forum were instructed to “wear an Abaya, which is a long robe, usually black, that covers most of their body”, according to UN Warch.

The UNESCO gathering was sponsored by the wealthy MiSK Foundation, a Saudi charity, “even though,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of the UN Watch, “that it is headed by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi minister of defence who has overseen the bombing of Yemen that has killed 10,000 civilians and wounded 40,000 civilians, along with a naval blockade that has diverted ships carrying life-saving medical supplies, with 20 million Yemenis now in need of humanitarian assistance, and seven million facing starvation.”

“UNESCO chief Irina Bokova should apologize to the family of Raif Badawi and other Saudi political prisoners,” added Neuer. Badawi is serving the fifth year of his 10-year sentence; he was flogged in January 2015. Over a dozen prominent activists are serving long prison sentences for their advocacy. Waleed Abu al-Khair is serving a 15-year sentence for 2014 comments he made on social media about human rights abuses.

Journalist Alaa Brinji was recently sentenced to five years in prison and an eight-year travel ban for tweets criticizing religious authorities and supporting women’s rights and the cause of jailed human rights activists, the UN Watch noted.

“We know that the UN must operate in many countries, but the world body was under no obligation to award what amounts to a false badge of international legitimacy to one of the world’s worst regimes when it comes to crushing independent human rights organizations and jailing innocent activists,” Neuer said.

“By holding a high-level gathering of non-governmental activists in Saudi Arabia, the UN showed contempt for the heroic Saudi human rights activists who are arrested, imprisoned or flogged, and it gave a prize to a regime that tramples the rights of women, along with the freedoms of religion, assembly, speech, press, and the values of democracy, equality and the rule of law,” the UN Watch executive director said.

Saudi law allows for the banning of any organization that the government opposes, on grounds that it may violate “Islamic Sharia,” “public manners” or “national unity,” the press release noted. A new statute bars NGOs from participating in events outside the country, receiving foreign funding, or collaborating with international organizations without government approval.

Human rights activists such as Abdullah al-Attawi and Mohammad al-Oteibi were targeted in October 2016 for prosecution for having founded a human rights organization, the press release went on to say.

“Despite claimed social reforms, Saudi authorities regularly target peaceful dissidents with arbitrary arrests, trials, and convictions. Dozens of human rights activists are serving lengthy prison sentences for criticizing authorities or advocating social, political or human rights reforms,” the UN Watch said.

In 2016, the kingdom jailed nearly all the founders of the banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA). The country’s terrorism tribunal convicted ACPRA activists Abd al-Aziz al-Shubaily and Issa al-Hamid to eight and nine years in prison respectively, in addition to lengthy travel bans based solely on their peaceful pro-reform advocacy.

Nevertheless, during his opening address, Saudi Minister of Labour and Social Development, Dr Ali Al-Ghafis said: “We must liberate the ability of youth around the world to create opportunities for the future. Here in the Kingdom, the MiSK Foundation is creating initiatives which empower youth to help realise the ambition of the National Transformation Plan and Vision 2030.”

The forum is focused on developing practical ideas to empower the youth of the world to make a positive social impact, UNESCO said in a press release. In her opening address Irina Bokova said: “This first NGO forum to be held in the Arab region reflects the depth of partnership between Saudi Arabia and UNESCO, building on shared aspirations and common goals to take forward the 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

“This must start with the empowerment of young women and men. We must build on new partnerships with civil society and NGOs to listen to all voices and to nurture every source of innovation and dynamism. These are the foundations for the inclusive knowledge societies we need for the century ahead.”

Bokova continued: “The world has never been so young, and it is getting younger every day. Together we must do everything to support youth to advance new forms of dialogue and cooperation to tackle the challenges facing all societies. Today more than ever we need the ideas, imagination, creativity and resilience of young people to build a better future for all. This is the importance of this ground breaking forum.”

Eric Falt, Assistant Director-General for External Relations and Public Information, UNESCO, said: “Youth is a strength and they have a hunger for social impact and change. Youth matter because they are the guardians of the future and they have the energy and creativity to make a change in the world.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 8 May 2017]

Photo: Saudi Minister of Labour and Social Development, Dr Ali Al-Ghafis opening the Forum. Credit: UN Watch.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate – 

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