Human Rights in Saudi Arabia: Will Trump look the other way?

President Donald Trump is traveling to Saudi Arabia on May 20, 2017, on the first leg of his first foreign trip as president.

What will he say about human rights in Saudi Arabia?

On the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, see

(1) Human Rights Watch, “World Report 2017, Saudi Arabia: Events of 2016.”

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(2) U.S. State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “2016 Report on Human Rights Practices, Report on Saudi Arabia,” March 3, 2017.

(3) Jeff Abramson, “Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain Should be Rejected,” Arms Control Association, Issue Briefs, Vol. 9, Issue 3, May 18, 2017.

Human Rights Watch describes the situation in Saudi Arabia in straightforward terms.

Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammad Bin Salman emerged as the most visible Saudi leader in 2016 and launched Vision 2030, an ambitious government road map for economic and developmental growth that aims to reduce the country’s dependence on oil. Vision 2030 was later accompanied by the National Transformation Program (NTP), which sets specific benchmarks to achieve by 2020.

Through 2016 the Saudi Arabia-led coalition continued an aerial campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen that included numerous unlawful airstrikes that killed and injured thousands of civilians. Saudi authorities also continued their arbitrary arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents. Dozens of human rights defenders and activists continued to serve long prison sentences for criticizing authorities or advocating political and rights reforms. Authorities continued to discriminate against women and religious minorities.

The U.S. State Department’s annual Human Rights Report for Saudi Arabia for 2016 provides an overview of the human rights situation in that country.

Executive Summary

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who is both head of state and head of government. The government bases its legitimacy on its interpretation of sharia (Islamic law) and the 1992 Basic Law, which specifies that the rulers of the country shall be male descendants of the founder, King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al Saud. The Basic Law sets out the system of governance, rights of citizens, and powers and duties of the government, and it provides that the Quran and Sunna (the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) serve as the country’s constitution. In December 2015 the country held municipal elections on a nonparty basis for two-thirds of the 3,159 seats on the 284 municipal councils around the country. Independent polling station observers identified no significant irregularities with the election. For the first time, women were allowed to vote and run as candidates.

Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces.

The most important human rights problems reported included citizens’ lack of the ability and legal means to choose their government; restrictions on universal rights, such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and the freedoms of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and pervasive gender discrimination and lack of equal rights that affected most aspects of women’s lives.

Other human rights problems reported included: a lack of judicial independence and transparency that manifested itself in denial of due process and arbitrary arrest and detention; a lack of equal rights for children and non-citizen workers; abuses of detainees; overcrowding in prisons and detention centers; investigating, detaining, prosecuting, and sentencing lawyers, human rights activists, and anti-government reformists; holding political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy, home, and correspondence; and a lack of equal rights for children and non citizen workers. Violence against women; trafficking in persons; and discrimination based on gender, religion, sect, race, and ethnicity were common. Lack of governmental transparency and access made it difficult to assess the magnitude of many reported human rights problems.

The government identified, prosecuted, and punished a limited number of officials who committed abuses, particularly those engaged or complicit in corruption. Some members of the security forces and other senior officials reportedly committed abuses with relative impunity.

The country continued air and ground operations in Yemen as leader of a military coalition formed in March 2015 to counter the 2014 overthrow of the internationally recognized Republic of Yemen government in Sanaa by Houthi rebels allied with forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen resulted in civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure on multiple occasions, and the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International, claimed that some coalition airstrikes were disproportionate or indiscriminate and appeared not to sufficiently minimize collateral impact on civilians. Houthi-Saleh militias conducted cross-border raids into Saudi territory and fired missiles and artillery into southern Saudi Arabia throughout the year, killing Saudi civilians. The coalition’s Joint Incident Assessment Team, established by the government and based in Riyadh, investigated some incidents of coalition airstrikes that reportedly resulted in civilian casualties and published recommendations, although no prosecutions resulted.

Domestically, Saudi Arabia has made some progress on human rights, holding municipal elections and allowing women to run in municipal elections.

But it remains a harsh authoritarian state, with no freedom of expression.

In its conduct of the war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is reported to have targeted hospitals and civilians, which actions constitute war crimes.

If the U.S. is supplying arms to Saudi Arabia which it is using in the war in Yemen to commit war crimes, U.S. actions can hardly be distinguished in principle from those of Russia in supporting Bashar al-Assad’s commission of war crimes in Syria. The only difference, if it exists, is that the U.S. would not be itself directly committing war crimes in Yemen. Under international law, it would nevertheless be complicit in the Saudi commission of such crimes, and therefore responsible under international law.

What will Trump say to criticize Saudi Arabia’s lack of freedoms, and to encourage further progress beyond the limited areas in which it occurs?

Will he say anything about human rights?

Or will he follow Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s approach of keeping our values in mind, but not letting them get in the way of important security and economic agreements?

Everyone in the Middle East is watching.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.