EU Parliament Passes Resolution

Last month European Parliament released a joint motion for a resolution condemning Saudi Arabia’s numerous human rights violations and determined the Saudi political system as discriminatory towards women. This resolution addressed the prevalence of gender-based violence, the restrictions imposed on women as well as the use of the death penalty for non-violent offences. The resolution notes that “since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud came to power in June 2017, many outspoken human rights defenders, activists and critics have been arbitrarily detained, or unjustly sentenced”. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) has praised the resolution and echoed calls for accountability and the release of imprisoned human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia.

The resolution on the situation of women’s rights defenders in Saudi Arabia was passed with 525 votes in favour, 29 against and 71 abstentions. Members of Parliament denounced the “continued, systemic discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia” and condemned the “ongoing repression of human rights defenders”, emphasising that this undermines the credibility of processes of reform in the country. Parliament asked Saudi authorities to end all forms of harassment against human rights defenders, including at judicial level.

More specifically, the resolution responded to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the arbitrary detentions of women and human rights activists. Seven women — Loujain al-Hathloul, Aisha al-Mana, Madeha al-Ajroush, Eman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Youssef, Hessah al-Sheikh, Walaa al-Shubbar — were arrested for their activism for women’s rights; advocating to end the ban on women driving and abolish the male guardianship system, a system that deprives women of the most basic control of their own lives. These women were arrested in June 2018, ahead of the anticipated lifting of the ban. As articulated by Omaima al-Najjar, a Saudi blogger living in exile since fleeing the kingdom, “It is important to remember that while so many women for example now can drive, women who campaigned for driving are still in prison. While so women can finally vote, or women can finally go to the cinemas, a lot of the activists who called for those reforms are still in prison”. The resolution brought attention to the abuse and torture of women and human rights activists currently detained and called for the immediate and unconditional release of all those who were sentenced for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

The resolution identifies that Saudi Arabia is currently a member of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Commission on the Status of Women despite the nation’s numerous offences. The UN Human Rights Council is now in session in Geneva with Saudi Arabian Dr Abdul Aziz Al-Wasel, the Kingdom’s ambassador, in attendance. The UN’s Council has heard that “The Kingdom’s regulations ensure the freedoms of opinion, expression and association, while criminalizing all forms of torture and ill-treatment”. However on Monday, on the sidelines on the UN Human Rights Council, was a panel event called “Saudi Arabia — Time for Accountability”. At this event, Fionnuala Ni Aolain, UN special rapporteur on protecting human rights while countering terrorism, stated that Saudi Arabia’s laws and regulations are unacceptably wide and vague to include “people who are engaged in promoting or inciting sit-ins, protests, meetings or group statements. Anyone who harms the unity or stability of the kingdom by any means. These are notoriously slippery terms”.

“These laws are used to directly attack and limit the rights of prominent human rights defenders, religious figures, writers, journalists, academics, civil activists and all of these groups have been targeted by this law,” said Ni Aolain.

In line with this critique, the EU Parliament resolution not only called for the immediate release of detained activists but for a revision of the Law on Associations and Foundations (December 2015), to allow activists to work independently and freely without unwarranted interference by the authorities; “Women activists should be allowed to organise themselves and work without fear of repercussions”.

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Maya Hendler is an Intern at Women’s March Global.