Monday, December 15, 2008

Saudi HRC Pledges To Promote "Rights Culture" in the Kingdom

It would appear that the Saudi Arabian Human Rights Commission is braced to give the ol' Kingdom an image make-over.

Arab News reports:

RIYADH: The governmental Human Rights Commission has put out a plan to promote the culture of human rights in the Kingdom. The announcement came as the world celebrated the 60th birthday of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this past week.

The HRC plan includes organizing a number of lectures and seminars, issuing awareness handouts and periodicals for both genders regarding the rights of women, children and workers, especially in the context of Shariah and international agreements.

A "rights culture" that is understood "in the context of Shariah" is problematic. Some punishments meted out by Shariah courts, from lashes to amputations to decapitations to stoning, would in and of themselves be regarded as de facto human rights abuses in all western countries.

A statement by the Human Rights Commission avowed that it was "committed to bringing to light the Kingdom’s efforts in maintaining human rights through abiding by international and bilateral treaties that it has signed." The HRC further asserts "the Kingdom’s belief in the importance of dialogue among cultures, religions and various civilizations as the main means to support peace and stability all over the world,”

But is this more than just self-justification -- more than an attempt to look busy while glossing over the record of the actual state of human rights in the Kingdom?

To the HRC's credit, it does focus on issues of women's rights, children's rights, labour conditions, and the treatment of foreign workers -- all areas where significant progress needs to be made before the commission can boast too heartily.

Consider the following points acknowledged by the Saudi HRC:

  • the HRC "intervened in 1,013 cases in the second half of the 1429 AH (April to September 2008). About a fourth of these cases were resolved, the HRC said, while the rest have been either dismissed or are in pending litigation." These cases included "131 labor disputes and 199 prisoners’ rights complaints, as well as social complaints (including medical complaints) and financial cases;"
  • between 2006 (when the Saudi HRC was established) to the end of 2007, there has been a 24% rise in the number of complaints;
  • by September, 2008, the HRC had received a total of nearly 10,000 cases -- that many over just a three year period. The HRC President said that "about half of these cases were referred to other agencies, dismissed for lack of evidence or were outside the jurisdiction of the HRC;"
  • the HRC "participated in the inspection of 12 domestic shelters (where women are placed when they flee abusive husbands or are involved in other domestic disputes that leave them estranged from their legal male guardians);"
  • the HRC intervened in the case of some foreign workers from India who had been evicted from their apartments because they had complained to the Indian embassy about their working conditions;
  • the HRC proudly states that it opened a "women's branch" which will "likely work closely with the new Family Court that the Kingdom is developing as part of its ongoing overhaul of the courts system."

Not surprisingly, there is nothing here about freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, the right to an education, or freedom from torture. But hey, what do we want from them -- the sun and the moon?

HRC president Turki bin Khaled Al-Sudairi went as far as to suggest that the HRC "would consider" including women on its board of directors.

Let's just say that as a born skeptic, I'll believe it when I see it. I'll believe it when blasphemy is no longer a punishable crime. I'll believe it when apostacy is no longer punishable by death. I'll believe it when a woman is no longer punished by the Shariah courts for the crime of being raped. I'll believe it when a woman can be in the company of an unrelated man without suffering lashes for her "indiscretion." You see, I believe in real human rights before window dressing.

So how about it, HRC boosters? Once the "soft" sociological human rights you are keen to extol are accounted for, how about improving the score on the "hard" fundamental and universal human rights -- the ones that are political in nature; the very ones you were supposed to be celebrating last week, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Yeah, those rights.

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