Saudi Arabia's human-rights record came under fire at the U.N. on Monday with critics accusing the kingdom of widespread violations and failing to ensure the basic rights of women and foreign workers.
At a four-hour session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, delegations from the United States, Britain, Germany and other countries criticized Saudi Arabia's enforcement of male guardianship for women and raised concerns about the forced labor of migrant workers and restrictions on the freedom of religion.
"Many countries have problematic records, but Saudi Arabia stands out for its extraordinarily high levels of repression and its failure to carry out its promises to the Human Rights Council," Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement to the meeting.
U.S. diplomat Valerie Ullrich added that Saudi authorities continued to detain people without due process in security-related cases.
"We are very concerned that Saudi citizens have been harassed, targeted, detained and punished for simply expressing their beliefs, opinions and views," she said.
Meanwhile in Paris, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal met ahead of a Friends of Syria conference in London on Tuesday. It is unclear if the two discussed human-rights violations in the kingdom during the meeting, which was held at the prince's private residence.
A senior State Department official told reporters that Kerry would discuss a wide range of issues, including Saudi Arabia's rejection of a highly coveted rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council.
When announcing that surprise decision on Friday, Saudi Arabia accused the Security Council of double standards and of shirking its mandate by failing to intervene in Syria.
In anticipation of the human-rights summit, Amnesty International submitted a report to the U.N. detailing a "new wave" of human-rights violations, with Saudi Arabia targeting activists and political dissidents, including arbitrary arrest and detention, unfair trials and torture of detainees.
"Saudi Arabia's previous promises to the U.N. have been proven to be nothing but hot air. It relies on its political and economic clout to deter the international community from criticizing its dire human-rights record," said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International.
"It's highly ironic for Saudi Arabia to point out the Security Council's double standards, given the complete failure to address its own appalling human-rights record," he said.
Bandar bin Mohammed al-Aiban, president of the Saudi Human Rights Commission and head of his country's delegation at the meeting, rebuffed the barrage of criticism and cited "tangible progress" by his country over the past four years.
In August, Saudi Arabia passed a law criminalizing domestic abuse against women, children and domestic workers — which Saudi human-rights groups praised as a significant and unprecedented step.
Addressing alleged abuses of foreign workers, the Saudi delegation said that Saudi law ensured appropriate work conditions for the country's 9 million foreign workers, specifically mentioning a ban on work during midday heat of the summer.
But rights groups have voiced concern that foreign workers are subjected to harsh and gruesome penalties when accused of breaking laws and are often not granted fair trials. After the January beheading of a Sri Lankan maid charged with murdering her employer's child — she said the baby choked — Amnesty International released a report saying that 45 foreign maids were on death row and that 27 had been executed in 2010 alone.
Al-Aiban said Saudi Arabia was committed to upholding human rights in accordance with Sharia — or Islamic law — and "based on the principles of justice, consultation and equality."
"With regard to women's rights, the Islamic Sharia guarantees fair gender equality, and the state's legislative enactments do not differentiate between men and women," he said.
Contrary to accusations from the West that subjugation of women is inherent in the country's legal system, officials in the kingdom have long held that Saudi law protects the rights of women and is compatible with the various international conventions on human rights to which Saudi Arabia is a signatory.
At a conference held last week in the Saudi city of Mecca, Human Rights Under Sharia and International Conventions, Saudi Prince Khaled al-Faisal praised Saudi Arabia as a "shining example" of a country under the rule of Islamic law where human rights were universally respected.
"Human rights are not something new to the kingdom," Khaled said. "It has applied them according to Sharia while at the same time it has participated in all global conferences on human rights."
Various speakers at the conference criticized Western rights groups and media for maligning Islam and called on Muslim countries to abide by international conventions and treaties that promote human rights.
But Saudi activists point to glaring inaccuracies in government claims that the genders are treated equally by law. Saudi women are required to secure the approval of a close male relative for travel or study at a university and are effectively barred from driving cars.
In an August post to her popular blog, Saudiwoman, Eman al-Nafjan criticized Saudi Arabia's treatment of women and domestic workers.
"A 15th century protection system is a system that exists within a legal framework that considers all females as forever minors with a male guardian assigned to each. It is a system where each migrant worker is assigned to a Saudi citizen who can decide when, where and if the worker can work or go home," Al Nafjan wrote.
Many Saudi women pushing for an expansion of women's rights are hopeful that the recent appointment of women to high-level positions, including to the influential Shura Council, which advises King Abdullah, could bring about meaningful change.
"There is no denying the fact that we still lack in ensuring human rights and equality in some cases in accordance with the Sharia," wrote Maha Akeel of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which advocates for women's rights within the framework of Islamic law, in a March op-ed for Arab News. "And we hope that as the 30 women have assumed their seats in the Shura, these issues will be addressed more forcefully."
With wire services