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memri
March 26, 2004 No.
167

Human Rights Organizations: The Saudi Model

By: Aluma Dankowitz*

On March 9, 2004, Saudi Arabia's King Fahd Bin Abd Al-Aziz officially approved the establishment of the country's first non-governmental human rights organization. The new National Organization for Human Rights (NOHR) has 41 members, nine of them women, and is chaired by Dr. Abdallah Bin Saleh Al-'Ubeid, a member of the Saudi Shoura Council and former secretary-general of the Muslim World League. The new organization's members and executive committee, who are also members of the Saudi Shoura Council , participate in NOHR activities "in an individual and not an official capacity." NOHR has four committees: tracking and oversight, research and recommendations, family matters and culture, and publication.

NOHR Chairman Dr. Abdallah Bin Saleh Al-'Ubeid explained that the organization would strive to protect human rights in accordance with the principles of the Saudi regime, based on the Qur'an and the Sunna, [1] as well as international human rights conventions, in a manner that does not conflict with Shari'a, [2] and in cooperation with international organizations. Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah supported the organization's mission and promised to provide it with all necessary government assistance. [3]

NOHR Chairman: Amputations and Floggings are not Violations of Human Rights

In an interview with the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, Dr. Al-'Ubeid explained that NOHR is not aimed at pressuring the Saudi regime and that it has no power to impose its will on the state. He added, "The organization will cooperate with all internationally acknowledged human rights organizations and institutions, but will not ally itself with them for the purpose of pressuring elements inside Saudi Arabia that do not cooperate with it. The only means of pressure that the organization has is to [expose] non-cooperative elements in its annual report, which will be given to the head of state. The organization cannot force its positions on the state. However, it will cooperate with the state to make public human rights mistakes committed by individuals and government entities."

Commenting on human rights violations by the Saudi government, Al-'Ubeid said: "Theoretically, the kingdom sets the laws, and the regime makes sure that these laws do not contradict Islamic Shari'a. It is safe to assume that those who are appointed by the state to uphold the laws are committed to doing so. But there are some infringements due to unfamiliarity [with the laws] or due to excessive zeal in upholding them. The state does not endorse those infringements and has the means, both financially and administratively, to handle them…"

Discussing the manner in which complaints will be handled, Al-'Ubeid said: "When someone turns to the organization and claims he was imprisoned for political reasons, we look into his claim and the evidence that he presents. In principle, the organization has no problem examining any issue. But that does not mean that every problem will be accepted just because someone brought it up. Someone may say that he is a political prisoner, but in fact he had harmed others, and there are criminals who were sentenced to jail or other punishments. Not everyone who was punished was indeed mistreated. Perhaps it was he who violated the freedoms of others. We hope that the organization, along with other institutions, will help anyone who complains – and was [indeed] deprived of his rights - to restore his rights… [However] what one person considers a violation of his rights may not [actually] be so. There are rules and religious laws that govern man and society. One of the drawbacks of the international proclamations of human rights, and some [human rights] organizations, is that [they focus on the] rights of the individual as the one and only thing [to be considered]. It is surprising that international [human rights] protocols do not speak of [human] obligations, just [of human] rights…"

"There are those who consider certain issues a violation of human rights, while we consider them a safeguard to human rights – for example, executions, amputating the hand of a thief, or flogging an adulterer. There are those who think that all Qur'anic punishments violate human rights. Therefore, the position of the Saudi foreign ministry, and the position of many Islamic countries and even some of the Western countries, is that international proclamations of human rights and their related protocols are [considered only] general principles, and that their implementation is subject to the laws [of each country]… We, in the kingdom, are part of the world insofar as [general principles of] human rights [are concerned]. But domestically we are governed according to Allah's Shari'a, so that what [to someone else] seems like a violation of human rights is [in fact] our duty and our right concerning someone who committed a crime or a sin."

Referring to the organization's independent status, Al-'Ubeid explained: "The organization is a national popular non-governmental entity that has no affiliation with government institutions. None of its members holds a government position. Members of the organization are consultants … members of faculty in universities … or retirees. None has ties to the state's executive branch, and that is why the state can establish [human rights] organizations of its own…"

Al-'Ubeid also talked about the Saudis detained by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay: "We will add our efforts in this area to those of international organizations seeking to ensure that they are treated in accordance with human rights conventions. We shall do our utmost, in cooperation with government and civilian institutions, to achieve this demand at the outset of our activities." [4]

Criticism of the NHRO

A heated discussion regarding the independence of the NHRO immediately followed the announcement of its establishment. Former judge Sheikh Abd Al-Aziz Al-Qassem maintained that the organization was in fact governmental, not civilian. As evidence, he stated, "None of its members could have announced its establishment prior to obtaining official approval." However, he praised the organization as "the first step towards creating a culture of human rights and their implementation in the Saudi society." [5]

Other critics referred to the priorities of the organization. In his column in the London-based Arabic language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Tariq Al-Hameed commented on Al-'Ubeid's statement that the issue of the Guantanamo Bay detainees is the NHRO's top priority. Al-Hameed maintained that this issue was being handled by the government, and should not be handled by a civilian organization. "We hope that the civilian organization will deal with domestic problems of interest to the citizen who is not immersed in political details, the citizen who is seeking solutions to problems in his day-to-day life… The greatest fear is that tomorrow we will see the Palestinian, Iraqi and Afghani problems on the agenda of the NHRO… This will contradict the core of the organization's mission and what is expected of it…" [6]

A Saudi Governmental Human Rights Organization

Subsequent to the announcement of the establishment of the NOHR, Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Prince Turki Bin Muhammad announced the imminent establishment of a governmental human rights organization. In an interview with the London Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat, he explained that what seemed to be the deliberate founding of the government organization after the founding of the civilian organization, was indeed planned so as to "ensure the accomplishment of its goals as expected." The organization, he said, would be a high-level entity headed by a qualified individual with a direct connection to the king.

On ties between the civilian and governmental human rights organizations, Prince Turki Bin Muhammad said: "We expect the two organizations to cooperate in securing and enhancing human rights in Saudi Arabia. There are no ties between the two: One is national and was established on the basis of the wishes of the Saudi society. The national human rights organization has its own mission and it is fully independent. The other is governmental, and coordinates the activities of government institutions for the purpose of serving human rights in the kingdom. The governmental organization has no guardianship over the national organization. Each one of them is independent."

When asked about the scope of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, Turki Bin Muhammad answered: "Based on my work, and my involvement in this issue for over eight years, I can say that there are no significant human rights violations, as alleged falsely by suspicious parties. There may be some transgressions by individuals [or institutions], but they do not rise to the level that could be described as human rights violations. I think these cases can be managed when they arise."

Explaining why Saudi Arabia refused to allow an Amnesty International delegation to investigate human rights violations in the kingdom, Turki Bin Muhammad said that Amnesty International had taken "a hostile position towards the kingdom, which tainted its objectivity." He added that "Saudi Arabia invited non-governmental organizations to visit the country, including one of the most important non-governmental international organizations – Human Rights Research [sic]. They visited Saudi Arabia and met with officials, intellectuals and civilians. They visited prisons and gathered information with which they were not familiar. Finally, they prepared a positive report about what they heard and observed. As for Amnesty International, it has unfortunately taken hostile positions in the past, especially in regard to our faith and values… We do not oppose cooperation with any organization dealing with human rights, as long as its points of departure are impartial and credible." [7]

At the March 17, 2004 U.N. human rights conference in Geneva, Turki Bin Muhammad rejected demands by the U.S. and other Western countries to speed up the reform process in Saudi Arabia. He said Riyadh would pursue reform based on the needs of Saudi society, not on ideas and theories from without. Prince Turki also dismissed allegations of discrimination against women in Saudi society, pointing out that some 49% of the country's 4.3 million students are women and that women also held about a third of all public positions. [8]

* Aluma Dankowitz is the Director of MEMRI's Reform Project.


[1] The sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, set out as a mandatory example for Muslims.

[2] Islamic law.

[3] Al-Hayat (London), March 10, 2004.

[4] Al-Hayat (London), March 12, 2004.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 11, 2004.

[6] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 13, 2004.

[7] Al-Hayat (London), March 12, 2004.

[8] Arab News (Saudi Arabia), March 18, 2004.