On April 5, 2019, Saudi Arabia arrested and detained at least seven more women’s rights activists. The latest arrests come after around a dozen women’s rights campaigners were put on trial in March 2019 following almost a year-long detention. In October 2018, the United Nations Human Rights experts reminded Saudi Arabia of its obligations as a member of the UN Human Rights Council and as a signatory to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) to protect and promote the rights of human rights defenders who peacefully carry out their work.
In May 2018, Saudi Arabia began a crackdown on dissent and arrested and detained more than a dozen women’s rights activists after they protested to lift the driving ban, end the male guardianship system, and protect victims of domestic violence. Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, continues to struggle balancing ending discriminatory practices with preserving traditional conservative Sharia (Islamic law). It is understood that the motivation behind the arrests was to prevent others from participating in activism. Many of the arrested activists are among Saudi Arabia’s most prominent figures in women’s rights and used both social media and traditional modes of protest. Since their arrest, there has been international outrage, but it worsened once Prince Mohammed bin Salman lifted the driving ban law shortly after the arrests.
In December 2018, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International both reported that Saudi officials allegedly tortured and sexually harassed and assaulted at least four detained women’s rights activists. For example, the “women testified that they were subjected caning, electrocution, and waterboarding by masked male interrogators . . . and some women say they were forcibly touched and groped, made to break their fast during . . . Ramadan, and threatened with rape and death.”
UN Human Rights experts called on Saudi Arabia for the immediate release of all women human rights defenders who were arrested and detained. Rather than complying with the demands of the UN experts, Saudi Arabia announced on March 1, 2019, that it would be prosecuting ten women’s rights activists who had been detained for ten months in a terrorist court. Saudi Arabia claims that the women have ties to foreign intelligence agencies and have been labeled traitors by Saudi Arabia’s state media. However, on March 27, 2019, the State announced it would be moving the proceedings to a criminal court. One day later, three women, Rokaya Mohre, Aziza al Yousef, and Eman Nafjan were released and confirmed rumors that they were subjected to physical and sexual abuse.
Some believe the shift to the criminal court and the release of the three women are products of international pressure, especially following the torture and killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. More than thirty countries at the UN Human Rights Council criticized Saudi for detaining the activists.
If women were tortured while in Saudi Arabian custody, it would be a violation of CAT. Although the women were originally arrested on charges of undermining national security, Saudi Arabia cannot use such a threat as an excuse to use torture. General Comment 2 explicates rights mentioned in CAT and clarifies that there are no derogations permitted under the provisions of the treaty. Thus, Saudi Arabia has a duty to hold those responsible for the torture liable in its own system of justice. While such accountability is unlikely, the right to be free from torture is now considered a jus cogens preemptory norm in international law. Jus cogens principles are considered so fundamental and important that they cannot be set aside, and additionally, all states have a responsibility to hold violators responsible.
In June 2018, in its report on Saudi Arabia Review under CEDAW, the committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women concluded that although steps have been taken for women to drive and for there to be procedures to end domestic violence, “it cannot mask the structural nature of gender inequality, which is rooted in the system of male guardianship.” Thus, as a ratified party to CEDAW, Saudi Arabia has a duty to end the male guardianship system because it is inherently unequal. Saudi Arabia’s unsubstantiated treason charges against these women’s rights activists need to be dropped to comply with the legal obligations under CEDAW and CAT.
If the charges are not dropped, then Saudi Arabia will continue to face backlash from the international community. Additionally, if evidence shows that the women were tortured Saudi Arabia will face even more international backlash if they do not hold their own state actors responsible, especially after the Jamal Khashoggi torture and killing in October 2018. Lastly, until Mohammad bin Salman eliminates the male guardianship system, Saudi Arabia will continue to violate the principles of CEDAW and activists will continue to protest—causing him more strife in Saudi Arabian Foreign Affairs.