This document is an initiative by Saudi activists, academics and intellectuals who took part in its drafting and evaluation. This vision is based on several demands for reform previously made by Saudi civil society leaders who are and have been subject to repression, imprisonment and prosecution by the authorities because of their activism. This document presents a fundamental people’s vision for reform in Saudi Arabia centering human rights and social justice as the most important benchmarks for reform. With Saudi Arabia assuming the G20 presidency for 2020, we firmly believe that it cannot achieve the G20’s basic aims of complete economic stability, sustainable development, the empowerment of women, enhancing human capital and increasing trade and investment flows without the real participation of Saudi society in each area of this work. This vision is purely that of the people and is driven by our values as human rights defenders to amplify the demands of Saudi society and push for more rights and freedoms. Our vision will be realized by the Saudi authorities taking the following measures:
IMMEDIATELY AND UNCONDITIONALLY RELEASE ALL HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS AND OTHER PRISONERS OF CONSCIENCE, including their return to their ordinary lives and jobs without restrictions on their release.
The Saudi Arabian authorities must end their repression of civil society and human rights defenders and allow them to work for greater rights and freedoms for all.
Human rights activists, academics, journalists and concerned citizens and residents should not be considered the enemy as they are being portrayed now - they are dynamic agents of positive reform. Their protests, writings and advocacy for social and political reforms are in the interest of us all. Thus, their participation should be looked at as an initiative that contributes to the prosperity and progress of the state to build a free, just and vibrant civil society. Yet, the best catalysts for progress are in exile, in prison or living silently in fear among the general public.
The Saudi authorities must release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally, ensure their convictions and sentences are quashed, lift all administrative bans and other penalties against them, drop any pending charges, and promptly afford them appropriate reparation for the violations of their human rights, compensate them for material and immaterial losses and prosecute those involved in human rights violations to ensure they do not enjoy impunity.
RESPECT THE RIGHT TO FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
Freedom of expression is a fundamental pillar of the ability of individuals to achieve their full potential, evaluate government performance, and inform policies and laws that represent and guarantee the rights of all. It is also a fundamental basis to protect pluralism, in addition to it being a fundamental human right.
The Saudi authorities have escalated the repression of the right to freedom of expression, including in their crackdown on online expression. They have zero tolerance for difference in thoughts or opinions. They harass, arbitrarily detain and prosecute anyone who criticizes the government or peacefully expresses their views on political, economic or societal issues. The authorities misuse the counter-terror and anti-cyber crime laws to prosecute people before a specialized counter-terror court, thereby equating their peaceful expression of their opinion to national security threats. Even government critics abroad are not safe, as evident from the extrajudicial execution in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This is in addition to the repeat threats to and the pursuit of activists abroad through online hacking, the suspension of services, freezing of accounts, refusal to renew passports and prosecution of their friends and families.
The Saudi authorities must repeal or amend the Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing to make it fully compatible with international human rights law and standards and amend the 2007 Anti-Cyber Crime Law and other regulations relating to the use of electronic media so as to abolish those provisions that criminalize the use of such media for peacefully exercising rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. The authorities should draft these provisions in a legally controlled and precise manner that leaves no scope for the executive and judicial authorities to abuse them.
RESPECT THE RIGHT TO FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION AND PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The freedom to form lobbying groups to influence public policies, monitor government performance, and to ensure the representation of civil society and all groups in making policies that protect their interests and the interests of all is of great importance.
Human rights defenders cannot legally form associations in Saudi Arabia. The current Law – the Law on Associations and Foundations - is at odds with international human rights standards. Over many years, multiple activists have been convicted for, among other things, ‘setting up an unlicensed organization’. This has often been the case despite their failed attempts to officially register their independent human rights organizations.
The authorities also do not permit the formation of political parties and trade unions. In the context of the repressive Kafala (sponsorship) system, which migrant workers are most impacted by, the recent drive for Saudization of the workforce, including increasing women inclusion, makes it more pertinent to allow them the formation of independent trade unions to represent all workers.
The Saudi authorities must amend the Law on Associations and Foundations, to remove restrictions that prevent the legal registration of independent human rights groups and other civil society organizations; thereby remove the powers of the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development to prevent or impede the legal registration of such associations on unlawful grounds. The authorities must also end the ban and criminalization of peaceful protests.
PROTECT WOMEN’S RIGHTS
In 2019 the authorities announced major reforms to the discriminatory male guardianship system. While the announcement declared that women’s rights would be brought into line with those of men and would ease major restrictions on women’s freedom of movement, they did not abolish the guardianship system altogether. Women are still unable to marry without the permission of a guardian, for example. Women and girls continue to face systematic discrimination in law and in practice in other areas such as marriage, divorce, inheritance and the ability to pass on citizenship to their children from foreign spouses. Women working in the private sector face a huge gap in wages and opportunities. The guardian also retains the authority to bring lawsuits against women for absence or disobedience which is a fundamental barrier preventing women from accessing their various rights to take part in student exchanges, education, work, movement and choosing where they live, even though these rights are guaranteed by law and the amendments made. In addition to this, the lack of clear mechanisms to appeal against guardians preventing women from exercising and accessing their rights constitutes a major obstacle to enforcing any amendments to the guardianship system.
Women and girls also remain inadequately protected from sexual and other forms of violence. Women cannot leave shelters or prisons unless they are “handed over” to a male guardian, which results in exposing them to more violence or remaining in prison if their guardians refuse to have them “handed over”.
Ironically, the women human rights defenders who campaigned tirelessly for the very reforms the government has adopted, continue to be persecuted. Thus, women’s rights cannot be supported without popular representation of their demands and without an environment in which defenders and activists do not fear prosecution or repression.
The Saudi authorities must fully abolish the repressive guardianship laws, drop all charges against defenders of women’s rights who have been crucial in pushing for reforms through their activism, and immediately and unconditionally release all those who are in detention for fighting for these most basic of rights.
ENSURE FREEDOM OF BELIEF AND COMBAT ALL FORMS OF RELIGIOUS DISCRIMINATION
The Saudi authorities must ensure the exercise of the freedom of belief to all, including the criminalization of discrimination against Shi’as and other minorities, such as Sufis, Ismailis and other religious beliefs.
In particular, Shi’a Muslims face discrimination because of their faith, limiting their right to express religious beliefs and access justice, as well as their right to work in a number of public sector professions and access state services.
Several Shi’a activists accused of supporting or taking part in demonstrations or expressing views critical of the government or demanding more extensive rights and freedoms are prosecuted and imprisoned. Some face the death penalty in unfair politicized trials.
The Saudi authorities must put an end to all forms of discrimination, intimidation, harassment and detention without charge or trial of individuals due to their belief, including members of the Shi’a community, and uphold their right to peaceful assembly.
ENSURE JUSTICE IN THE LAW AND LEGAL SYSTEM, AND RESOLVE ARBITRARY DETENTION CASES
Arrests, investigations and trials in Saudi Arabia do not provide any guarantees of justice, such as transparency, the right to know the charges before arrest, protection against torture and access to a lawyer, in addition to a lack of a clear definition of crimes and penalties, including acts of terrorism, in accordance with international standards, which include not using these laws to prosecute peaceful dissidents and human rights activists. Trials in Saudi Arabia are a mockery of justice. In some courts, such as the Specialized Criminal Court, the hearings are frequently held wholly or mostly in secret. The judges demonstrate clear bias against defendants, particularly in cases of human rights defenders and political activists. Defendants are frequently arrested without a warrant; not told the reasons for their arrest, held incommunicado, often in solitary confinement, without access to their families or a lawyer, for months; tortured or otherwise ill-treated in pre-trial detention to extract “confessions”, as punishment for refusing to “repent”, or to force detainees to pledge to stop criticizing the government; and are held without charge or trial, without any opportunity to challenge their detention for years.
The Saudi authorities must fundamentally reform the justice system to ensure fair trials and protect defendants from arbitrary detention, solitary confinement, torture and other ill-treatment in accordance with relevant international standards.
END TORTURE AND OTHER FORMS OF ILL-TREATMENT THAT DEBASE HUMAN DIGNITY
It is a common misconception that torture is the only way to obtain life-saving information. However, this is not true. Torture is an inhumane punishment and can never be justified. Torture and other forms of ill-treatment do not lead to obtaining any reliable information. The use of such violence could lead to the spread of counter violence against the authorities and the community.
Torture and other ill-treatment are widely used in Saudi Arabia against people deprived of their liberty, including of detainees during their pre-trial detention and while imprisoned. Many detainees allege that torture and other ill-treatment are used to extract “confessions”, to punish them for refusing to “repent”, or to force them to undertake to not criticize the government, as well as torture as retaliation against the victim.
The Saudi authorities must ensure that any evidence obtained through torture, coercion or other unlawful means are excluded from proceedings and are not used legally in any other field. They must also ensure open and fair hearings aimed at affording appropriate reparation to all victims of torture and other human rights violations by state officials or those acting on their behalf. The authorities must also ensure that all those against whom there is sufficient admissible evidence of responsibility for torture or other ill-treatment are promptly prosecuted on criminal charges in fair trials and, if convicted, given sentences commensurate with the gravity of the offence, to act as a deterrent to others.
ABOLISH THE DEATH PENALTY
There is no evidence that the death penalty is the most effective punishment to end crime. In Saudi Arabia, the death penalty is usually ordered after flawed trials that do not meet international fair trial standards.
Saudi Arabia has one of the highest rates of execution in the world. The Saudi authorities put 185 people to death in 2019, the majority of executions were for drug-related offences and murder.
Sentencing people to death is a violation of the right to life; it cannot be reversed if the penalty is wrongly applied. In addition to this, in Saudi Arabia, court proceedings fall far short of international standards for fair trials. Defendants are rarely allowed formal representation by lawyers, and in many cases are not informed of the progress of legal proceedings against them.
The Saudi authorities must declare an official moratorium on all executions, starting with punitive sentences, with a view to abolishing the death penalty. Pending full abolition, the authorities should commute all death sentences and ensure legislation is in line with international law and standards.
ENSURE MIGRANT WORKERS’ RIGHTS ARE RESPECTED
Migrant workers in Saudi Arabia are subject to discriminatory practices, including through an ongoing crackdown against those with irregular status. Millions have been arrested and deported in periodic campaigns which continue until today; targeting migrants accused of violating residential, border security and labour regulations and laws. Some migrant workers detained for labour law violations have been tortured and otherwise ill-treated in detention facilities across the country.
Saudi Arabia, with 11 million migrant workers living under the kafala system, has the largest migrant population in the region and the fourth largest in the world. These 11 million include around four million migrant female domestic workers. The kafala system places migrant workers at the mercy of their sponsors, which sometimes forces them to live in circumstances that are harmful to their occupational safety and health. This has been clearly shown in the large number of Covid-19 cases among migrant workers registered in Saudi Arabia, due to their poor living conditions and being deprived of the necessary means of prevention.
The kingdom is the only Gulf state that continues to require all migrant workers to obtain an exit permit in order to leave the country. This requirement, combined with the difficulties workers face in switching employers, makes them dependent on their employers and increases their vulnerability to abuses, including forced labour. Migrant workers are also more likely to be subjected to unfair trials, as there are usually violations when they are brought to trial, they are often denied the presence of a lawyer or necessary translations, even when they are subject to the death penalty.
The Saudi authorities must reform national labour laws to ensure that migrant workers have adequate protection against violations by the authorities, those with influence and private employers.
For decades, members of the Bedoon community have lived in Saudi Arabia on the fringes of society. They have faced major difficulties in accessing healthcare, enrolling in the public education system or getting jobs. Many of them are struggling to ensure the necessities of life, such as marriage, divorce, registering their children, accessing healthcare, etc.
The Bedoon community is made up of displaced tribes and children born in Saudi Arabia to stateless former migrants. There are no clear statistics on the numbers of Bedoon, however they are estimated to make up one hundred thousand residents. The state has facilitated access to some services to groups of the Bedoon through special documents, however this does not confer all rights on them.
The Saudi authorities must work to naturalize all stateless persons, ratify the 1954 the Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
ENSURE THE RIGHT TO POLITICAL PARTICIPATION
Achieving public participation in decision making is one of the main ambitions of the people since the establishment of the modern Saudi state, along with the representation in an elected parliament that carries out the role entrusted to it of supervising the budget, creating a balance of powers, distributing power between state institutions and adopting the principle of the separation of powers (legislative, judicial and executive) or a system of checks and balances between institutions. The right to political participation and governance could take the form of the direct election of the head of the executive authority or by representatives elected freely by the people as part of a consultative council or parliament elected impartially and transparently, whose elections is overseen by civil organizations and independent international observers.
Citizens have the inalienable right to participate in formulating the future of their country, including participating in setting out an economic and political vision. After all, they contribute to the budget by paying taxes, through the oil revenues that are supposed to be public property, granting them the right to control and participate in the spending of its proceeds, through elected civil institutions. They also have the right to participate in making and drafting policies that affect their interests in all fields without restrictions.
The Saudi authorities must ensure the full legal and practical recognition of the right to political participation and ratify the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.
12. SOCIAL JUSTICE AND THE FAIR DISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH
Social justice and the fair distribution of wealth involves all citizens being able to reach their full potential, not to steer state resources into partial and unjustified directions, not to discriminate between individuals, regions or different groups in accessing opportunities and resources. A country such as Saudi Arabia, of exceptional resources and imposed taxes, cannot allow the country’s wealth and resources to be squandered and used for personal ends by particular individuals, thereby depriving most people of their basic right and the benefit of these resources. Social justice means that there is a sound popular mechanism to ensure that the national budget and revenues are spent in the public interest and to ensure that all members of the community have their fair share of the country’s wealth without discrimination on the basis of their allegiance to influential figures or belonging to a specific ethnic, cultural or political grouping. The state is also not supposed to set out development plans for a specific region without consideration for protecting its residents against forced displacement and guaranteeing their right to appeal in a transparent and fair manner against displacement procedures and obtain reparation. This cannot be achieved under the security clampdown that previously led to the death, arrest and displacement of people without any clear information or mechanisms that justify this unnecessary clampdown, as happened to the Howeitat tribe in the NEOM region, for example, and other regions.
In the long run, the waste of public funds and the appropriation and monopolization of resources in the hands of specific groups, families or classes has created an enormous network of financial corruption and the emergence of different forms of financial and economic exploitation. This squandering is still being practiced systematically within the state today, even though the names and groups have changed.
The Saudi authorities must deal with this fact by ensuring civil society’s right to participate in a mechanism overseen by the people through representation and deputies to ensure the fair distribution of resources, including the restoration of stolen resources to the state treasury and the public budget, and to adopt a mechanism that allow the people to monitor the budget through civil society institutions, independent media, a parliament elected in full transparency, clear supervisory procedures and accountability.
13 – ENSURE COMPLIANCE WITH INTERNATIONAL HUMANITARIAN LAW IN FOREIGN INTERVENTIONS
The Saudi authorities must put an end to all forms of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in its foreign interventions, particularly in Yemen, and ensure that beneficiaries receive humanitarian aid and necessities promptly and without hindrance.
Omar Bin Abdulaziz al-Zahrani