Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- the National Human Rights Association in Saudi Arabia celebrated its second birthday last week. Established by royal decree in March 2004, the association faced a number of difficulties since its inception and continues to do so. One such impediment, according to Dr. Saleh al Khathlan, head of the observation and monitoring committee, is a lack of awareness about human rights because the concept was absent from public life for a long time and the issue was politicized during the Cold War.
The new year will usher a new era for the association as it readies itself to enact laws to fill the gap in legal articles and protect civil, political, economic and social rights, so as to raise standards to correspond with the international agreements Saudi Arabia is signatory to.
The association was also working in partnership with the Ministry for Social Services in order to establish a safe house for the victims of domestic abuse, al Khathlan told Asharq al Awsat.
Below is the text of the interview in full:
Q: How do you evaluate the association’s performance as it celebrates its second birthday?
A: To a large extent, I am satisfied with the association performance in the two years since it was founded. We have completed work on organizational and administrative issues. We have opened three branches in Mecca and Jizan and in the capital. Soon, we hope to have offices in the eastern region. We have received several complaints that we have resolved. We have discussed human rights issues with the authorities and established committees with the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Social Affairs (currently being created). We have liaised with international organizations by attending conferences and meetings on human rights. We are continuing to develop and have started accepting associate members from across the spectrum of Saudi society. In brief, we are in a new era with its specific concerns, issues and worries.
Q: How many grievances has the association received?
A: Despite being mostly preoccupied with organizational matters, we started accepting complaints from the start. So far, the number is over 5600. A quarter of these complaints are from prisoners and another 22% concern domestic abuse cases. The rest are divided between complaints submitted against government authorities and the local judiciary. Employers account for 12% of all grievances.
Q: Moving on to the joint committees with government authorities, could you tell us more about them and how they were established?
A: The committee in collaboration with the Ministry of Justice is mainly concerned with researching joint concerns, such as when the judiciary is involved in a particular complaint. In a number of cases brought forward by citizens and residents in Saudi Arabia, members of the public have complained that some judges do not allow the litigants to enjoy their full rights. We have reached an agreement with the Justice Ministry in this regard.
As for the committee, we hope to establish in conjunction with the Ministry for Social Affairs, it will seek to solve family problems and cases of domestic abuse, which are more than had thought. For this, we will need to open safe houses for women who run away from domestic abuse, in association with the Ministry. Unfortunately, many have ended up in prison.
Q: Is the National Human Rights Association in Saudi Arabia an internationally recognized organization?
A: A special system governs national institutions, derived from the Paris principles that were issued by the United Nations in 1993. There are only a small number of such organizations. They represent the middle ground between governments and civil institutions.
We are members of the Asia Pacific Forum of national human rights institutions, whose headquarters are in Doha, Qatar. We’re in the process of becoming a permanent member and we hope to become an observer in the UN’s Economic and Social Council.
Our association is also implicitly recognized through the contacts we have established with Amnesty International and other human rights organizations around the world. They have sent us letters with grievances from Saudi citizens and residents and ask us to look into their case.
Q: What is the biggest handicap the association faces in its daily work?
A: The main obstacle we face is the public’s lack of awareness about human rights. The concept is new to Saudi society. Many people don’t know anything about it because it has been absent from Saudi life for a long time.
Q: How is responsible for this?
A: It is not for me to say who is to blame.
Q: But isn’t the concept of human rights also misrepresented?
A: Yes. Human rights were politicized during the Cold War and the negative impressions have unfortunately continued. This lead to the creation of a culture in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries opposed to the use of human rights as a tool in the Cold War. This might be true but the fact that it was politicized does not mean it does not exist.
This negative attitude is an obstacle as the association tries to educate Saudi society. But we have started to overcome old theories about human rights through our work in the last two years. Another problem is the position of some government institutions, including those connected to human rights. Unfortunately, some institutions believe Saudi Arabia does not need an association for human rights. This is a big problem.
Of course, human rights are part of Islamic Sharia (law) and in the international treaties the Kingdom has ratified, but their application leaves to be desired. For example, when the association intervenes in a complaint involving a member of a government institution that doesn’t recognize our work, the response is very weak. There are mechanisms to encourage these authorities to cooperation with the association.
Q: Observers have criticized the association for its focus on individual cases and especially family cases, instead of more general issues that could be more vital.
A: We have admitted failing in this regard and had warned ourselves not to get too focused on individual cases instead of more important issues.
This does not mean that individual complaints are not important. What matters most to us is people, irrespective of religion, ethnicity or color. For example, in the next stage we are going to focus on the lack of legislation in two areas. The first concerns the international treaties that Saudi Arabia is signatory to. They stipulate that parties should enact legislation that corresponds to these agreements. This is not the case in Saudi Arabia.
The Kingdom ratified international treaties on the rights of the child. Despite this, we lack a system to protect children’s rights. Saudi Arabia is also a party of the international agreement to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women. But there is no legislation to protect the rights of women, in addition to what is known as the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. While Saudi Arabia has not ratified these treaties, it is party to the universal declaration on human rights, which all these agreements are derived from.
The association and all of Saudi Arabia have an important obligation which is to put an end to the lack of legislation and removing any contradictions so as to advance human rights. We also have to legislate to put an end to the gap on civil, political, economic and cultural rights. This is a very important issue for us.
Q: What about statements issued by the association on certain events Saudi Arabia had witnessed which the local media did not publish?
A: We believe the media is our partner in protecting human rights and realizing our goals. The media is important because it can put pressure on government institutions that continue to breach human rights and doesn’t react to correspondence from the association. The issue is how best to benefit from the media and highlight violations.
On the subject you are referring to, we issued a preliminary statement on the arrest of suspects for security concerns, which was published in some newspapers devoid of any background. We have issued many statements since then but, as you mentioned, they were not publicized. The question why this has happened should be addressed to the media. After this incident, the association ceased to issue any statements until a discussion takes place on the conduct of some media organizations.
Q: Can we infer that the statement concerning the arrests of suspects was the reason why your later statements were not published? Do you believe that a certain individual or group is forbidding the media from publishing your statements?
A: It might be the case. But, to return to the statement you mentioned, let me say that a special committee was formed to study the statement and carefully phrase it. We denounced all terrorist attacks, which have targeted Saudi Arabia. This is the section that the media published. We also discussed the arrests and how best to deal with terror suspects and the legal aspects of detention and the procedures that sometimes cause terrorism to continue instead of eliminating it. The association continues to believe that security is not the only solution. There should be mechanisms in place to ensure the rights of those arrested as Saudi citizens are not breached.
Q: Did you feel discouraged after the media ignored your statements?
A: Yes, the association was demoralized when this happened.
Q: What are the most important statements that were not publicized in the local media?
A: The most prominent was a statement following the floods in Southern Saudi Arabia, in which many people lost their lives and property. We held certain government institutions responsible for the losses. This is because the Basic Law states that the government is responsible for basic human rights. The authorities violated the Basic Law when they failed to protect these basic before and during the floods. We called on the victims to be supported and holding the authorities responsible.
Q: Is there a mechanism that allows the inhabitants of remote areas to contact the association and submit their complaints?
A: Of course. We currently have three branches in addition to our headquarters in Riyadh . Our branch in Mecca covers the western region and our office in Jizan covers the south. Soon, we will open an office to serve residents of the eastern region. We hope to open offices in all thirteen provinces.
Our offices in Riyadh receive complaints from Saudi citizens from inside and outside the Kingdom. We also rely on associate members after we have opened the way for them to join us.
Q: What about complaints of unfair dismissal that have become more frequent in the last two years? Or cases where commercial or residential buildings collapse?
A: We examine all the complaints we receive. But, given that we are a sole organization working to protect human rights, we cannot monitor all violations. We believe that the launch of a governmental agency for human rights will assist us in our work.
Q: In this regard, is the association cooperating with the agency?
A: Yes, we are working together. We share the same goals. I personally wish the agency would focus on what Saudi citizens and residents are subjected to from ill-treatment to neglect from certain authorities, to the extent that their basic rights, guaranteed in the Basic Law, are violated.
These persistent violations creates negative attitude towards the state, which could be manipulated. If we carried out a survey, we would find that the violations by government bodies are at the forefront of issues that create hostile stances towards the state. This is why I hope the agency will give this issue the attention it deserves.
Q: Some people have criticized the association’s weak positions on human rights issue that carry political implications, such as the case of Saudi detainees in Guantanamo Bay and the torture of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. What is your reaction to such criticism?
A: Our main concern is about Saudi citizens and resident in the Kingdom. This doesn’t mean we do not care about other cases of human rights abuses. On Guantanamo, we have addressed the US embassy in Saudi Arabia and expressed our wish to visit Saudi citizens in Camp X-Ray. The embassy has yet to reply to our request.
We have reached a mechanism for cooperation with a group of lawyers in this respect and we will provide them with the legal cover if the case moves forward. I personally believe the current progress is not enough. I have already presented a proposal to establish a national high-ranking committee to oversee the situation of Saudi detainees in the US camp, including representatives from the foreign affairs committee in Majlis al Shura (consultative council), the team of lawyers and families of the detainees. It is time the issue is dealt with more seriously.
Q: How many prisons have you visited up until now? Are you planning any more visits in the future?
A: The association has visited 14 prisons across Saudi Arabia. In the next two weeks, we will be visiting prisons in Assir and Medina .