Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- Dr Bandar al-Hajjar, Chairman of Saudi Arabia’s National Society for Human Rights gives Asharq Al-Awsat a landmark interview detailing the diverse responses his organization’s first report has received both locally and internationally, and the challenges facing the NSHR today and its future goals.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us start our interview with your first Human Rights report, which was issued some time ago. How was that report received?
[Al-Hajjar] There have been extremely positive reactions, whether at the domestic or international levels. The report was discussed in 26 articles published in local newspapers. Everyone who wrote about the report described it as objective, impartial, and scientifically methodical, because it approached the issues in a different way then that used by the reports on the kingdom by international organizations such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, and reports of the US State Departments.
As for the international level, I was visited by ambassadors from a number of foreign countries. They talked about the report, and they greatly admired the frankness and courage of the society in presenting these issues and its objectivity in dealing with them. During these meetings they thanked the Saudi Government and the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz personally for giving the society the opportunity to operate in an atmosphere of freedom and reassurance that enabled it to produce the report in this form. Moreover, I have also been contacted by international organizations in which they praised the report and the role of the Kingdom in giving the society the opportunity to operate freely and independently, and to produce such a report without interference from any state official. All this international interaction has a number of positive points as it will reflect on the international stances of the Kingdom as a government, and also on the stance of the Kingdom as a member of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, a membership that requires the Kingdom to play a role in assessing the human-rights situation in all countries of the world. I imagine that after the issuing of this report the Saudi delegation to this commission will not face any embarrassment as it used to face before. In the past, the Saudi delegation used to face protests from the other members on the basis that there were no human-rights societies in the Kingdom.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You talked about the praise you received from foreign circles; but what about the parties concerned with the report, have you received feedback from them?
[Al-Hajjar] We will send the report to all the ministries and to everyone concerned. Bear in mind that the report is available to everybody on the society’s Internet website. However, we will send it during the next two weeks to all the ministries.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you mean that you have not received any responses from government authorities concerned with the report?
[Al-Hajjar] So far, we have not received any letters or telephone calls from any ministry or government authority either praising the report or objecting to what is written in it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] It appears that the report did provoke anyone the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice when your report criticized Article 12 of the commission’s statute. Did you find the commission’s rebuttal convincing?
[Al-Hajjar] We have observed the reply of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice through what was written in the local press. In the report we propose a revision of the commission’s system. This proposal is on the basis that the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is a government organization, and we as a society have a number of channels to revise the systems.
First of all, since before joining the World Trade Organization [WTO] and until now Saudi Arabia has revised more than 40 systems, which have been amended at the Shura Council, in addition to the issuing of new systems that did not exist at all. The reason is that the WTO demanded that Saudi Arabia should amend some of the systems if it were to join the international organization. The issue of revising the systems is a natural process required by the processes of development and change, and is linked to the approval of the higher authorities. We propose, and if the higher authorities were to find that the proposal is suitable, they would change the system, and if they were to see otherwise, this would be up to them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The commission’s system, as it currently stands, do you think that it serves the public interests?
[Al-Hajjar] First, I am not saying that it does not serve the public interests. I believe that the process of development and change in all fields of life requires revision not only in the system of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, but in all systems.
Second, the National Society for Human Rights has a published study that wonders about the extent of compatibility of the systems in Saudi Arabia with the international agreements, which the Kingdom joined, and which do not contradict the Islamic Shariaa.
In this study there are references to the places in which there is incompatibility between some systems, including that of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, and the main international agreements to which the Kingdom signed. When we call for changing or amending the systems, our call is based on two principles. The first is that the nature of development and change require compatibility with the international systems. The second is that on the basis of international agreements we have committed ourselves to certain principles, and these principles ought to be reflected on our systems. This is what happened at the WTO negotiations. This study was submitted to King Abdullah Bin-Abdulaziz, and also to the Shura Council because it is the authority concerned with changing the systems. From this starting point we are following up this issue.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Allow me to ask you about your apprehension in calling for a change in the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice system. Is that because it might be interpreted as an attempt to encroach an element of Saudi society?
[Al-Hajjar] First of all, the Kingdom does not sign any agreement that contradicts the Islamic Shariaa. Regarding any agreement that includes something that contradicts the Shariaa, the Kingdom would have its reservations on this part, and does not commit itself to implementing it. Therefore, the society is in favor of this method, and when it calls for a change, the society means a change that is compatible with the Islamic Shariaa. The society rejects any change that is not compatible with the Shariaa. When we call for changing the systems to make them compatible with the international agreements, we are talking about the agreements that do not contradict the Shariaa.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you evaluate the responsiveness of government authorities with the Association’s communications?
[Al-Hajjar] The ministries and the government authorities are different in their responses. There are excellent responses, and there are slow ones. However, the level of responses is improving with time. It seems that the officials in these authorities have started to understand the role of the society better. We addressed all the government authorities: the administrative court and the Interior, Foreign, Finance, Social Affairs, Education, Health, Justice, labor, Civil Service, and Culture and Information Ministries. We also addressed the public investigation and prosecution authority, censorship and investigation authority, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the police, the higher commission for settling labor disputes, the Monetary Agency, the governorates, some government and private hospitals, emigration departments, Saudi Airlines, and some schools. We are in the process of issuing a report about the communications sent by the society along the three past years, which also will include all the cases referred to the society.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Your latest report was highly critical of the health sector. Is there a link between the tardiness of the health sector responding, and your criticism of it?
[Al-Hajjar] When we write our reports we do not take into consideration the issue of the sectors not responding. You know that the education and health sectors are two of the most important sectors in the life of the citizen. The source of the observations in the education and health sectors was the field visits, the complaints sent by the people, and what we monitor in the media. For instance, when we talk about the weakness of the services provided by the health centers attached to the prisons, this is something we noticed when we visited the prisons. The issue of the occurrence of medical errors in some hospitals without strict accountability, and the issue of not paying attention to the emergency departments in some hospitals are all present. These shortcomings in the health sector have been observed by the society.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is the association interested in monitoring the progress of plans to construct service, buildings?
[Al-Hajjar] It was said to us during one of our visits to the prisons in Jeddah and Mecca that there was a plan to construct additional buildings to ease the existing overcrowding. Some time after that, when we returned to the prison site in Mecca we found out that this was true. If there is a shortcoming we will point it out.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Your first report included many details about the right to acquire Saudi nationality?
[Al-Hajjar] The issue of acquiring the nationality is an issue of sovereignty. Every country has the right to lay down the system that serves its interests. There has been a recent amendment of the nationality system. We do not have any criticism of the nationality system. Yes, we have received complaints with regard to this issue, and we have raised some of these complaints that concern individuals who have been living in the Kingdom for along time, but have not acquired the nationality so far, despite the fact that they might have relatives who are Saudi nationals and others who have not acquired the nationality yet. We have received complaints with regard to individuals whose nationality was withdrawn because, for instance, their tribal belonging could not be ascertained. There are other complaints with regard to those who have been born in the Kingdom but have not acquired the nationality because of reasons related to the father or the mother; these individuals are called the allies [Al-Hulafa], and they have five-years identity cards, but they have not been granted the nationality yet despite the fact that there is a royal decree issued in 1422 AH specifying that anyone who has a five-year identity card and belongs to one of the tribes of Saudi origin should be granted Saudi nationality according to Article 9 of the Nationality System.
At the end of the day, there is a system, and the state has the right to lay down the conditions it considers appropriate for granting nationality. With regard to the complaints we received, we addressed the departments concerned at the Interior Ministry about them. In some cases we have received a response, and in others we have not so far received any response.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What was the response of the concerned authorities in the Saudi Interior ministry regarding some of these cases?
[Al-Hajjar] The replies were different. Sometimes the reply is that the cases are being investigated; for instance the cases of the Africans and Burmese who are living in Mecca are in this category.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why do you think a number of local newspapers were reluctant to publish your report?
[Al-Hajjar] There are a number of domestic newspapers that dealt with the report in a positive way, and published it on its first pages. However, it is true that there are newspapers that did not publish the report because of reasons of which I am not aware.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you feel about the newspapers that ignored the report?
[Al-Hajjar] We believe that we are partners with the media. The media has two basic roles in its relationship with human rights. The media is the means to promote the culture of human rights, and it is the means to expose the violations of human rights. When the media publishes some violations of human rights, the role of the writers and intellectuals starts; this role is to exploit this as a means of exerting pressure on the other sides that violate human rights. If some newspapers have refrained from publishing any reports, this is up to them. What can we do to them? We only regret this.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your report, you said that you intended to visit the prisons of the public investigations authority. What has your pursuit of this issue produced?
[Al-Hajjar] We wrote to the Interior Ministry expressing our wish to visit the public investigations prisons, but so far we have not received a reply. With regard to the other prisons, we have visited approximately 30 prisons in the country, and we recorded the positive and negative points in them. We are awaiting the reply allowing us to visit these prisons.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How responsive have security authorities been in their implementation of the punishment procedures code?
[Al-Hajjar] There are positive developments in the implementation of the punishment procedures code. The society has participated with the Public Security directorates in Mecca, Jeddah, and Riyadh in training courses for the policemen about human rights and the punishment procedures code. Perhaps the non-response in the past stemmed from the lack of complete knowledge and understanding of the systems, especially this code.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have underscored a number of violations regarding the prevention of citizens from traveling abroad, and you said that there were lists of names banned from traveling. Do you have specific figures? What steps do you intend to take in this regard?
[Al-Hajjar] We have called for these travel bans to linked to the judicial authorities and not the executive ones, for specifying a period for the ban, for giving the banned individual the right to appeal to another authority if the period ended and he found out that he was still not allowed to travel, and for specifying the authorities that have the right to impose a ban from traveling.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that stipulating of presence of a Muhrem (unmarriageable male) along with women while traveling is considered a violation of conventions signed by Saudi Arabia in connection with the freedom of movement or not?
[Al-Hajjar] The issue of the presence of a Muhrem when traveling is a Shariaa issue, and we cannot discuss it. The Kingdom is not obliged to implement any international agreement that contradicts the rulings of the Islamic Shariaa. If the Shariaa stipulates that an unmarriageable male has to accompany the woman when traveling, then we support this.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There is an absence of a written system of punitive sanctions in Saudi Arabia. Can this cause an inherent injustice in sentencing?
[Al-Hajjar] We and many sides call for codifying the enforced sentences, and for the judges to be guided by this code. Also we call for punishments to have a minimum and a maximum, because this will give the judge a margin of freedom, and leaving these issues open-ended is more likely to lead to some kind of injustice.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about trials that are held in secret?
[Al-Hajjar] With regard to this issue, we call for applying the regulations. The punishment procedures code says that the trials are to be held in public except in three situations. If the case does not fall under any of these three situations, the trial ought to be held in public.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You spoke about the prolonged litigation period before trials and not allowing defendants from meeting with their lawyers. In your opinion, what exactly should be done in this regards?
[Al-Hajjar] Prolonging the period of considering the cases is due to many reasons, the most prominent of which is the small number of judges. We talked about this issue with the chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council and the minister of justice. We consider it necessary to increase the number of judges, especially as the number of specialized courts in the country will be increased. In our recommendations, we called for dealing with this issue.
As for refusing the accused the right to brief a lawyer, this contravenes the systems. This is an opportunity to invite the justice minister to intensify the training courses for judges on the justice systems that have been issued recently, and to inform the judges about the international agreements signed by the Kingdom in this regard. Perhaps this will be useful.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] With regard to the right of the citizen to political participation, what exactly do you advocate?
[Al-Hajjar] With regard to political participation, naturally we realize that there is a decision made about it. Now we have the national dialogue, the municipal elections, and the elections of the chambers of commerce, and of others. All these developments are positive signs in this respect. The aim is to allow the citizen the opportunity to have a larger role in administering his society and his country. The ideal way to achieve this is through elections, dialogue, and other means.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you apprehensive about the future of you’re your organization?
[Al-Hajjar] No, we are not apprehensive at all. The reason is that King Abdullah Bin-Abdulaziz, the crown prince, and the government; they all are committed to the issue of human rights. This commitment makes us very optimistic. Saudi Arabia is committed to having a role even at the international level in the field of human rights.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Should I understand from your reply that you feel confident about the possibility of the government giving financial support to the society if it were to face any financial difficulties?
[Al-Hajjar] I do not mean financial support; I mean moral support, in the sense of providing a suitable environment for the society to perform its duties with complete independence, impartiality, and objectivity. We do not have any financial problems.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have any enemies in the arena?
[Al-Hajjar] No, we do not have enemies. Our aim is that everyone who has a right gets it through regular, Shariaa, and legal means, and that justice, equality, and respect of human rights prevail. This is our aim, and it is the aim of everyone.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your report you criticized the lack of safety for female teachers who have to travel long distances to remote areas in order to get to their jobs. Are their any other options for them?
[Al-Hajjar] Such an option ought to be studied by the Ministry of Education and the authorities concerned with this issue. The problem exists and is continuing. The authorities concerned with this issue ought to investigate various options, because continuing with the situation in the same way is illogical.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have any reservations about the environmental situation in the country?
[Al-Hajjar] Certainly there is criticism. Recently, when the society visited Medina, specifically the Hamra al-Asad region, environmental remarks were recorded, and we are on our way to submit these remarks to the authorities concerned. The society is greatly interested in this aspect, and we will focus on it in our next report. We also addressed the Saudi Telecom Company with regard to the cellular telephone towers and their impact on human health. We have a plan to establish workshops to discuss the environmental problems in Saudi Arabia. Among the existing problems, there is also a problem of sewage, and the problem of the factories’ chemical waste, which causes chronic diseases.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How many reports does your organization intend on issuing during the upcoming phase?
[Al-Hajjar] Now, we have a report about the human-rights conditions, another about the achievements of the society, a third about the conditions of the Saudi detainees in Guantanamo, and a fourth about the activities of the members of the society. This fourth report is rather an internal one more than it is for the outside world. These reports will be translated into English. The society has a plan to issue sector reports, i.e. a report about each sector; for instance, we would issue a report about the prisons, the health sector, or the education sector, and so on. We will start this after the center for information and infrastructure statistics is completed.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Prince Turki al-Faisal has called on the National Society for Human Rights to diagnose the human-rights situation in the western countries from a domestic viewpoint. What do you think of this call?
[Al-Hajjar] This is in our mind, and we have taken it into consideration. It is included in the future plans of the society.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you think of the media reports issued by the international organizations concerned with human rights, and those issued by the governments, especially the US Government?
[Al-Hajjar] If we were to consider, for instance, the US State Department, we would find that it issues a report in which it reviews the conditions in all the countries of the world with regard to their respect or violation of human rights. In my opinion, such reports issued by the US State Department are more of a political than of a juridical character, and the double-standard application is clear in them. The way these reports consider the human-rights conditions in different countries, and perhaps in the same country, varies. Some governments use such reports as a political tool, and sometimes they are used to direct the foreign policies of these countries toward specific targets.
With regard to the reports of the international human-rights organizations, some of them are quite objective. However, the problem is that the countries are responsible for some of the reasons that these reports do not include the correct information. There are some countries that do not give these organizations the opportunity to visit them to get informed about the domestic situation within these countries. If every country were to allow these organizations the opportunity to visit them, meet the various sectors of citizens, and visit the governmental and non-governmental institutions, I am sure that the organizations would change their opinion about many of the issues discussed.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that Saudi Arabia is ready for more human rights associations?
[Al-Hajjar] Now, the Shura Council is about to complete the study of the system of the civil society institutions and organizations (the private societies). There is a special committee that has finished studying this issue. I wish that the number of the civil society institutions will increase in all fields after the issuing of this system. I believe that the higher the number of civil society institutions, and the wider the margin of freedom and independence these institutions are given in their operation, the better this will be in the long term.
Bandar Bin-Muhammad Bin-Hamzah As’ad al-Hajjar was born in Medina in 1373 AH. He has a PhD in economics from Liverpool University in Britain.
Al-Hajjar, who has four sons, obtained Masters Degree in economics from Indiana University in the United States after he obtained B.Sc. with distinction in economics and political science from King Saud University in Riyadh.
Since 1418 AH Al-Hajjar has been appointed a member of the Saudi Shura Council, of which he is a member to this day.
Al-Hajjar was deputy chairman of the Islamic economic research center at King Abdulaziz University between 1992 and 1995 AD.
Al-Hajjar was chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the Shura Council for a period of time.
Al-Hajjar was deputy chairman of the National Society for Human Rights during its foundation period between 2004 and 2005 AD, before he became the chairman of the society in 2005 AD.
In 2005 AD, Al-Hajjar was the chairman of the national council for monitoring the elections. He has been the editor-in-chief of Al-Aswaq wa Al-Amwal [Markets and Money] magazine for more than 14 years. He is a fellow of many societies and universities, participated in many conferences and forums, and wrote a number of economic research papers and studies.