Anti-terrorism Measures and Human Rights Abuses in Saudi Arabia
Although Saudi Arabia had been gaining some ground in recent years in regards to its enactment of human rights legislation, many of the most recent abuses and restrictions on individual rights can be traced to anti-terrorism measures adopted in the last couple of years.
This increased severity of the law and enforcement has not been limited to anti-terrorism activities and, in many cases, the very definition of what constitutes “terrorism” has been expanded to include many peaceful activities that represent a political threat to the Saudi government.
Many of the Saudi government’s toughest measures have been used to target its critics and political opponents. Although in many cases they have been used, rightly, against armed Islamist militants, they have also been used to shut down protests and criticism by peaceful dissidents and human rights activists. The introduction of severe anti-terrorism measures has indiscriminately hit peaceful dissidents, and has been taken advantage of for political gain. One important element in current anti-terrorism legislation is deterring citizens from contributing any kind of support to militant Sunni armed groups in Iraq and Syria as part of Saudi Arabia’s contribution to the alliance to combat the Islamic State armed group led by the United States.
The most recent periodic review of Saudi Arabia by the United Nation Human Rights Council revealed numerous issues. The Saudi government accepted most of the council’s recommendations, but has rejected some of the most important calls in this review, particularly the call to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. One promising development as a result of this review was the commitment by the Saudi government to legislate to remove completely the male guardianship system, restoring the right of women to travel, marry, study, and work freely. However, this commitment has not been followed by substantive steps to implement reform.
The anti-terrorism law that took effect recently expanded the government’s power to combat terrorism. Unfortunately, the new law does not define terrorism directly, but gives an excessively broad definition that includes “words that could be deemed by the authorities to directly or indirectly disturb the public order, destabilize the security of society, or the stability of the state.” “Harming the reputation of the state” is also considered a terrorist act. This was followed with additional decrees that included “calling for atheist thought”, calling for protests, or contacting groups opposed to the Saudi government in the definition of terrorism. These new decrees, which are a flagrant violation of current international terrorism and legal standards had a negative effect on current human rights in Saudi Arabia, and retroactively affects those who in the past would have violated these laws. Special anti-terrorism courts have jurisdiction over these types of violations, resulting in trials that do not follow due process and can enact death sentences or torture with impunity.