The human rights question in Saudi Arabia

Last month Saudi Arabia accused Amnesty International of trying to tarnish the image of Islam with its report on human rights violations in the country. The report dated March 28, 2000 stated that the government "systematically targeted its political and religious opponents, and abused the rights of migrant workers, women and other relatively powerless individuals."

At about the same time, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien got into trouble with the Saudi's for a memo from his office addressed to those accompanying him on his trip to the Kingdom. The memo advised the entourage of support staff and journalists that they should not wear green and that women must be escorted outside by a male companion. The memo also stated that both males and females should wear dark colours, cover their arms and legs. In addition, women were instructed to cover their heads. The memo elicited a strong reaction from the Saudis who wrote that the Prime Ministers Office was projecting a "negative and distorted image of Saudi Arabia and Islam."

Chretien also got flak for not raising the poor human rights issue during his visit to Saudi Arabia. He told reporters that he could not raise the issue because of the religious basis of Saudi laws.

These scenarios raise two important issues. One is the deplorable state of human rights in the Kingdom. The other is the issue of Islam and human rights - more particularly, can the human rights situation in the country be attributed to Islam.

The Saudi police "culture of brutality, torture and ill-treatment" is too real. In fact, a few years ago, I was retained by a woman whose husband got involved in some business deals with members of the Royal family and ended up getting more than he bargained for by asking for his fair share of profits pursuant to a business agreement. He was arrested and jailed without a public trial (if a trail was even held) and even his family did not know his whereabouts.

Canadian authorities were unable to help given that he was an Ethiopian national. Correspondence from my office and others sent to officials in the Kingdom were ignored. We were unable to make any progress even after Members of Parliament in Canada intervened on behalf of his Canadian citizen children.

This is just one family's story. Only God knows how many others there are.

Nobody can deny that basic rights are violated in Saudi Arabia. In fact, anyone who has visited the country will attest to the fact that this is an understatement given that rights are trampled upon without any consequences. Can these rights violations be blamed on Islam?

Well Chretien was partly right. There are differences between the Islamic conception of human rights and what we know today as "universal" human rights. But this does not fully explain the current unacceptable state of affairs with respect to human rights in the Kingdom. Many of these violations will disappear if the Saudi landscape was to allow for political parties, an independent legislature, an independent judiciary and a free press. No amount of creative interpretation of Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) will allow for some of the blatant violations.

At the same time the international community must also realise that international human rights laws and norms as we know them today are not truly universal. The existing scheme is deeply influence by the western experience and has its roots in the works of natural law theorists. The spotlight on the individual, the focus on rights divorced from duties, the emphasis on legalism to secure these rights and the greater priority given to civil and political rights are hallmarks of the western bias. In contrast, the Asian, Islamic and Buddhist conceptions would emphasise community, duties to one another and society and place at least equal emphasis on economic, social, cultural and religious rights.

Interestingly, in the debates leading up to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Brazil suggested that reference be made to a transcendent entity as the source of rights. This would have been more in line with the Islamic conception, but was rejected by the delegates. One argument says the denial of divine authority is essential to make the philosophy underlying rights protection universal. How can something be universal when it rejects the view of a significant component of the world's population - Muslims as well as other religious communities - who believe in some form of divine authority? Why should the assumption of secular elite be imposed on everyone?

The extensive list of fundamental human rights are subject to certain general limitations set out in articles 29 and 30 of the Declaration. Article 29(2), for instance, provides for "limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society." The different philosophies and worldviews undoubtedly will produce equally persuasive interpretations of such restrictive articles and consequently human rights standards in general.

A strong argument can be made that the current formulation of international human rights constitutes a cultural structure in which western society finds itself easily at home. This has led some human rights scholars to arrogantly conclude that most non-western societies lack not only the practice of human rights but also the very concept. This clearly overlooks the fact that the West can only claim to be better than others because it uses its own values and standards to measure them. Dominance cannot be equated with the truth, though it is easy to get caught up in the old confusion between might and right. By what right does the West impose its views on others?

It is important to acknowledge and appreciate that other societies may have equally valid alternative conceptions of human rights. Exiled Tunisian Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi once told a reporter, "I think a universal concept of human rights must come from the philosophical vision of all peoples." The call for a more inclusive conception is laudable. Even proponents of the other views acknowledge that there are certain universal values. For instance, Anwar Ibrahim, the former Malaysian deputy prime minister, a proponent of Asian values and Islam, writes in The Asian Renaissance: "To say that freedom is western is to offend our own traditions as well as our forefathers who gave their lives in the struggle against tyranny and injustice."

Accommodating the varying conceptions within the international framework may or may not be plausible. However, the complexity of the task should not prevent the international community from addressing the issue. At the very least, the international community must acknowledge that human rights formulations of other societies must be given equal standing and refrain from imposing western standards. Claims of universality do not ensure universal acceptance.

The belief that the current international human rights regime is derived exclusively from the ideological framework of the West is a major obstacle in its acceptance as a truly universal vision. The United Nations must initiate a project to rethink and reformulate international human rights laws, taking into account the different philosophies that share this planet.

However, the central questions remain whether the proponents of non- western conceptions of human rights will move beyond rhetoric and present a coherent, comprehensive and viable formulation of their conceptions beyond merely claiming "we have h,uman rights t,oo"? Will th,e West welcome discu,ssion and input or continue to advance its absolutist agenda? In addressing this latter issue, it is important to keep in mind that the only way to ensure universal acceptance of and compliance with international human rights law is by removing the crutch used for so long by violators, including Saudi Arabia -- that human rights is a western construct.

Faisal Kutty is a Toronto-based lawyer and writer. He is also a columnist for the Washinton Report on Midddle East Affairs.

  Category: World Affairs
  Topics: Civil And Political Rights, Human Rights, Saudi Arabia
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