Monday, March 26, 2012

Saudi Arabia Needs a Dose of Andy Borowitz

By William Fisher

Truth to tell, I thought I was reading another piece of wonderful political satire by Andy Borowitz, who is one of the few literate political comics capable of making me laugh these days.

But no, it wasn’t Andy. It was a gent named Bandar Al-Iban who was telling me that Saudi Arabia is “among the first countries to preserve and protect human rights derived from the provisions of Islamic teachings.” That seemed pretty funny too!

Because we know from multiple credible sources that Saudi Arabia is arguably the most conservative and repressive country in the Middle East.. The guys who run its jails are known to engage in prisoner torture systematically. Saudi has one of the region’s most sophisticated system for blocking Internet and social networking communications.

It’s illegal for more than a few people to meet together without a permit. There are no guarantees of freedom of religion. Women have virtually no rights at all. When they claim they’ve been raped and take their case to court, they are more often than not the party found guilty. In the villages of the country, if they are caught having an affair, they and their partner can be stoned to death. Women can’t be seen in public without a male relative present. They’re not even allowed to drive their own cars, having to use drivers instead.

Only recently, in a huge symbolic victory, women got authority to sell lingerie to other women, without men working in the shop. And when pro-democracy demonstrations began in neighboring Bahrain, Saudi troops trundled over the causeway connecting the two countries and took up positions with the government military. Saudi jails are full of bloggers and others who tried to express themselves publicly.

Case in point: Sa’ud Mukhtar Al-Hashimi, 47, was arrested in Saudi Arabia by Saudi secret forces and has been detained since 2 February 2007. He has been a prominent figure of the “reformers” movement, which has called for constitutional reform and democratic rights in the country. Over the past five years, he has been physically and psychologically tortured and was not brought before a judge until 2011. His detention has been deemed arbitrary and illegal by those advocating for his rights in Saudi as well as the United Nations’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. He remains imprisoned until today.

Now Bandar Al-Iban knows all this, of course. And he must be a pretty smart operator because he graduated from no less a pillar of American higher education than Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Furthermore, he is Chairman of the government’s Human Rights Commission.

Still, what he is trying to sell us about Saudi human rights is unclear to me. He writes, “Human rights is a necessary need and strategic choice for all countries and people.” But we know that The Arab Spring was simply not allowed to happen in Saudi, where the government used a carrot-and-stick approach to making sure it didn’t happen. First, the government offered substantial sums of cash to ordinary citizens, to placate any discontent they might harbor. Then the government launched a large investment initiative in job-training for those citizens.

While this cotton-candy bribery is going on, the government is making it crystal clear that it takes a dim view of any Saudis of who have the temerity to organize pro-democracy demonstrations. At one point, a Day of Action was scheduled, similar to those that have taken place in venues like Tahrir square. But the government’s message was apparently intimidating enough that only one person showed up. Meanwhile, Saudis who are speaking out, or writing articles and blogs, are being jailed.

Still, Mr. Al-Iban insists: “The Kingdom used to reinforce the principles of justice, equality and inculcate them in all members of society to ensure all rights and legitimate freedoms. It has paid attention to achieving comprehensive and sustainable development in order to raise the standard of living and ensure the prosperity and stability for citizens and residents and promote and preserve their rights. The Kingdom has boosted its protection capabilities by enacting legislation and issuing regulations to protect human rights and exercise justice and monitor any abuse and violations.”

He adds: “The establishment of the Human Rights Commission confirms the leadership intention to safeguard the citizen’s welfare and rights” by, for example, continuing to support the judiciary with additional funding, enacting new legislation and amending the existing laws to strengthen the concept of human rights.

Mr. Al-Iban points to Article 26 of the Basic System of Government, which says: “The country shall protect human rights according to Islamic law.” The problem here is that in countries governed by Islamic (Sharia) law, this law becomes the country’s highest form of jurisprudence, thus relegating to a back seat all the United Nations and other treaties and agreements in human rights, to which Saudi Arabia is a signatory.

It should also be noted that the pace of completion and implementation of is has glacial. The Arab League began discussing an “Arab Charter of Human Rights” in 1960. A first version was approved in 1994 and a final version was not adopted until 2004.

Dr. Ibrahim Shiddi, a Member of the Human Rights Commission and president of the Permanent Arab Commission for Human Rights, said discussions on human rights have increased in the present and there has been a radical shift from a focus on domestic legislation to international agreements regulating human rights.

“Do not be surprised by the attention given to human rights in the Arab world. It seems this interest is evident by the increase by Arab countries participating in human rights discussions in the international arena as well as the ratification of agreements and treaties on human rights issued by the United Nations or issued by the regional organizations, such as the Islamic Conference Organization which issued the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam and the Arab League which issued the Arab Charter of Human Rights.”

Well, we in fact have heard precious little free discussion of human rights by governments anywhere in the Middle East and North Africa. We have seen symposia and round-tables to discuss the subject. And we have heard a few high-flying declarations of reforms that rarely seem to materialize, followed by more people being arrested and jailed.

The grim truth is that countries like Saudi Arabia are terrified of what they believe will follow any loosening of the chains of silence every Saudi citizen carries around his neck – an Arab Spring for Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis have been telling the world for decades that the country is instituting many reforms, but that they need to go slowly because of internal political pressures. But it’s not clear whether these pressures are actually nurtured by the government to maintain the status quo.

Whatever, this turns out to be a very un-funny story. Apologies to Andy Borowitz!

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