36 UN Member States call on Saudi Arabia to improve human rights situation

7 March 2019

In statement delivered during 40th session of Human Rights Council, states called on Saudi Arabia to release human rights defenders and ensure those responsible for killing of Jamal Khashoggi are held to account.

On March 7, a group of 36 UN Member States* led by Iceland expressed serious concern over the current human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, in what marked an unprecedented condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s rights record at the UN Human Rights Council.

In a joint statement delivered during an interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the 36 states called on Saudi Arabia to end its abusive use of counter-terrorism legislation, release detained human rights defenders, and ensure those responsible for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi are held to account. The statement was delivered by Harald Aspelund, Permanent Representative of Iceland to the Human Rights Council.

Beginning by acknowledging “the spirit of modernization and reform embodied by the Saudi Vision 2030”, the states expressed serious concern over the ongoing crackdown against human rights defenders and peaceful critics in Saudi Arabia.

The statement went on to raise concerns surrounding Saudi Arabia’s use of counter-terrorism law and other national security provisions to prosecute individuals for peacefully exercising their fundamental rights and freedoms. The states reiterated the call made the previous day by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, for Saudi Arabia to release all detained women human rights defenders. In a speech before the Council on March 6, the High Commissioner stated that “[t]he persecution of peaceful activists would clearly contradict the spirit of the country's proclaimed new reforms.”

Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef, Nassima al-Sadah, Samar Badawi, Nouf Abdelaziz, Hatoon al-Fassi, Mohammed Al-Bajadi, Amal Al-Harbi and Shadan al-Anezi were named in the statement as being among those currently “detained for exercising their fundamental freedoms.”

In the weeks prior to the statement, more than 50 human rights organisations, including MENA Rights Group, called on UN Member States to adopt a resolution at the Human Rights Council calling for the immediate and unconditional release of detained Saudi women human rights defenders, including all those mentioned in the statement.

The states also condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, asserting that “[i]nvestigations into the killing must be prompt; effective and thorough; independent and impartial; and transparent. Those responsible must be held to account.” Saudi Arabia was urged “to disclose all information available and to fully cooperate with all investigations into the killing, including the human rights inquiry by the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.”

Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard is currently leading an independent human rights inquiry into Khashoggi’s killing. Delivering her early findings on February 7, Callamard stated that Khashoggi “was the victim of a brutal and premeditated killing, planned and perpetrated by officials of the State of Saudi Arabia,” and called for all those with information on the circumstances surrounding the killing to share it with her.

The states ended their remarks by calling on Saudi Arabia to “take meaningful steps to ensure that all members of the public, including human rights defenders and journalists, can freely and fully exercise their rights to freedoms of expression, opinion and association, including online, without fear of reprisals.”

Reflecting on the joint statement, Julia Legner, Senior Legal Officer at MENA Rights Group, said: “For a long time, we as civil society actors have been calling on the international community to take a stronger stand on the ongoing rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, and to prioritise human rights in their dealings with the country. We welcome this initiative and view it as a first and positive step to hold Saudi Arabia to account.”

In a press release on March 7, the Permanent Representative of Iceland to the UN Human Rights Council noted that the statement marks “the first time that Saudi Arabia is subject to such collective criticism in the Council; an initiative that marks a turning point.”

* List of countries supporting the Joint Statement: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

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