Is the U.S. pushing Saudi Arabia enough on human rights?

Saudi Arabia is an important Western ally in an increasingly tumultuous region, but the country has a mixed record on human rights, including restrictions on the rights of women and harsh punishment for those who speak out. Has the U.S. struck the right balance between its interests and concerns? Judy Woodruff talks to Tom Porteous of Human Rights Watch and Gary Sick of Columbia University.

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    Now, for more on whether the U.S. has struck the right balance between its interests and concerns over Saudi Arabia's human rights record, I'm joined by Gary Sick. He's a veteran of the White House National Security Council staff during the Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations. He's now at Columbia university. And Tom Porteous, he's deputy program director of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

    And we welcome you both to the program.

    Gary Sick, to you first. How would you assess Saudi Arabia's human rights record compared to other countries around the world and in the region?

  • GARY SICK, Columbia University:

    Well, it often isn't a — it isn't very helpful to do a comparison and saying one is better than the other in this.

    But I must say that, you know, Saudi Arabia has one of the worst records in the region, for all the reasons that you just enumerated, but, you know, they have been cracking down hard on their internal dissent. You know, the poor fellow who is being flogged in public is guilty of doing nothing more than practically, you know, hundreds of thousands of Americans do on Facebook every day.

    And the other thing is that the Saudis are facing a series of challenges, which actually we can come back to that, if you like, but which, actually, some of them are their own making. And some of those have to do with human rights in terms of their ability to export their own ideas and that those ideas in many cases are coming back to bite them.


    And we will come back to those challenges.

    But to you, Tom Porteous, how do you size up Saudi Arabia's human rights record?

  • TOM PORTEOUS, Human Rights Watch:

    Well, I think Gary Sick has put it very well.

    It is one of the worst in the region, if not in the entire world. On women's rights, for example, the male guardianship system requires that women get permission from their nearest male relative to do just about any business with the government, to do just about any kind of transaction in public life.

    There's the issue of freedom of expression and association, which Gary just touched upon there. And there's actually been an increase since 2011 in the crackdown on freedom of expression and association, particularly directed at those who are expressing concern about extremism in the kingdom. Political participation is practically minimal.

    There's religious persecution. Muslim minority sects in Saudi Arabia, like the Ismailis and the Shia, are persecuted, and non-Muslim religions, if you belong to a non-Muslim religion, you are not allowed to practice your religion at all.

    And then there's the whole issue of the justice system, which is based on a very strict and extreme interpretation of Islamic law. And, as Gary Sick just mentioned as well, the — Saudi Arabia's foreign policy is — is to support abusers of human rights around the region.


    Well, let me ask both of you, starting with you, Gary Sick, what do you make of the fact that we're told that what President Obama did in his conversation — granted, it was a short one — with the new king today was to raise broadly the issue of human rights, but not to bring up any specific instances, like this blogger?


    You know, if it's a short — I wish they had had more time to talk, because I think there's a lot of things that they really need to talk about very much.

    I can understand the president's interest in dealing with the issues of, what do we do about the Iranian negotiations? How do we work out our differences over Syria? What about our differences of opinion with regard to Egypt? All of those are very serious issues.

    But, you know, I think, for all of us who really care about this, it really is important, especially with the blogger case. I mean, this is so public and so obvious. And it's such a complete travesty of justice, that you wish that U.S. officials would in fact put that higher up on their priority list.


    Tom Porteous, should the president have made more of a specific issue of that today?


    Yes, of course he should have. There are plenty of other issues and individual issues that he could have raised.

    I mean, the president said in that clip just now that he found that steady, consistent pressure was effective. Well, I mean, there's very little to show for any steady, consistent pressure, even if there has been from the United States. The fact is that the United States has never really pushed Saudi Arabia, except in a very sort of broad rhetorical or cosmetic way.

    And that's mainly for commercial reasons. The stakes are enormous for, you know, various sectors of the defense and security and energy industries in the United States. But when it comes to security, it's — you know, the United States really does need to ask whether its current relationship with Saudi Arabia is well-served, whether its interests are well-served by its current relationship with Saudi Arabia.


    You mean despite — you mean despite the human rights record?


    Well, I mean, that the human rights record and the security record are extremely linked. I don't think that you can disassociate the two, and I think for two reasons. One is that…


    Well, let me — I just want to go back to Gary, Gary Sick, at this point.

    Is it possible for the administration to put more pressure, to bring this issue up more frequently and to get something positive to get movement in return?


    Well, first, to be fair, it's simply a fact that we have very, very limited pressure, leverage that we can bring to bear to really change Saudi behavior.

    And the one thing that I'm looking at that I think is really most significant is that — that Saudi Arabia is facing an almost perfect storm of international problems right now, with the drop in oil prices, with their relations with Bahrain and with Iraq, which are bad, and the Syrian thing, which has gone very badly for them, the need to keep pumping money into Egypt to keep them alive, and then, on their southern border, they have got the near failed state collapse of Yemen.

    And these are major issues, many of which are actually — and especially the ISIS threat, which is pointed directly at their legitimacy and at their heart — that is their own ideology coming back to them. And they simply cannot hide from that.

    And so they're going to have to face the fact that their own ideology, their own religious beliefs are in fact being repackaged abroad and brought back to strike right at their very heart. And that's something which I think has got to impress them, and which, if you're going to try to change their point of view, that's one place where you should start.


    Tom Porteous, do you think there's any reason to believe the Saudis will pull back on some of these drastic human rights abuses that they have been accused of?


    I think they're going to have to in the long run if they're going to survive.

    Saudi Arabia faces a choice between political reform and greater respect for human rights, or being overwhelmed by the sort of militancy and intolerance and extremism that it has largely helped to create, as Gary Sick pointed out.

    And from the United States' point of view, it does need to convince the Saudi Arabians of that. And, certainly, I don't think that an effective way of countering extremism and terrorism in the region is to be so closely aligned with an authoritarian government which has in the past and continues to promote an ideology of sectarianism and intolerance in the region.


    Well, we do hear you both.

    Tom Porteous with Human Rights Watch, Gary Sick at Columbia University, gentlemen, we thank you both.


    Thank you, Judy.

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