Saudi Arabia Again Under UN Scrutiny as Anniversary of Khashoggi Killing Nears

A picture taken on June 18, 2018 in Geneva shows the United Nations Human Rights Council.

A picture taken on June 18, 2018 in Geneva shows the United Nations Human Rights Council.

September 23, 2019

For the second time in six months, Saudi Arabia faced censure at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Nearly two dozen countries delivered a joint statement Monday criticizing the kingdom for its treatment of dissidents, journalists and women activists.

The statement emphasized a troubling pattern of persecution and intimidation against those who speak out against Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian government. It also expressed concern for the families and colleagues of vocal critics.

“Civil society actors in Saudi Arabia still face persecution and intimidation,” Sally Mansfield, Australia’s ambassador to the United Nations, read from the statement. “Human rights defenders, women rights activists, journalists and dissidents remain in detention or under threat. We are concerned at reports of torture, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, unfair trials and harassment of individuals engaged in promoting and defending human rights.”

The statement said that though the council acknowledged the “spirit of modernization and reform” in Saudi Vision 2030 — a multi-year plan to open the country to the West and diversify the economy — they remained “deeply concerned” about human rights in the country.

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United Nations was not present for the statement, Reuters reported. He left to host a reception for Saudi National Day, an annual celebration marking the day in 1932, when the country was renamed Saudi Arabia.

The murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi shattered Saudi Arabia’s image as a modernizing kingdom, which had been cultivated by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Khashoggi, who was critical of Saudi leadership, was killed last October at the country’s consulate in Istanbul.

Saudi officials at first denied responsibility, but eventually admitted Khashoggi had been killed at the consulate. A report published in June by the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Agnès Callamard, said there was credible evidence warranting further investigation of high-level Saudi officials, including the crown prince. The report also said that the circumstances that “point to a possible act of torture.”

Allegations of torture have also been made by activists and dissidents detained by Saudi officials, notably women’s rights activists arrested in Saudi Arabia over the past two years.

“If that could happen to him, what could have happened to the people within the reach of the Saudi government inside their prisons?” said Hala Aldosari, a Saudi activist and academic.

Aldosari moved from Saudi Arabia to the United States in 2014 to complete a post-doctoral fellowship at John Hopkins University in Baltimore. Her research focused on violence against women, and she developed a program to help Saudi physicians identify and help survivors of assault.

Aldosari, who is now a fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies, said Khashoggi’s killing felt like a warning to those who criticize and disagree with the Saudi government.

“It’s a good signal, basically, on a change in attitudes toward people and it really punctures this kind of narrative on modernization that Mohammad bin Salman is trying to convey — that he’s a new modernizer who is actually not bringing Vision 2030 as an economic reform. He’s bringing his shackles, you know, his family’s shackles and swords along with him.”

Saudi Arabia has arrested more than a dozen prominent women’s rights activists over the past two years on charges related to their activism — even as the kingdom ostensibly granted more freedom for women to travel, drive and go to school. Aldosari knows many of the women personally.

“I think these women are the best of what Saudi Arabia has to offer. They have really taken a huge risk and responsibility,” Aldosari said. “This façade of reform, of reformers of modernizers when it comes from authoritarian leaders, should be criticized and should be challenged.”

Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher with Human Rights Watch, tracks the activists’ cases through a network of their friends and family. He said some have reported evidence of sexual abuse and even torture. Those released have largely fallen silent, Coogle said.

“Part of the challenge is that these women have been released, but we’re not talking to them because it’s not safe,” Coogle said. “So we don’t know exactly how they feel and what’s going through their minds about the whole ordeal.

The activists include Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan, all swept up in a wave of arrests on May 15, 2018. Al-Hathloul’s sister, Lina al-Hathloul, addressed the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva Monday. Her sister remains in prison, though other women arrested the same day have since been freed — some freed without charge and others on temporary release.

“I am here today, despite the high risk of reprisal to Loujain, her family and myself, to call on all states and this council to demand that the Saudi government immediately and unconditionally release my sister,” Lina al-Hathloul told the council.

“She was eager to engage with the government to improve the lives of her fellow women citizens. Yet, instead of considering her as a partner, they labeled her a traitor, tortured her and attempted to trade her freedom in exchange for her publicly denying the torture.”

Learn more about Loujain al-Hathloul, Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, Vision 2030 and Khashoggi’s murder in the FRONTLINE season premiere, The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Veteran correspondent Martin Smith delves into the secretive kingdom to uncover fresh details of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s aggressive rise to power.

Zoe Todd

Zoe Todd, Former Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships



More Stories

“Somber Day” in Uvalde as Community Commemorates One Year Since Robb Elementary Shooting
From our partners at The Texas Tribune: Numerous vigils and memorials in Uvalde marked one year since the massacre at Robb Elementary School.
May 24, 2023
“Once Upon a Time in Iraq: Fallujah” Filmmaker on Showing the Impact of War on Humans
The FRONTLINE documentary traces the long-lasting aftermath of the battle of Fallujah through two families, one Iraqi and one American.
May 23, 2023
Surviving the Iraq War’s Bloodiest Battle: An Iraqi Mother’s Story
Prior to an operation to retake Fallujah from insurgents, the U.S. military warned civilians to leave the city. But for many Fallujah residents, leaving wasn’t possible. One Iraqi family shares their story in a new FRONTLINE documentary.
May 23, 2023
How the Mental Health System Affects North Carolina’s Jails and the People That Work There
North Carolina's jails are on the frontlines of the mental health crisis. WFAE examines how jail staff have to tend to inmates with mental health issues and the toll that kind of work can take.
May 23, 2023