John Kiriakou / Reader Supported News – 2015-10-26 01:03:02
(October 23, 2015) — Saudi Arabia, that champion of religious freedom, civil liberties, and human rights, seems to have found itself as the new chair of the United Nations Human Rights Council. This is despite the fact that the Kingdom is having a bad year, even by Saudi human rights standards, and has beheaded more people in 2015 than ISIS.
If any Saudi watchers thought for a moment that the country’s new King, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Sa’ud, would be a progressive and forward-leaning force, that idea was dispelled almost immediately. Indeed, it’s been a busy year for the King.
The Western press has reported widely on King Salman’s recent decision to behead and then crucify a 17-year-old boy after convicting him of a wide variety of “capital” crimes, including participating in an anti-government protest, “breaking alliance with the king,” and sedition.
The sentence is a violation of international law, of course, as Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, although the Saudis don’t seem to care about that. The child is also a member of the minority Shia Muslim sect, which the Saudis care even less about.
Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced in June to six years in prison and 1,000 lashes for creating a website where he talked about (gasp!) democracy and human rights. Badawi even had the unmitigated gall to advocate religious freedom in the Kingdom.
US officials, no doubt hoping to draw on Washington’s “special relationship” with Riyadh, asked for leniency for Badawi, but instead got a middle finger. The blogger will receive 50 lashes a week until he’s undergone 1,000.
And just this week a Saudi professor was sentenced to 10 years in prison and barred from international travel for another 10 years for posting a video online in which he called for equal rights for women. His multiple felony charges included “disobeying the ruler,” “founding a human rights organization,” and “supporting protests.” The professor was the third Saudi human rights activist to be sentenced to prison in the past week.
I’ve had my own personal experience in Saudi Arabia. I served there for three months in the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War. It was the summer of 1991, and the US had just won a war to protect Saudi oil.
One evening after work, I accompanied two female State Department officers to a local mall in Riyadh. As per the US Embassy’s agreement with the Saudi government, our female officers had to wear a full-length black “abaya,” which covered their entire bodies, and scarves to cover their hair, but they did not have to cover their faces.
That agreement did not stop two “mutawaeen,” the Saudi “religious police,” from whipping them in the legs with bamboo canes because they were uncovered. Shouting “Prostitutes!” the mutawaeen tried to take both of my colleagues to jail for the night. A protracted shouting match got us out of it.
It gets worse. The Embassy’s deputy chief of mission — the second-ranking officer in the Embassy — happened to be married to an American woman who was working as a nurse at the King Faisal Eye & Ear Hospital. He drove her to work one day, looked around to see if anybody was watching, determined that nobody was, and kissed his wife on the cheek.
In seconds, two mutawaeen were on him. They pulled him out of the car through the window and beat him so severely that he had to receive more than a dozen stitches to close a wound over his eye. The Embassy lodged a protest, the Saudi Foreign Minister apologized, and the incident repeated itself over and over again over the next 24 years.
So what can Washington do to influence its erstwhile dear friend and key ally? It can get tough, which is exactly what was supposed to have happened in 1992. That year, then-Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter pushed a bill through Congress called “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act .” President George H.W. Bush signed it into law. It called for an immediate cessation of arms sales to any country that did not respect religious freedom.
Great idea, right? But Congress, in its infinite wisdom, also wrote in a waiver provision, allowing the president to ignore the law if it was “in the interests of national security.”
So every year since 1992, every president has given Saudi Arabia a waiver, thus allowing the Saudis to remain one of the world’s worst offenders on religious freedom. And that’s to say nothing about women’s rights, and the rights of children, liberals, or Shia Muslims.
The executive director of the human rights group UN Watch said last week that “Saudi Arabia has arguably the worst record in the world when it comes to religious freedom and women’s rights . . . This UN appointment is like making a pyromaniac into the town fire chief.” He’s right. And what’s Secretary of State John Kerry’s position on Saudi Arabia leading the UN Human Rights Council? His spokesman said, “We would welcome it.”
John Kiriakou is an Associate Fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC. He is a former CIA counterterrorism operations officer and former senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work.