Whilst the Government of Saudi Arabia has lifted the ban on women driving and made a few other minor cosmetic improvements, women’s rights in the Kingdom remain severely restricted. Those fighting for greater equality and freedoms, women’s rights activists, risk arrest, and detention without charge, if they attempt to protest or provoke the state rulers. Hence, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) recently came out in their defence and raised their concerns to the European External Action Service regarding the deteriorating situation of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is a member of the UN Human Rights Council, which it chaired in 2015 amid great controversy. In March 2019, 36 members of the Council publicly criticised Saudi Arabia for its human rights records.
Since 2018, more than 30 human rights activists, men and women, have been arrested in the Kingdom. Following arrest, they are often tortured and receive no formal charges. Among them are women like Samar Badawi, Nassima Al-Sada and Loujain Al-Hathloul who have fought against the male guardianship system and who have even dared to run for public office.
On 02 June 2020, MEPS from The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament: Brando Benifei, Evin Incir, Raphael Glucksmann, Aurore Lalucq, Tanja Fajon, Elisabetta Gualmini, Marc Angel, Nora Mebarek, Pina Picierno, Evelyn Regner, Alex Agius Saliba, Eva Kaili, Milan Brglez, Patrizia Toia, Giuliano Pisapia, Dietmar Koster, Andrea Cozzolino, Sara Cerdas, Margarida Marques, Isabel Carvalhais, Robert Hajsel and Helene Fritzon; filed a parliamentary question to the Vice-President of the Commission / High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Mr Josep Borrell, enquiring if he, on behalf of the European Commission, is “committed to calling, at all diplomatic levels, for the Saudi authorities to release women’s rights activists, withdraw the charges against them and end all human rights violations, arbitrary detentions and torture?” The MEPs additionally asked if Mr Borrell is “ready to put pressure on the Saudi authorities to end the male guardianship system and discrimination against women in Saudi society?”
On 10 August 2020, Mr Borrell responded to the MEPs that “The EU has voiced its concern about the prolonged detention of women activists in Saudi Arabia on several occasions, both as part of its regular dialogue with Saudi counterparts and in multilateral fora, including at the March 2020 session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva”.
The High Representative/Vice President stated that “in parallel and close coordination with the EU Member States, the European External Action Service (EEAS) is seeking to strengthen the dialogue with Saudi Arabia on human rights” and that “within this context, the EEAS has been engaging in recent months with the Chairman of the Saudi Human Rights Commission and the Saudi State Minister, including on the fate of the detained women activists and trial monitoring”.
The High Representative/Vice President further explained that “the overall objective is to continue such exchanges with the Saudi authorities to improve civil and political rights in the country, to mirror progress achieved in the socio-economic rights domain” and that “the European Parliament’s strong involvement in this endeavour, as proven by the visit of the European Parliament’s Delegation for relations with the Arab Peninsula to Riyadh in February 2020, is instrumental in raising again the case of the women’s rights activists at an appropriate level”.
In closing, Mr Borrell claimed that “the protection, promotion and fulfilment of human rights are at the core of EU’s engagement with Saudi Arabia” and that “the EU will continue to follow the situation closely and use all the diplomatic tools at its disposal to voice concern when necessary”.
The European Commission must use its diplomatic means to secure the safe release of Samar Badawi, Nassima Al-Sada and Loujain Al-Hathloul and prevent others seeking equality, and defending human rights abuses, from facing the same fate. The European Union should not be deterred by Saudi Arabia’s hollow claims of “interference” that ignore the shared international obligation to act peacefully to achieve the “universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” by all states.
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