by Brian Dooley
When the Islamic State beheads captives, it’s nothing less than “an assault on all humanity,” President Obama told the UN last week. Good for you, Mr President, you’re right to be indignant and angry when prisoners have their heads chopped off, and you’re right to use your access to the international podium to condemn these sickening killings.
Yet President Obama remains silent about U.S. ally Saudi Arabia’s regular beheading of prisoners. The Gulf monarchy has executed someone almost every other day during the past year, usually by beheading. That’s a sharp increase from the previous year.
In the recent case of Ali al-Nimr, whom the Saudi government is set to execute for taking part in a protest in 2012 when was just 17 years old, the Obama administration has been embarrassingly quiet. Nimr says, as do many other prisoners in Saudi custody, that he was tortured to sign a false confession.
In protest of Nimr’s sentence, the Turin Book Fair has withdrawn Saudi Arabia’s planned guest-of-honor status, and the European Union parliament has adopted a resolution condemning the planned execution. The case has also sparked a public spat among leading British politicians. Yet still the Obama administration’s response to this and other abuses has been a mixture of silence, platitudes, and an attitude of “what more do you expect us to do?”
When asked about Nimr’s imminent execution on September 23, the White House responded that “…the United States, under the leadership of this President, regularly raises our concerns about the human rights situation inside of Saudi Arabia.” Such responses suggest the U.S. government has essentially given up trying to stop Saudi human rights violations.
When Saudi King Salman visited the White House last month, President Obama didn’t push human rights. Even more disappointing was the administration’s official response to the appointment of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council as head of a key panel charged with shortlisting human rights experts on a range of issues from torture to freedoms of expression to women’s rights. When asked about Saudi Arabia’s leading role on the human rights body, the State Department’s spokesperson replied “We would welcome it. We’re close allies,” adding optimistically that “As to this leadership role, we hope that it’s an occasion for them to look at human rights around the world but also within their own borders.”
But the United States is not alone in failing to properly confront the Saudi regime’s repression. Reports have leaked in recent weeks of the U.K. government’s support for Saudi Arabia’s 2013 candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council. At least British Prime Minister David Cameron felt enough embarrassment to squirm on TV this week when asked about the episode, justifying the close U.K.-Saudi relationship “because we receive from them important intelligence and security information that keeps us safe.”
Canada recently acquitted itself poorly when it announced the largest military export contracts in the country’s history. Totaling over $15 billion for 2013-2104, the Saudi part of the deal accounted for over 95 percent of the total. The government official managed to trumpet these enormous contracts without any reference to Saudi’s human rights record.
Meanwhile, the Saudi dictatorship’s assault on human rights continues with renewed ferocity. It fuels a dangerous sectarianism and destabilizing extremism abroad, and its military’s conduct in the war in Yemen is increasingly alarming. The regime also provides political and material support to fellow repressive dictatorships in Bahrain, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and beyond.
At home, leading human rights defenders are facing long jail terms. Economist Mohammed al-Qahtani, with a doctorate from Indiana University, is serving 10 years for complaining about human rights abuses. Blogger Raif Badawi also faces 10 years, plus 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam.” And there are many, many more people in Saudi’s prisons who shouldn’t be there at all.
In Geneva this week, human rights experts based at the UN told me about the Saudi diplomats’ new-found sense of swagger. Never known for their shame over their government’s awful human rights record, “they’ve got an even bigger strut on since they got to chair the panel of experts,” explained one veteran human rights lobbyist. “The victory wasn’t getting that position but that no major country put up a fight against it.”
Washington, London, and other political capitals have long histories of double standards and hypocrisy when it comes to Saudi violence. At least they used to make a show of condemning abuses, albeit while arming the regime. What’s shocking now is that they seem to have reached a point when they aren’t even bothering to look like they care.
Photo: video still of Saudi execution
Brian Dooley (@dooley_dooley) is director of the Human Rights Defenders Program at Human Rights First. He previously worked for many years for Amnesty International in London and Dublin, and is the author of several books on US politics.