Human Rights Double Standard: Iran and Saudi Arabia

by Shireen T. Hunter  

The question of how to help promote human rights globally has always had a political dimension. States often press these issues in the case of those countries of which they disapprove and ignore or downplay transgressions by friendly countries. In the last decade or so, the use of human rights as a policy tool, and hence the politicization of the human rights issue, has attained new heights, particularly at the United Nations and its Human Rights Commission.

Consider, for instance, the cases of Iran and Saudi Arabia. For years, Iran has been under economic sanctions for disregarding human rights. The United Nations has appointed several special rapporteurs to report on Iran’s transgressions, which in turn has justified the imposition and continuation of sanctions. Certainly Iran, like any other country that does not respect human rights, should be held accountable, and pressure should be brought to bear on it. At the same time, incentives should be provided for good behavior.

However, for such measures to be effective, they must apply to all countries in an equal fashion. Yet this has never been the case. Several countries in the Middle East have contravened international standards of human rights, and yet they have received very different treatment.

A good case is Saudi Arabia. Its human rights record has been dismal. For example, the Saudi government actively discriminates against its large Shia minority. This discrimination has been repeatedly noted both by human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, and by many scholars. Typical of Saudi policies has been the treatment of Shia cleric, Sheik Nimr Al Nimr. The Saudi government accused him of fomenting disorder, rebellion, and acts of terror, and executed him at the beginning of 2016. These accusations are the stock-in-trade of nearly all Middle East countries, which interpret any dissent or even mild criticism as acts of rebellion.

But when these countries violate human rights, the worst they suffer at the hands of outside actors is a slap on the wrist. Iran has been sanctioned because of its transgressions. But not Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia also has one of worst records regarding women’s rights. And although the United States, other Western countries, and the United Nations stress the importance of women’s rights, somehow Saudi Arabia pays no price for disregarding them.

The special treatment of Saudi Arabia reached new heights when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was forced to remove Saudi Arabia from a register of violators of children’s rights, despite the killing of children by the Saudi-sponsored coalition fighting in Yemen. The secretary general said that the main reason was that Saudi Arabia and a number of its Arab and African allies threatened to cut their financial contributions to the UN, including its humanitarian activities. He added that, if realized, such cuts would have seriously imperiled UN programs in Palestine, Syria, and Yemen. In other words, the UN secretary general was blackmailed into removing Saudi Arabia’s name from the register.

That Saudi Arabia would do so is no surprise. What is surprising and depressing is that the secretary general also noted that, in the face of Saudi threats, he could not expect the support of the permanent members of the Security Council.

Human rights is not the only area where Saudi Arabia gets a free pass for its misdeeds. Support for terrorism is another notable area where different standards are applied to its actions. The State Department’s report on terrorism cited Iran as the biggest state supporter of terrorism and only mentioned Saudi Arabia in passing. Would the State Department, by that logic, also consider the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, and various Sunni terrorist groups in Iraq benefitting from Saudi help not to be terrorist organizations? The answer is obvious.

This special treatment or Saudi Arabia has served neither that country nor the international community well. It has emboldened Saudi Arabia to continue its disregard for human rights and support for terrorist groups without fear of any retaliation. Worse, it has given Saudi Arabia license to intervene militarily in neighboring countries such as Bahrain, undermine the government in Iraq, and engage in the full- scale invasion of Yemen.

These acts have had severely negative consequences for the entire Persian Gulf, much of the rest of the Middle East, and even for Saudi Arabia itself, as its current domestic troubles indicate. Most regrettably, however, the special treatment of Saudi Arabia has undermined the cause of human rights throughout the region and has led to growing cynicism regarding the international community’s commitment to upholding human rights. Like peace and security, human rights are indivisible. Either the same standards and principles are applied to all and transgressors are punished equally or the defense of human rights will be reduced to mere rhetoric that convinces no one.

Photo by Jeremy Schultz via Flickr.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. There are plenty of things wrong with Saudi Arabia and Wahabism, just as there are tons wrong with radicalized Shiite extremism. Are you denying that Iran does not engage in broad sponsorship of terrorism at all? Are you denying that Iran spurred the Syrian refugee crisis by going all in for Assad instead of letting him fall? It’s also worth noting that Iran is second only to China in the number of executions carried out by the state globally. That’s not a great stat for peace and before you get your panty’s in a twist, yes, we should be criticizing China too for its human rights violations. I’m an equal opportunity protestor, but let’s not try for a second to make Iran into some paragon of virtue compared to Saudi Arabia. There’s plenty of blame to go around and for now, Iran is the only one funding three separate proxy wars around the region.

  2. Iran has never invaded any country. Saudi Arabia has invaded Yemen. Iran has never been accused of killing children. Saudi Arabia has been recently accused by the UN. Iran has never used cluster bombs. Saudi is using them in Yemen and killing score of civilians to bring their own Sunni puppet in power.
    Yes, Iran is far from been perfect as human rights is concerned but Saudi Arabia is miles away from been even acceptable.
    The trouble is that the USA has lost all its friends in the Arab world and is now hanging on the GCC because of its opposition to Russia, its acceptance of Israel and because of its money that generate Western businesses deals. That is why human rights violation in Saudi Arabia never make the headlines in the US or European media.
    There is nothing called Shiite extremism. The only Islamic extremism manifesting itself in Al Qada, ISIS, Al Nusra, Boko Haram etc.. is strictly Sunni, inspired and funded by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait. Even Hillary Clinton denounced it recently.

    Only the friends of Israel and Saudi Arabia label Shias as extremists. Lebanese and Iraqi Shias are part of a justified and powerful resistance force against Sunni violent extremism and against Israel illegal occupation of Arab territories. As such they terrify both Saudi Arabia and Israel.

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