Deflection and Evasion: Human Rights in the GulfFriday 07/07/2017

On March 15, 2006, the United Nations General Assembly established the United Nations Human Rights Council (hereafter UNHRC). This would replace the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which had been heavily criticized for admitting to its membership the repressive regimes of countries such as China, Zimbabwe, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

So how far has the Council progressed? Surely after the upheaval and rebranding of an institution that had stood since 1946, a new wave of human rights advocacy and legitimacy would sweep the 193-member state organization.

Along with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, the trusted old guard Saudi Arabia continues to enjoy a seat at the table.

At a time where the US is reportedly considering withdrawing its membership of the UNHRC due to its criticism of Israel, it behooves one to consider how Israel’s human rights record compares to that of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE.

In regard to civil and political rights, otherwise termed as ‘the first wave’ or ‘first generation’ of human rights, Israel boasts a significantly better record than that of its Gulf state counterparts. It does not practice the death penalty, with the last execution being that of Adolf Eichmann – the notorious Nazi convicted of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity – in 1962. It is home to a diverse group of competing political parties, ranging from religious Zionist parties such as the Jewish Home Party to explicitly anti-Zionist parties such as Balad.

By contrast, due to the varying degrees to which their legal systems incorporate Sharia Law, these three Gulf nations all retain the practice of the death penalty for crimes as serious as murder to those as minor and dubious as apostasy, adultery and sodomy (homosexuality). Between January 1 2016 and July 27 2016, Saudi Arabia executed 108 people. In 2016, Freedom House rated the Kingdom’s political rights a score of 3/40 and their civil liberties a score of 7/60. Saudi citizens face criminal prosecution for political dissent, and the ban on political parties has virtually eliminated any opposition to the monarchy’s decrees. The most notable case is that of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to a flogging of 1000 lashes in 2014 for ‘insulting Islam’.

LGBT rights have rightly emerged as a preeminent concern for human rights activists. The Israeli legal system maintains strong protections for the rights of LGBT people. Consensual same-sex acts have been de facto legal since 1963 and formally legal since 1988. The concept of ‘sodomy’ has no legal validity or relevance within Israeli legal system. LGBT people are protected under the law from discrimination within society and the military, with violent crimes motivated by sexual orientation considered hate crimes and requiring double the punishment of regular violent crimes. Furthermore, same-sex couples are afforded extensive adoption rights.

The Gulf nations paint a very different picture of livability for LGBT people. Article 177 of the Dubai Penal Code states that consensual sodomy is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Along with the near-identical Qatari policy, these procedures almost seem lenient when compared to that of Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom’s wahhabist ultra-conservatism views homosexuality as the ultimate deviancy, as well as what are perceived to be the related issues of transgender citizens and cross-dressing. The legal punishments for homosexual sex in Saudi Arabia include fines, prison sentences, floggings, chemical castration, torture and execution – often by beheading.

The Israeli-Gulf divide also occurs along the lines of women’s rights. Israel ranks 18th in the world in terms of gender equality according to the United Nations Development Program. Women are protected from discrimination under the law and have enjoyed prominent positions within Israeli society such as Prime Minister, President of the Supreme Court, Chairperson of the Reserve Bank and Major General. The Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women has as its stated objectives: the prevention of discrimination, combatting violence against women, and promoting equality in politics, lifecycle events and education.

Conversely, women’s rights in Saudi Arabia are abysmal by international standards. The country ranked 134th globally in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report of 2015. Saudi law requires all women to have a male guardian in public and as such are not permitted to shop, conduct business or drive without a male companion. Saudi authorities also mandate draconian laws regarding the modesty of women’s clothing. Failure to comply with these laws can incur harassment from the Mutaween (religious police). Polygamy remains legal as does the marrying of child brides. In court, the testimony of one man equals that of two women. Domestic violence is a common occurrence, as is the denial of property and employment rights to women.

Although Israel defines itself as a Jewish and democratic state, it also guarantees freedom of religion to all its citizens. Christian, Muslim and Baha’i communities have jurisdiction over their own adherents in matters of marriage, divorce and burial. Synagogues, mosques, churches and khalwats (Druze prayer houses) can operate without fear of government intrusion or closure. Importantly, Israeli law does not prohibit leaving a religious group, otherwise known as ‘apostasy’.

In Qatar, the idea of religious freedom is at best illusory for its Muslim population. Under Articles 245-260 of the Qatari Law 11 of 2004, blasphemy and other insults or challenges to the doctrines of Islam are punishable by prison sentences, whilst the offence of apostasy is punishable by the death penalty. Apostasy is similarly punished in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia retains the more archaic beliefs of the Gulf trio, by prosecuting people for sorcery and witchcraft. It also tasks the Mutaween with enforcing Sharia law throughout the country. This involves reporting unrelated males and females who socialize, enforcing strict Islamic dress codes, enforcing Muslim dietary requirements, prohibiting people from proselytizing other religions and banning consumer products deemed to be un-Islamic.

As the nations of the world vote on 15 new members to the UNHRC at the convening of the General Assembly in September, two concerns should be at the forefront of their minds. Firstly, human rights are important and adherence to their norms requires constant introspection and critical self-examination. Their inalienability is an equalizer for people across the globe, be they rich or poor, black or white. They serve to allow people, among other things, the freedom to speak their mind and guard the dignity and liberty to which they are naturally entitled. Secondly, having a UNHRC characterized by hypocrisy ultimately undermines their principled mandate. Allowing repressive regimes like Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia to deflect their horrendous records onto Israel is an exercise in evasion. Israel is an imperfect democracy; elevated by morality yet burdened with deficiencies. Nonetheless, we should set the bar higher than floggings, chemical castrations and beheadings.


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