In many states around the world, there are laws that basically govern what would be considered as human rights and those that are inferred rights. The basic human rights would be inclusive of the right to life, freedom and self realization. Inferred rights would be inclusive of the right to education, travel, security and the like. But in some countries, especially in the Middle East, those rights be they basic or inferred, are curtailed in the pursuit of the tenets of Islam. Are these to be considered as human rights violations or just the normal social mores of the particular culture?
Saudi Arabia, or more officially known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, holds the distinction of being an important economic player in the international scene and in the political arena of world affairs (Council for International Exchange of Scholars). It is also considered a major religious center, as the country is considered as the birth place of the Islamic religion (Council). All aspects in the life of the Saudi society are anchored on the teachings of their religion (Council). The holy book of the Muslims, the Koran, is the foundation by which the fundamental law of the country is derived (Council). Also, the holiest shrines for Muslims, the cities of Medina and Mecca, are situated within the country (Council).
In the city of Mecca, lies the holiest shrine in the Muslim world-the Ka’abah (Council). This is also considered as the birthplace of Islam’s holy men, the Prophet Muhammad (Council). Five times every day, Muslims face toward the direction of the stone to pray, wherever they may be (Council). Medina, on the other hand, is considered as the burial site of the Prophet, and along with Mecca, attracts millions of visitors annually (Council).
Human rights in the context of Islam
In the international community, many initiatives and policies are being considered every day. But there is one hardly noticeable but equally disturbing movement being hatched by some Islamic countries (Austin Dacey, Colin Koproske, 2008). Some countries allied with the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), consisting of more than 50 Muslim countries, have launched a formal challenge to the United Nations initiated Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (Dacey, Koproske, 2008). This challenge of Muslim countries to substitute the UDHR with their own set of rights, based on Islam, has been going on for many decades (Dacey, Koproske, 2008). In place of the accepted human rights document as penned by the United Nations, these Islamic countries have chosen to push for a “Islamic Human Rights” covenant (Dacey, Koproske, 2008).
These Islamic states want the Universal Declaration of Human Rights be replaced with a document of their own making (Dacey, Koproske, 2008). The document, called the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, would challenge the Western concept of human rights (Dacey, Koproske, 2008). In their estimation, the UDHR, accepted worldwide as the standard of human rights, was inadequate in meeting the points of view of the Islamic world in terms of defining human rights (Dacey, Koproske, 2008). In the argument of the document before the Human Rights Commission, that the competing standard of human rights being espoused by the Islamic states is a threat to the harmony of cultures coming into a consensual agreement (Dacey, Koproske, 2008).
The document also espouses a standard of discrimination that is unacceptable in the context of today’s human rights doctrine (Dacey, Koproske, 2008). This discriminatory practice would target women and children in the society, as well as non-Muslims (Dacey, Koproske, 2008). The document also would levy hindrances and limitations on the people’s basic rights, and would give impetus to the institution and practice of corporal retribution (Dacey, Koproske, 2008). It is argued that the concept of human rights as declared in the UDHR must be defended and strengthened in the light of the Islamic challenge against the said document (Dacey, Koproske, 2008).
The creation of the United Nations in 1945 and the subsequent creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enacted in 1948 gave form to the political and moral attitude of the times (Dacey, Koproske, 2008). The document answered many of the questions in the light of the heinous practices of genocide, abuse and conflict among nations (Dacey, Koproske, 2008). These were set in motion to strive for the common vision of justice around the world and the arrest of instances that will lead to future conflagrations of hostilities among nations (Dacey, Koproske, 2008). The document, the UDHR, was not a binding agreement to be complied with among the member nations (Dacey, Koproske, 2008).
But the tenet of the Declaration was truly a record for the body (Dacey, Koproske, 2008). The document affirmed the strength and the call for the establishment of human rights in the world (Dacey, Koproske, 2008). Inclusive in the Declaration was the legally binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (Dacey, Koproske, 2008). In the review of the UDHR, several points of criticism were manifested in the document (David Littman, 1999).
The first objection to the enactment for the UDHR came from Western countries, particularly from interests within the United States (Littman, 1999). The objections came from the economic and social aspect of the Declaration (Littman, 1999). The criticism was mainly based on the liberal extremism that was prevalent in the 1980’s (Littman, 1999). In their opinion, the State should only take a small role in the economic and social scheme in the society (Littman, 1999).
The second, criticism which involves the country in the discussion, came from the nations in the poorer sector of the globe, or the Third World countries (Littman, 1999). These countries possess an archaic system of values and laws (Littman, 1999). These countries are constantly voicing out their opinion that the imposition or acceptance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would infringe on their own cultural and legal practices (Littman, 1999). Some of these countries would include China and India and Muslim states such as Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been driving this point of view inconsistently (Littman, 1999). Many of the countries in the Third World would not fully commit to the stance of the group; even fewer openly identify themselves with the position (Littman, 1999).
Just how is the human rights situation in the Kingdom? In the 2008 report concerning Saudi Arabia released by the United States Department of State, no reports of killings committed by agents of the states (United States Department of State, 2009). Last year, the religious police forces, or the Mutawwa’in, were clean with regards to killings in the country (State Department). But in 2009, the Mutawwa were involved in a car crash killing the occupants of the vehicle (State Department). Is this the picture of the human rights situation in the Kingdom?
It is stated that the condition for the upholding of human rights in the Kingdom remains in a dismal and deficient state (Human Rights Watch, 2008). Pressure from the international community calling for reforms in the appreciation of human rights in the country is negligible (Human, 2008). In the report of Human Rights Watch regarding the condition of human rights in the country, the group reported that the state authorities continuously practiced the stifling of the basic rights of at least 14 million women in the country (Human, 2008). The report also stated that the country systematically uphold and defend the rights of 2 to 3 million members of the Shia minority of the country (Human, 2008).
The Kingdom also was observed to lack any mechanism for the protection of the foreign workers in the country (Human, 2008). In another report by the Human Rights Watch group, it called on the country to institute reforms in the areas of criminal justice, immigration and labor to protect the rights of workers in the country (Migrant Forum in Asia). In some of the cases reported to the group, the practices of some employers in the country amount to slavery (Migrant Forum). In most cases, employers who commit such abuses more often than not are not made to make restitution for conducting these abusive practices (Migrant Forum).
These abuses against the migrant workers sector include the nonpayment of salaries and wages that would last for months or even years at a time (Migrant Forum). Many are also subjected to forcible work, sexual and physical molestation, and even imprisonment for whimsical charges of theft or divination (Migrant Forum). In the more than 130 pages of reports released by the work entitled “As if I am not human”: abuses against Asian domestic workers in Saudi Arabia”, aver that in rare cases, migrant female workers will still have the chance to gain kind employers and optimal working environments (Migrant Forum). But it also narrates the worst kind of situation where the workers experience working conditions akin to slavery (Migrant Forum).
It is the recommendation of the Human Rights Watch Women’s division that the country afford full protections to foreign laborers especially women in terms of coverage of pertinent labor statutes (Migrant Forum). It (Saudi Arabia) must be pressured to comply with international covenants that the country signed and start to destroy policies that harbor or espouse discrimination (Associated Press, 2008). In the opinion of the Human Rights Watch group, the state routinely immolates the notion of fundamental human rights to establish male domination over the female populace (Associated Press, 2008). In their estimation, the role of the government must be to decisively end the practice of establishing discriminatory policies against women (Associated Press, 2008).
In their report, “Perpetual Minors: Human rights abuses stemming from male guardianship and sex segregation in Saudi Arabia”, the group chronicles the instances of women where they are abused in the context of the repressive policy of separating the male and female population (Associated Press, 2008). Women are still treated as small children in the country (Human, 2008). Legally as they are considered as minors, they have no access to any legal right (Human, 2008). In the system of their country, women have no right to marry, have gainful employment, get an education, go places, or obtain identification papers (Human, 2008).
If the women want to engage in any of the activities listed above, then they should get permission from their male family members or the guardian in legal terms (Human, 2008). The state also did not mandate a legal age for getting married (Human, 2008). Nor did the government launch any sort of campaign to arrest the instances of forced or juvenile marriage arrangements (Human, 2008). Women in Saudi Arabia have been married off as early as 10 years of age (Human, 2008).
Rigid enforcement of the segregation of the sexes blocks a Saudi woman’s ability to take a full part in the life and conduct of the community (Human, 2008). In the corporate world, women are refused entry into an establishment or entering a public building if that structure does not have a section strictly for women (Human, 2008). Women cannot even take college courses outside those taught in the universities for women only (Human, 2008).
In the most glaring display of human rights inequality in Saudi Arabia, access to the fair treatment of the law is also limited for Saudi women (Associated Press, 2008). The Saudi women still find it difficult to file any sort of legal motion in court, or just having their cases heard in court (Associated Press, 2008). To verify their identities underneath the full face veils they are mandated to wear, the guardian must always be present with the woman (Associated Press, 2008).
There seems to be a standard that applies to women differently if the person in the court was male. Recently, a Saudi Court sentenced a 19 year old woman for being the victim of a gang rape (News 24, 2007). The court sentenced the woman to 200 lashes and a six month jail term for according to the decision of the court, she was in the car of a male that was not her kin (News 24, 2007). On appeal, the Higher Judicial Council of the country overturned the lower court decision (News 24, 2007). According to sources familiar with the case, the court imposed the ruling on the victim since she tried to influence the decision of the court in the media (News 24, 2007).
This is because the Kingdom adheres to a rigid code of the Islam religion known as Wahhabism (News 24, 2007). This doctrine states that a female and a male who are unrelated must not associate with each other (News 24, 2007). The code also prohibits women from being able to drive a vehicle and mandates a full body covering in public (News 24, 2007). Other cases where the women are the victims tend to show the leniency of the courts in regards to male offenders (News 24, 2007).
In 2006, six men were convicted of a similar case of rape against a female member of the Shi’ite minority in the society (News 24, 2007). The men were sentenced to jail terms ranging from one to five years and ruled that the victim be given lashes (News 24, 2007). On appeal, the victim’s lawyer appealed the light sentence, saying that the men should get the death penalty (News 24, 2007). The new verdict increased the jail terms of the men, ranging from two to nine years each (News 24, 2007).
What incensed the Shi’ite community was not that the sentences were increased (News 24, 2007). They were incensed by the fact that the men were members of the dominant tribe in the society, the Sunni tribe (News 24, 2007). Since the time, the lawyer of the victim himself became the victim of the double standard of the legal system in the country (News 24, 2007). Since he appealed the verdict, the lawyer lost his license to practice his profession and prohibited him from handling the case (News 24, 2007).
In February this year, the state of human rights in the country was discussed in Geneva at the meeting of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations (Pamela Taylor). To address the issue before the world body, Saudi Arabia sent a 40 man delegation to the convention (Taylor). Not one member of the civil society was even included in the delegation (Taylor). Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, a representative of the Human Rights First organization based in the United States, was banned from leaving the country, even though he was invited by the International Federation of Human Rights based in Geneva (Taylor). Mugaiteeb’s passport was taken from him when he was in Riyadh, the Saudi capital (Taylor).
In the Geneva Conference, the country report was presented by Zaid Al-Hussain, the Saudi Arabian vice president of the Human Rights Commission (United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2009). In the report, the Saudi officials said that all appropriate government entities had actively taken part in the preparation of the report (Office of Human Rights, 2009). The Saudi report also said that there was a need to balance out the respect and affirmation on the aspect of human rights while effectively combating the threat of terrorism (Office of Human Rights, 2009). In their discussion, they revealed that Saudi Arabia had compensated victims who were detained mistakenly on ground of being terrorists (Office of Human Rights, 2009).
Victims were compensated in the amount of $ 100 million to those who were unlawfully detained but later on were innocent of the charges leveled against them (Office of Human Rights, 2009). About a thousand civil society groups were concerned about the state of the human rights situation as it appeared in the Kingdom (Office of Human Rights, 2009). They explained that the tenets of Saudi law was as earlier stated in their belief in the Koran, the sacred writings and the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad (Office of Human Rights, 2009). Also, Saudi Arabia has launched initiatives in the plan to uplift the human rights condition prevailing in the country (Office of Human Rights, 2009).
These initiatives include the adoption of the detailed mechanism as given by the Human Rights Commission which was inclusive of inputs form civil society and the public sector (Office of Human Rights, 2009). Also, they averred that the Commission was in conformity with the Paris Principles and started on various other policies to improve the human rights scenario in the country (Office of Human Rights, 2009). Positive acts were the main grist of the Saudi report to the world body (Office of Human Rights, 2009).
Members of the body as well as other parties in the Council inquired about the initiative of the state to control instances of domestic conflict and violence, legislative acts to engender equality between the sexes (Office of Human Rights, 2009). Also, there were discussions about legislated measures to ensure that violence targeting women were resolved (Office of Human Rights, 2009). The body grilled the Saudi delegation on when the country would sign the covenants on civil rights and economic rights as enshrined in the UDHR (Office of Human Rights, 2009). In line to make the country comply with the issues raised, the body would make recommendations to the Saudi government for compliance (Office of Human Rights, 2009).
The threat of Islam as perceived by the Western world is largely due to the misconceptions that many Muslims associate with the practice of Islam (Abdurrahman Wahid, 2005). True Islamic practice is one that teaches the Muslim to be tolerant of others and to study the values of another culture (Wahid, 2005). The threat or perceived threat goes to the system of isolating the religion and to destroy the Islamic extremism so now made notorious by some people like Osama bin Laden (Wahid, 2005). For example, the term “Jihad” strikes resounding fears in the hearts of many, and hatred in many more.
It is true that the act of terrorism is stoked by religious zeal is not a new instance (League of Women Voters). The event is not exclusive to the practice and religion of Islam, but to many other beliefs in the world (League). Jihad in the real sense of the word is not a call to wage war (League). It is a call for exertion, for a striving to better one’s self (League). Bin Laden just exploited several cases of what he called “Western aggression” to call and pervert the concept of jihad in the minds of many discouraged and angry Muslims (League).
Associated Press. (2008). Human Rights Watch: Saudi Arabia’s male guardian ship policies harm women. International Herald Tribune.
Council for International Exchange of Scholars. (n.d.). Country pages: Saudi Arabia. Retrieved March 11, 2009, from http://www.cies.org/country/saudi%20arabia.htm
Dacey, A., Koproske, C. (2008). Islam and human rights. Retrieved March 11, 2009, from http://www.centerforinquiry.net/uploads/attachments/ISLAM_AND_HUMAN_RIGHTS.pdf
Human Rights Watch. (2008). Saudi Arabia: events of 2008. Retrieved March 11, 2009, from http://www.hrw.org/en/world-report-2009/saudi-arabia
League of Women Voters. (n.d.). Terrorism past and present. Retrieved March 11, 2009, from http://www.lwv.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Home&TEMPLATE=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm&CONTENTID=8890
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Migrant Forum in Asia. (n.d.). Saudi Arabia: domestic workers face harsh abuses. Retrieved March 11, 2009, from http://www.mfasia.org/mfaStatements/F142-DomesticsFaceAbuses.html
News 24. (2007). Rape victim gets 200 lashes. Retrieved March 11, 2009, from http://www.news24.com/News24/World/News/0,,2-10-1462_2221631,00.html
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United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. (2009). Human Rights Council-universal periodic review. Retrieved March 11, 2009, from http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/UPR/Pages/Highlights6February2009am.aspx
United States Department of State. (2009). 2008 human rights report: Saudi Arabia. Retrieved March 11, 2009, from http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2008/nea/119126.htm
Wahid, A. (2005). Right Islam vs. wrong Islam. Retrieved March 11, 2009, from http://www.libforall.org/news-WSJ-right-islam-vs.-wrong-islam.html