Saudi Arabia: Mid-term report shows Saudi authorities failing to reform, ignoring 2018 UPR recommendations

05.10.21

An NGO report on Saudi Arabia’s progress mid-way through its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) cycle reveals a shocking lack of action from the Saudi authorities on recommendations to improve human rights that they accepted in 2018. 

The 27-page report, submitted by ALQST, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and the Martin Ennals Foundation in June 2021 and published today, shows that despite formally accepting many of the 258 recommendations received during Saudi Arabia’s third-cycle UPR in 2018, the Saudi authorities have made little to no progress in implementing them, while continuing to carry out systematic human rights violations.

Although they accepted recommendations “to guarantee the exercise of freedom of expression and release detained human rights defenders”, the Saudi authorities are still holding scores of prisoners of conscience and imposing harsh restrictions on those released. Meanwhile, in an unrelenting crackdown on free speech, the authorities have continued to carry out arbitrary arrests and pass lengthy prison sentences on rights activists and peaceful critics following unfair trials that invoke repressive counter-terrorism and cybercrime laws, in flagrant disregard of UPR recommendations to “revise all [restrictive] legislation” and “ensure the necessary independence of the judiciary”.

Despite the authorities accepting recommendations to take "steps to prevent torture, cruel and degrading treatment in prisons and detention centres", the use of torture and ill-treatment continues to contribute to Saudi Arabia’s already poor human rights record. Investigations are rarely conducted into torture allegations, and coerced confessions are routinely admitted as evidence against the accused. Out of 23 UPR recommendations relating to the death penalty, only one was fully endorsed by Saudi Arabia, indicating a continued firm stance on the matter. Reforms announced by the authorities in relation to the death penalty have contained significant loopholes, and the number of executions carried out in 2021 is already more than double the total figure for 2020. 

In the kingdom’s official response to the UPR in 2018, the authorities accepted several recommendations to change or eradicate the male guardianship system. However, while a number of superficial reforms have been introduced to improve Saudi women’s rights and status – including allowing women to drive and obtain passports – other aspects of the guardianship system, a legal framework that treats women effectively as minors, continue to restrict their fundamental liberties in matters such as education, employment, health, marriage, and nationality. Furthermore, recent reforms intended to protect women from abuse lack adequate means of enforcement, leaving many trapped in abusive relationships, while “disobedience” towards male guardians remains a crime.