I remember that, even among members of Saudi Arabia’s feminist movement, human rights activist Dr. Mohammad Fahad Al-Qahtani stood out for his courageous actions and seemingly radical ideas.
Dr. Qahtani is a cofounder of The Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (known as ACPRA). I met him on my trip to the kingdom in April and May of 2012, when he told our group of college students and our professor how ACPRA seeks to document and challenge human rights abuses including torture and indefinite detention without trial.
Not long after I returned to the United States, Qahtani, along with several other ACPRA activists, were put on trial for “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and running an unlicensed political organization. This did not quiet Qahtani’s activism or outspokenness, though. He used the forum of the court to condemn the monarchy, leading Foreign Policy magazine to name him no. 47 of its Top 100 Global Thinkers “for putting Saudi Arabia on trial.”
But on March 9th, Qahtani and fellow activist Abdullah al-Hamid were sentenced to 10 years and 5 years in prison respectively for charges including sedition and giving inaccurate information to foreign media. ACPRA was ordered disbanded, and its property confiscated.
What is also disturbing is the Obama administration’s relative silence throughout the trial and in the aftermath of Qahtani’s conviction. While the US has been quick to condemn human rights violations in China and rally behind persecuted activists there, President Obama has seemed hesitant to do the same regarding Saudi Arabia.
If the Obama administration wants to use the global movement for democracy and human rights as a rhetorical and diplomatic tool, it needs to apply equal criticism not only to its rivals but to its own policies and the policies of its allies as well.
On March 14, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom did finally issue a statement calling for Saudi Arabia to release Qahtani and Dr. Hamid from prison “immediately and unconditionally.” But during the trial, the Obama administration made no public comment.
At a State Department press briefing the Monday after Qahtani’s conviction, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was pressed as to whether Secretary of State John Kerry had discussed the trial during his visit to Saudi Arabia days earlier. Ms. Nuland said the sentences came down “after we had already left Saudi Arabia.” She then expressed “concern” at the sentence adding, “we always make strong representations for human rights activists wherever we are around the world.”
She concluded that the US maintains “an ongoing and robust dialogue with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on a wide range of political reform issues, including human rights for individuals.” She then moved on to the next question.
Such a guarded response stands in stark contrast to Washington’s repeated criticisms of China for its human rights abuses, and the rhetoric the Obama administration uses about universal rights and freedom in presidential speeches. In his second inaugural address President Obama said: “We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.”
And a few weeks later, during the State of the Union address, he proclaimed: “In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy.”
Of course, many feel the US could – and should – do even more to pressure China about human rights issues. But the State Department responded quickly to China’s arrest of artist and activist Ai Weiwei, publicly urging “the Chinese government to release him immediately.”
More recently, the Obama administration engaged in a tense diplomatic standoff to allow blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng to leave China. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke of China’s detention policies while releasing an annual report on human rights, which also cites information gathered by ACPRA multiple times under the country profile for Saudi Arabia.
But the administration has made no such public condemnations regarding the Saudi monarchy’s human rights abuses, no similar appeal to universal rights and solidarity on behalf of its persecuted activists.
Why the double standard? One obvious answer is that the US appeals to human rights strategically. China is a major rival and the focus of the pivot of military power from the Middle East to Asia-Pacific. The Saudi monarchy is a strategic partner – a counterbalance to Iran, and a common ally in struggles against Al Qaeda and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
Oil is often mentioned as a reason for Washington’s avoidance of tension with Saudi Arabia, but the US also has deep trade and economic ties with China, and they haven’t prevented the US from overtly pressuring Beijing on human rights issues.
Perhaps another reason the Obama administration is hesitant to pressure Saudi Arabia on its human rights abuses is that the US has itself sometimes engaged in torture, indefinite and arbitrary detention, and extraordinary renditions of suspected terrorists. To criticize a partner in many US anti-terror policies would open the US to accusations of hypocrisy while also weakening the American-Saudi relationship.
This is why the State Department uses language like “we trust the Government of Saudi Arabia…to give careful consideration to these voices of its citizens” regarding the arrest of women’s rights activist Manal al-Sharif after she violated Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving. And Secretary Kerry said he wanted to “recognize the Saudi Government” for reforms to advance women during his March 4 meeting in Saudi Arabia with Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.
But ultimately, the Obama administration must choose whether it supports universal rights or not – and to what degree it is willing to voice and meaningfully show that support. America has the obligation to hold all nations to the same standard; universal rights must mean universal responsibility and accountability.
Andrew Fitzgerald is a writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He has researched democratic and activist movements while in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. He blogs at www.newpublicsphere.com.