Saudi Arabia Wins New US Human Rights Waiver

This is a week old, but it has only just caught my eye. Headline News reports:

The State Department officials on Wednesday said that the United States has extended a waiver that avoids imposing sanctions on Saudi Arabia…The extension, which came Wednesday, was based on the kingdom’s efforts to improve religious tolerance in the region, officials said.

The State Department website gives further details, noting

…policies designed to halt the dissemination of intolerant literature and extremist ideology, both within Saudi Arabia and around the world, to protect the right to private worship, and to curb harassment of religious practice. For example, the Saudi Government is conducting a comprehensive revision of textbooks and educational curricula to weed out disparaging remarks toward religious groups, a process that will be completed in one to two years. The Saudi Government is also retraining teachers and the religious police to ensure that the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims are protected and to promote tolerance and combat extremism. The Saudi Government has also created a Human Rights Commission to address the full range of human rights complaints.

The Saudi Human Rights Commission consists of government officials, and Human Rights Watch complains that it “lacks independence”; when thirteen reformers were arrested in 2004, the commission failed to speak out (apparently, the reformers were jailed after asking for a non-governmental human rights commission to be established; some of them were pardoned by King Abdullah last year). However, the commission’s president, Turki ibn Khalid al-Sudairi, insists that the commission is independent, and is committed

to promoting human rights in a way that safeguards the Kingdom’s cultural values, which include adherence to Shari’ah law.

The commission’s board of directors does not include any women, a decision which al-Sudairi justified in May:

Al-Sudairi said while addressing a number of academics in Riyadh that a board member should possess vast experience and knowledge about the rights and problems of the people in various walks of life, as well as a personality suited to the nature of his task.

The US State Department produced a report on religious freedom last November, which was met with complaints that it “tends to confirm the view that Washington is reluctant to tell the truth about its own allies” – I blogged on that here. In May, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom produced its own report, which I discussed here; that report included the complaint that the State Department “has not yet acted on or responded” to its recommendations on refugees from religious persecution.

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