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Human Rights Double Standard: Iran and Saudi Arabia

By Shireen T. Hunter (source: LobeLog)

The question of how to help promote human rights globally has always had a political dimension. States often press these issues in the case of those countries of which they disapprove and ignore or downplay transgressions by friendly countries. In the last decade or so, the use of human rights as a policy tool, and hence the politicization of the human rights issue, has attained new heights, particularly at the United Nations and its Human Rights Commission.

Consider, for instance, the cases of Iran and Saudi Arabia. For years, Iran has been under economic sanctions for disregarding human rights. The United Nations has appointed several special rapporteurs to report on Iran's transgressions, which in turn has justified the imposition and continuation of sanctions. Certainly Iran, like any other country that does not respect human rights, should be held accountable, and pressure should be brought to bear on it. At the same time, incentives should be provided for good behavior.

However, for such measures to be effective, they must apply to all countries in an equal fashion. Yet this has never been the case. Several countries in the Middle East have contravened international standards of human rights, and yet they have received very different treatment.

A good case is Saudi Arabia. Its human rights record has been dismal. For example, the Saudi government actively discriminates against its large Shia minority. This discrimination has been repeatedly noted both by human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, and by many scholars. Typical of Saudi policies has been the treatment of Shia cleric, Sheik Nimr Al Nimr. The Saudi government accused him of fomenting disorder, rebellion, and acts of terror, and executed him at the beginning of 2016. These accusations are the stock-in-trade of nearly all Middle East countries, which interpret any dissent or even mild criticism as acts of rebellion.

But when these countries violate human rights, the worst they suffer at the hands of outside actors is a slap on the wrist. Iran has been sanctioned because of its transgressions. But not Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia also has one of worst records regarding women's rights. And although the United States, other Western countries, and the United Nations stress the importance of women's rights, somehow Saudi Arabia pays no price for disregarding them.

The special treatment of Saudi Arabia reached new heights when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was forced to remove Saudi Arabia from a register of violators of children's rights, despite the killing of children by the Saudi-sponsored coalition fighting in Yemen. The secretary general said that the main reason was that Saudi Arabia and a number of its Arab and African allies threatened to cut their financial contributions to the UN, including its humanitarian activities. He added that, if realized, such cuts would have seriously imperiled UN programs in Palestine, Syria, and Yemen. In other words, the UN secretary general was blackmailed into removing Saudi Arabia's name from the register.

That Saudi Arabia would do so is no surprise. What is surprising and depressing is that the secretary general also noted that, in the face of Saudi threats, he could not expect the support of the permanent members of the Security Council.

Human rights is not the only area where Saudi Arabia gets a free pass for its misdeeds. Support for terrorism is another notable area where different standards are applied to its actions. The State Department's report on terrorism cited Iran as the biggest state supporter of terrorism and only mentioned Saudi Arabia in passing. Would the State Department, by that logic, also consider the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, and various Sunni terrorist groups in Iraq benefitting from Saudi help not to be terrorist organizations? The answer is obvious.

This special treatment or Saudi Arabia has served neither that country nor the international community well. It has emboldened Saudi Arabia to continue its disregard for human rights and support for terrorist groups without fear of any retaliation. Worse, it has given Saudi Arabia license to intervene militarily in neighboring countries such as Bahrain, undermine the government in Iraq, and engage in the full- scale invasion of Yemen.

These acts have had severely negative consequences for the entire Persian Gulf, much of the rest of the Middle East, and even for Saudi Arabia itself, as its current domestic troubles indicate. Most regrettably, however, the special treatment of Saudi Arabia has undermined the cause of human rights throughout the region and has led to growing cynicism regarding the international community's commitment to upholding human rights. Like peace and security, human rights are indivisible. Either the same standards and principles are applied to all and transgressors are punished equally or the defense of human rights will be reduced to mere rhetoric that convinces no one.

Photo by Jeremy Schultz via Flickr.

About the Author:

Shireen T. Hunter is a Research Professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Her latest book is Iran Divided: Historic Roots of Iranian Debates on Identity, Culture, and Governance in the 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).


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