Saudi Arabia has accepted, either totally or partially, the vast majority of recommendations made to it by the UN Human Rights Council, but Amnesty International has warned that many of the reforms were vaguely worded promises to “consider” changes.
The kingdom was handed 225 recommendations at the 17th session of the Working Group of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in October 2013.
At the meeting of the 25th session of the UNHRC in Geneva on Wednesday, Saudi Arabia fully accepted 145, partially accepted 36, gave no answer to six, and rejected 38.
The accepted recommendations included taking steps to phase out male guardianship for women.
In a statement on Wednesday, Amnesty International said despite Saudi Arabia’s action, the kingdom had “rejected crucial recommendations to ratify core international treaties including those that would safeguard the rights of women and grant victims access to justice”.
“Until Saudi Arabia’s actions match its words the kingdom’s dire reputation as a grave violator of human rights is unlikely to change,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.
“Saudi Arabia must prove that its acceptance of these recommendations is more than a mere public relations exercise designed to deflect criticism of its human rights record.”
A source travelling with the Saudi delegation, who wished to remain anonymous, told Al Jazeera that significant advances had been accepted by the kingdom, most particularly those regarding male guardianship.
However, Amnesty International said that despite accepting this recommendation, the Kingdom refused to acknowledge the existence of such a guardianship system and claimed that laws in Saudi Arabia already guarantee equal rights to women and men.
By and large women in Saudi Arabia are still treated like second-class citizens
“By and large women in Saudi Arabia are still treated like second-class citizens,” it said.
Dr Abdulaziz Sagar, chairman of the Gulf Research Centre, told Al Jazeera that: “The most significant recommendations accepted are 151 and 37, which state an intent to prohibit torture and codify criminal law respectively.”
He also said that the kingdom had accepted all the recommendations on fighting human trafficking, building human rights awareness, and protecting labour.
“This is an unequivocal stance in favour of improving human rights in the country,” said Sagar.
Boumedouha cautioned however that the “kingdom’s human rights record remains appalling.”
“While any signs that Saudi Arabia is committed to improving human rights are to be welcomed, the measures accepted today alone are not going to stop the authorities from imprisoning peaceful critics or ending gross discrimination against women and girls,” he said.
According to the rights organisation, Saudi Arabia has persistently implemented repressive policies that stifle freedom of expression, association and assembly in defiance of international criticism.
Peaceful demonstrations and gatherings are banned and many people have been jailed merely for posting harmless messages on social media, it said.
A new vaguely-worded anti-terrorism law granting sweeping powers to the authorities, has raised fears of a renewed crackdown on peaceful dissent in the name of defending national security, the rights organistion said.
‘Arab Spring’ effect
The source travelling with the Saudi delegation told Al Jazeera that the move to accept the majority of the recommendations was likely due to pressures on the country because of developments within the region, particularly those related to the “Arab Spring” and growing demands within the country.
Tamader Yousef Mogbel Al-Rammah is a Saudi academic at the Princess Noura University in Riyadh, who is also part of the Saudi delegation to Geneva.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Al-Rammah, who has worked on a number of new initiatives aimed at improving access to healthcare and education in Saudi Arabia, said that the kingdom had freely accepted the UPR process and committed itself to follow through on the recommendations it had accepted.
“In many cases, plans were already in place to implement changes that other countries recommended,” he said.
“Many people don’t realise that Saudis want this progress for their own sake, not just for the sake of the international community.”
Speaking to Al Jazeera, an driving campaign activist, Aziza al-Yousef, said that while women in the country reach high positions in work, they still need permission to get a job.
“They cannot travel without the permission of their legal guardian and can not drive to their prestigious jobs,” she added.
Commenting on the demand from some groups within the country for women to be allowed to drive, the anonymous source in Geneva told Al Jazeera that it was expected that the human rights advancements would eventually lead to this.