Saudi executions: beyond the numbers

“Every nation that proclaims the rule of law at home
must respect it abroad and every nation that insists on it abroad must enforce
it at home.” – Kofi Annan

Demotix/Syed Shahriyar. All rights reserved.On 2 January 2016, Saudi Arabia executed 47
individuals accused of terrorism, in what Human Rights Watch (HRW) called
a “shameful start to 2016.” Among the 47 men was a prominent Shi’a cleric
who was convicted, according to both Amnesty International and HRW, for his non-violent opposition to the Saudi regime.

HRW had indicated
in 2014 that “Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was convicted on a host of vague charges,
based largely on his peaceful criticism of Saudi officials,” while Amnesty International
described it as “a political and grossly unfair trial at the Specialised
Criminal Court.” In addition, today MiddleEastEye reported that “prisoners arrested when they were children and others suffering from mental illness" were also among those executed.

There are two issues here. First, the
opposition to the use of the death penalty as a matter of principle in criminal
sentencing, i.e. a blanket opposition to its use in all circumstances, regardless
of whether the accused is guilty or innocent, and regardless of the nature and
severity of the crime.

Second, even if one supports capital
punishment, a key question remains in relation to Article 6(2) of the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on two levels: (1), whether the
offence meets the threshold of the “most serious crimes” as interpreted by the
Human Rights Committee in its General Comment No. 6 on the “right to life”. And
(2), whether the conditions were met for a “fair hearing by an independent
tribunal” and for the respect of the accused’s rights during the investigative
and criminal proceedings, according to international norms and standards.

Let us not get lost in an argument about who executes more or fewer individuals every year, as if a lower ranking signals an achievement.

In dealing with the repercussions of the executions, Saudi Arabia and its supporters preferred to focus on the death penalty. It became clear that the pro-Saudi press was either unwilling or unable to condemn the executions. Thus, many observers were quick—and correct—to draw attention to the fact that Iran executes more people on an annual basis, as documented by Amnesty’s annual review of the death penalty worldwide.

Hence, the tu quoque argument was put to good political use. It is usually
enough in political polemics to point out the opponent’s double standards or
hypocrisy to weather the storm of criticism in relation to controversial
affairs or in dealing with ‘bad press’—in this case, the executions and the
counter-claim that Iran lacks the moral standing to point the accusing finger at
Saudi Arabia.

For Iran and its proponents, the focus was
more on the unjust nature of the accusations against Sheikh al-Nimr
specifically, rather than an outcry against the execution of 47 individuals.
This is partly due to the fact that Iran has no objection to the use of the
death penalty in the criminal justice system—but also because al-Nimr is Shi’a.
The main issue became that of the unjust
killing of a
religious figure whose only fault was to call for a greater voice for the
disenfranchised Shi’a minority in the Kingdom. Also, his reported principled defence (transcending the Sunni-Shi’a divide) of
any victim or oppressed group—including in Syria—was further evidence for some
that he was a prisoner and martyr of conscience and not a terrorist.

On both issues—the death penalty and unjust
criminal proceedings for political dissidents—the two regional rivals have a
dismal record. Suffice it here to point the reader to reports conducted over the years by human rights organisations and United Nations committees and special rapporteurs on various aspects of these two countries’ respect
for the rule of law and their adherence to international human rights norms and
standards.

This comment does not seek to get into the
“who is better or worst” argument—an argument that is conducted on a daily
basis by both countries’ officials, as well as by the ‘more of a royalist than
the king/ruler’ pundits who present their reasons as to why either Saudi Arabia
or Iran is the true backer of moderation and people’s concerns in the region.

Rather, the interest here is in exposing the
danger to the culture of the ‘rule of law,’ which is undermined ever more
deeply by the recent Saudi executions, as well as by the reactions we have seen
from both sides of the conflict.

The ‘rule
of law’ is an all-encapsulating term for the values of freedom, democracy,
equality and non-discrimination. It is a concept that is part and parcel of all
United Nations and development agencies’ work in the Middle East and beyond. It
can be defined, as we see in UN documents, reports and resolutions, as follows:

“The rule of law involves adherence to a principle of
governance whereby all persons… including the State itself, are accountable to
laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced… and which are consistent
with international human rights norms and standards. It requires…equality
before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in the application of the
law…avoidance of arbitrariness, and procedural and legal transparency.”

In
judging a state, regime, or any public policy and ruling, the benchmark should
be the extent to which the ‘rule of law’ is upheld and the extent to which our
states’ institutions and practices measure up in terms of adhering to the
above-mentioned definition, especially in terms of the laws being “consistent
with international human rights norms and standards.” This emphasis is
important to avoid any confusion between the ‘rule of law’ and ‘national laws,’
which may or may not be consistent with international human rights norms and
standards.

It is an unfortunate reminder of our region’s devotional partisanship that we do not have wide condemnation of abuses, wherever they occur, and whoever the perpetrator.

For
proponents of a secular Middle East where the rule of law and human rights are
respected, the executions should be an issue that goes far beyond the ‘tit for
tat’ arguments we have seen thus far in the press. If indeed the purpose of the
Arab uprisings was/is to express popular dissatisfaction with autocratic
regimes and to call for greater freedoms and participation in public life, the
inability to recognise an affront to the rule of law reveals our region’s dire
state of affairs, politically, morally, and intellectually.

It is an unfortunate reminder of our
region’s devotional partisanship to either Iran or Saudi Arabia that we do not
have a wide condemnation of abuses, wherever they occur, and whoever the
alleged perpetrator is. Political researcher Ziad Majed piercingly noted in the aftermath of the executions that
“we have a public that increasingly only cares about the confessional identity
of the killer and the victims whenever it is confronted with killings,
repression, and aggression.” I had similarly noted in an earlier piece regarding selective grief and solidarity that people
in the Arab region

“could care less
about the plight of victims from other sects or from opposing political parties…each
side seems to only care about the crimes committed by the opposing parties
domestically, and regionally. In Syria, media and individual solidarity is
dependent on whether one supports Saudi Arabia or Iran, and in turn Assad or
his opponents.”

The
ability to maintain a critical eye and the ability to criticise the ruler—even
if one has voted for him/her—is a hallmark of democratic societies. The rule of
law is the antidote to the culture of partisanship based on tribal, familial,
or religious affiliations. It is the ability to call for accountability for a
wrongdoing, even if the perpetrator is the head of the state him/herself. That
is the point of elections and a free press. A democratic leader is in principle
a leader attuned to the needs of his/her electorate precisely because his/her
re-election or approval rates depend on his/her performance and not simply on
his/her authority.

One
commentator had insightfully argued
in 2012 that Arab spring nations do not yet grasp freedom of dissent and that
“Freedom is not only about majority rule, but ensuring that women, religious
minorities and intellectual dissenters are able to flourish without fear.” In
other words, freedom is not just about elections. And it is not just about
removing a dictator.

Freedom
is the ability to speak out, including against the ruler, according to one’s
opinions and beliefs, even—and especially—if those opinions and beliefs run
counter to the ruling class or majority opinion.

This
is a crucial point for our societies. Let us not get lost in an argument about
who executes more or fewer individuals every year, as if a lower ranking
signals an achievement of sorts for us to take pride in.

Instead,
our concern should be whether the vision and struggle for a free pluralist
democratic Middle Eastern region, where human rights are respected, is
strengthened or undermined by the execution of 47 individuals in one day, and by
the execution of a political dissident.

And
until we are able to assess such situations without a near-automatic resort to
the tu quoque argument, i.e. that the
other side also kills individuals, or that the other side kills more individuals
every year, we remain completely disconnected from the people’s rightful chants
for dignity, life, social justice, freedom, and an end to autocratic political
regimes who rule with no regard for human lives and individual freedoms.

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