Even by the standard of low expectations set for a trip described as fencing-mending, President Obama’s public silence on Saudi Arabian human rights spoke loudly today.
There was no open mention of the Saudi crackdown on peaceful political activists, a crackdown that brands anyone who speaks out a criminal and sends them to jail. There was no clear support for religious minority groups who are standing strong for their right to practice religion.
There was public silence on the rights of women, even as Saudi women themselves are taking to the roads on Saturday to defy the world’s only ban on women driving.
According to Reuters, a White House press statement released after the meeting did not say whether President Obama discussed human rights with King Abdullah.
Another Reuters update put it even more bluntly: “Human Rights Abuses in Saudi Arabia Did Not Come Up in Meeting Between Obama and Saudi King – U.S. Official.”
This was a return to normalcy where the United States gives repressive allies a pass on human rights issues. Just two days ago, President Obama put human rights front and center in his criticism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
But now he’s in Saudi Arabia, looking to make nice after differences on Syria, Iran and Egypt had the Saudi Arabian government threatening to go their own way in the region. And so the possibility of public U.S. support for human rights has been shelved.
Let’s be clear on what that Saudi Arabian human rights record looks like. The government is targeting human rights defenders and subjecting them to unfair trials. Two founders of a leading human rights organization are currently on a hunger strike following convictions related to their peaceful political work that led to long sentences. Other members of the organization are also being targeted.
Security forces continue to abuse opponents and detainees with impunity. Torture is reported to be widespread and systematic, leading to unfair trials where key evidence is often collected through torture or the threat of torture.
Religious and ethnic groups face discrimination and sometimes even jail time for peacefully following their beliefs. For domestic workers, life in Saudi Arabia can be a nightmare where they have no legal recourse if abused. And for women, Saudi law and practice continues to discriminate against them and offers little protection against domestic and other violence.
The world has noticed. United States politicians have noticed. This week, more than 70 members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter demanding that the president confront Saudi leaders about their abysmal human rights record.
In a letter to the President, Amnesty International asked that President Obama:
- Select a female Secret Service officer to be his driver while in Saudi Arabia.
- Seek a meeting with Saudi Arabian women who have protested the driving ban.
- Seek a meeting with the family members of imprisoned peaceful human rights activists.
Now President Obama has come and gone, with reports suggesting that he did nothing regarding human rights.
The fact is that the U.S. has been down this road before, many times before in the Middle East. Even as the human rights record of U.S. allies worsens – from Israel to Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Bahrain – U.S. officials look instead to mend fences with the abusing authorities. And then comes the “official assurance” that human rights is best handled in private.
Three years after the popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, the U.S. has yet to reboot its strategy on human rights in the region. The people in the region took the lead, but U.S. support or silence on certain governments’ repression still stands in the way. President Obama had a real chance to change that in his visit to Saudi Arabia. He failed.