Quiet diplomacy is no help

30 September 2013

Quiet diplomacy is no help

The Netherlands cannot remain silent over human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, says the SP.
• By Harry van Bommel, Member of Parliament

Human rights are being violated on a large scale and in the grossest fashion in Saudi Arabia. The Netherlands regularly calls countries to account over human rights abuses, but with regard to this important Arab country it has been strikingly quiet. This must change.

Reading reports on Saudi Arabia from human rights organisations is not likely to make you feel cheerful. Demonstrations are banned and criticism of the government is practically impossible. Defenders of human rights are dealt with harshly. Following an unfair trial they disappear for years behind bars. Torture is used to extract false statements. Arbitrary detention occurs frequently. In addition, the position of women in Saudi Arabia is abominable, homosexuality is forbidden and adherents to religions other than Islam are discriminated against.

On the Dutch government’s web page on links between the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia it is stated that the Netherlands maintains good political relations with the country and that it is favourable for Dutch companies, in part because of the wealth of oil. Anyone seeking any condemnation in official material of the disgraceful human rights policies in the Gulf state will find that it is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Given the serious nature of the abuses, this is incomprehensible.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia itself does all it can to make questions of human rights taboo. In 2011 and 2012 the Netherlands, for example, had earmarked funds to finance activities in Saudi Arabia relating to human rights, but because the country would not allow foreign embassies to finance Saudi organisations’ activities, nothing came of this.

Another way to call attention to issues of human rights is by attending trials of human rights activists, but this does not apply in Saudi Arabia. Foreign diplomats need permission from the authorities to be able to attend as observers, and they don’t get such permission. Worse still, the country will give no answer to the question as to how permission to attend trials can be obtained.

Despite all of this there are all kinds of possible ways in which the Netherlands could draw attention to human rights issues in Saudi Arabia. A very simple and cost-free manner would be to use twitter to do so. Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans has repeatedly called on his ambassadors to be more active on social media. The ambassador to Saudi Arabia has taken good note of this, regularly tweeting regarding opportunities for Dutch businesses, but on Twitter also human rights abuses are neither condemned nor even mentioned.

The minister defends this silence by claiming that public attention to issues of human rights in Saudi Arabia would be counterproductive and that defenders of human rights there do not expect such attention. In a new report from Amnesty International this argument is shot down. The human rights organisation stresses that quiet diplomacy has been unable to prevent the repression of human rights activists from increasing in recent times. On the basis of interviews with Saudi activists AI concluded in addition that the activists themselves want to see more public efforts from the Netherlands on questions of human rights.

Next week in Parliament will see an important debate on Dutch human rights policy. That is a good occasion for the minister for the minister to break with the past and give human rights in Saudi Arabia the attention they warrant.

The author is spokesman on foreign policy for the SP parliamentary group. This article first appeared in the original Dutch in the regional daily newspaper the Eindhovens Dagblad on 26th September, 2013.

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