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Clash with reality: Saudi Arabia claims Coronavirus measures are consistent with human rights

Mishaal bin Ali al-Balawi

لقرائته بالعربية اضغط هنا

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has declared that its efforts to stem the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) take place within the framework of a human rights-based approach with two parallel tracks: combating the epidemic and limiting its spread on the one hand, and mitigatingthe effects of the precautionary measures taken to limit its spread on human rights on the other hand.

This came in a speech delivered by the head of the Human Rights Division of the Kingdom’s UN delegation, Mishaal bin Ali al-Balawi, at the 44th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, during the Interactive Dialogue with the Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and the effect of COVID-19, on 10 July 2020.

Al-Balawi claimed that Saudi regulationswork together to promote freedom of opinion and expression while observing other rights, which is fully consistent with relevant international standards that subject freedom of opinion and expression to necessary restrictions under the law. He also declared that restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression should not be imposed without a legal basis, and that any restriction should be necessary and proportionate to the intended goal or interest.

Regarding dissemination of data and enabling universal access, Saudi Arabia stated that the competent authorities in the Kingdom circulate all information related to the Corona (COVID-19) pandemic. In his speech, al-Balawi stressed that the press conferences regularly held by the Ministry of Health and other competent authorities are available to all media outlets and offer the needed protection to journalists given their essential role amid this pandemic.

Regarding internet access, al-Balawi noted that the number of internet users is a clear indicationofthe implementation of this right, as the percentage of families with access to the internet, as of December 2019, is 92.77%, andhas likely increased during the spread of the Corona pandemic. He indicated that, as an extension of efforts to promote freedom of opinion and expression, many regulations relating to freedom of opinion and expression are currently being reviewed.

ESOHR points out that the Saudi speech does not reflect the reality of its practices during the pandemic, and we have documented numerous violations. While al-Balawi’s speech claimed to respect the right to freedom of expression, the government has arrested many individuals for expressing their opinions on social media. On 3 June 2020, it arrested a social media celebrity known as Abu al-Feda after he posted a video clip of empty bread shelves in a store and urged people to take only what they need. In addition, the government arrested international and Al-Nasr Club player Fahd al-Harifi for a tweet about the Ministry of Interior’s decisions regarding measures in the sports sector.

While the speechpraisedSaudi laws as protecting human rights and imposing restrictions only in accordance with international laws, overly broad terms in Saudi laws continue to impose restrictions that are not consistent with international law.

Furthermore, while al-Balawi stated that the fact that 92% of families with access to the internet is a clear indicator of the implementation of the right to internet access, ESOHR emphasizes that the government continues to block websites that do not conform to its policies.

At the HRC, Saudi Arabia discussed reforms to regulations related to freedom of opinion and expression, yet the facts show that the path of reforms claimed by the government is limited to the promotion of officials and policies without any real change.

Finally, although Saudi Arabia says that its efforts to combat the Corona pandemic are consistent with human rights, ESOHR points out that it has prevented prison detainees, including prisoners of conscience, from contacting their relatives for months, amid concerns for their health and despite international appeals for extraordinary measures amid the pandemic, including the release of detainees.

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