Dr. Elham Manea, Yemeni-Swiss political scientist, writer and human rights activist who focuses on the Arab Middle East , addressed the 12th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracysee quotes below, followed by the full prepared remarks.

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12th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, Main Event, Tuesday, February 18, 2020

On reforms in Saudi Arabia:

“It is staggering that while these winds of change are sweeping the Kingdom, some of its finest men and women are suffering in prison.”

“How can we make sense of these reforms when Raif Badawi and his attorney Waleed Abulkhair are still in prison for nothing but peacefully expressing their opinions and demands for reforms?”

“How can we make sense of these reforms when the very women’s rights activists who fought and demanded for these reforms were and are being arrested, intimidated, humiliated and tortured?”

“We would very much like to trust in the Kingdom’s reforms. But they remain incomplete without putting an end to the ordeal of Saudi prisoners of conscience.”

On arrest of women’s rights activists:

On 15 May 2018 when women in Saudi Arabia were celebrating the end of the driving ban, Loujain Al-Hathloul was detained on bogus national security grounds. She was tortured during her incarceration.”

“On a night in July 2018, Saudi security men snatched Samar Badawi from her apartment. Until today, it is not known where Ms. Badawi is being detained.”

On bringing change:

“We have to work with civil society actors making sure that these violations taking place are not taking place in silence. And we have to shame governments.”

“Change will only happen if we demand it.”

12th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, UN Opening, Monday, February 17, 2020

On imprisonment of Raif Badawi:

“Raif Badawi was jailed for expressing his opinion.

“It is time to end this ordeal. It is time to free Raif Badawi.”

On Raif Badawi’s health:

“He stopped calling. His wife Ensaf Haidar has every right to be afraid – to fear the worst. He has been on hunger strike since last December, protesting his solitary confinement.”

Full prepared remarks below:

I have to say: I am puzzled!

I see positive reforms taking place in Saudi Arabia. There is progress in certain domains. But in the same breath, the very people who worked and fought for these reforms are being sent to prison – where they are mistreated, tortured, silenced, and in one famous case brutally murdered.

The rule of law, accountability and good governance are yet to become a reality in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salam’s rise to power, Saudi Arabia embarked on much needed economic and social reforms. They are certainly welcome given the suffocating stagnation the kingdom was experiencing. They aim at diversifying an ailing economy heavily dependent on oil, turning the country into an attractive economic hub, while fostering local tourism and entertainment and women’s active participation in the labour force. And they have allowed women’s mobility and a relaxation of the draconian Wahhabi control of society.

It is, however, staggering that while these winds of change are sweeping the Kingdom, some of its finest men and women are suffering in prison. An unprecedent wave of persecutions, sometimes with the help of the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), hit the country, targeting human rights defenders, writers, economists, journalists, political activists and members of the Shiite religious minority.

How can we make sense of these reforms when Raif Badawi, the writer and founder of the online Saudi Liberal Network, and Waleed Abulkhair, his attorney and a renowned human rights lawyer and founder of the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, are still in prison for nothing but peacefully expressing their opinions and demands for reforms?

How can we believe in the sincerity of these measures when Raif Badawi and Waleed Abulkhair are left with no option but to resort to a hunger strike to protest against their prison conditions and solitary confinement?

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I am an academic and a human rights advocate. My advocacy is shaped and tempered by my scholarly work. When I see positive developments taking place, I acknowledge them.

So I cannot ignore the positive measures to end what Saudi women’s activists termed as “gender apartheid”. Saudi Women finally enjoy what should have been normal decades ago: they can drive, work and travel without having to ask for permission first. They can exercise more control over family affairs, including by registering their new-born children. Male guardianship as well as the powers of the religious police have been constrained (although still not ended).

Last week news broke that a new set of laws will change the rules of divorce in the country. Instead of a unilateral male right to divorce, both husband and wife will now need to apply to court for a separation. If this turns out to be true, we are talking about serious emancipatory measures. I am aware that changing social reality and the patriarchal structures dominant in the kingdom need more than laws. Nonetheless, at least the legal foundations for change are being enacted.

But again: How can we make sense of these reforms when the very women’s rights activists who fought and demanded for these reforms were and are being arrested, intimidated, humiliated and tortured?

Take the case of Loujain Al-Hathloul, a renowned women’s rights activist. She has been instrumental in the movement to allow women to drive, and the push to end male guardianship laws. When on 15 May 2018 women in Saudi Arabia were celebrating the end of the driving ban, she was detained on bogus national security grounds. She was tortured during her incarceration, and turned down a deal offering her freedom in exchange for renouncing her statements.

In September 2019 UN human rights experts issued a statement to urge Saudi Arabia to release her: “It is shockingly hypocritical that Ms Al-Hathloul remains in prison for campaigning to change laws which have since been amended. Indeed, she should never have been imprisoned in the first place for exercising her fundamental rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.”

Samar Badawi, the sister of Raif Badawi, is another example of a human rights activist turned to a prisoner of conscience. She is internationally respected as a peaceful campaigner for women’s’ rights, the release of imprisoned human rights defenders and for her work with the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia. In 2012, she received the International Women of Courage Award from the US State Department. On a night in July 2018, Saudi security men snatched Samar Badawi from her apartment. Until today, it is not known where Ms. Badawi is being detained.

Tell me: How can we possibly believe in the sincerity of these reforms, when the very women’s rights activists who fought for and demanded these reforms are being treated in this arbitrary manner?

We would very much like to trust in the Kingdom’s reforms. But they remain incomplete without putting an end to the ordeal of Saudi prisoners of conscience. Therefore, the time has come to lead the way for a complete set of reforms. Now is the time to free them all unconditionally and seek their assistance in building their own country. It is time for a new social contract with Saudi civil society actors, for turning a truly new page in Saudi Arabia’s history.