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Saudi #MeToo: International Models and Pressure for the Kingdom

Saudi artist Ms Saffaa stands before a mural she co-created by Australia. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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The Saudi Women’s Rights Movement is still fighting to attain more freedom for women and girls. In 2016, the #IAmMyOwnGuardian hashtag started trending in Saudi Arabia. A petition to end the male guardianship system was also started – nearly 15,000 Saudi women signed the online petition and another 2500 sent telegrams to the Saudi government calling for its abolishment.(Mangla, 2016)The next biggest struggle remaining for Saudi women is to abolish the male guardianship system. The Human Rights Watch organization cites this system as the “the most significant impediment to realizing women’s rights in the country.” (Hincks, 2019)In order for Saudi Arabia to fully benefit from the untapped potential of its women, it must not just reform the guardianship system, it must end it. Early studies have proven that the nation as a whole is benefitting from reforms that have given Saudi women more autonomy and equality to their male counterparts. Future, long-term trend analysis will only further prove these early studies to be the truth. Saudi women have more than proven their worth as individuals and their resolve to gain equality.

The Saudi women’s rights movement has made clear strides over the last decade. How do they keep their movement going? How can the global community help foster their efforts? Saudi women achieved these improvements through the shrewd use of traditional media – newspapers, radios, and tv. Most recently though, the leaders in their movement have effectively used social media to fight for equality and to bring much needed attention to the plight of Saudi women. Despite all of the positive results they have achieved through their efforts, there is still a major that still faces them. They need to ensure that the improvements that have been made, become permanently enshrined in their constitution and their social and cultural landscape. These achievements cannot remain as simple policy changes that can be reversed instantly by the next king or crown prince.

“The male guardianship system is the most significant impediment to realizing women’s rights in the country.” (Human Rights Watch, 2016) Saudi women can vote, drive cars, travel without a guardian’s permission. But they still need permission to marry or divorce, access healthcare, enroll in school – including higher education. The Saudi women’s rights movement has to focus on changing the Basic Law. It needs to be amended to include protections for women. The Basic Law only mentions men and uses masculine pronouns, women and feminine pronouns are not found within the document.(Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 1992) Simply adding the word woman/women would be an important first step; although the true goal should be adding a few lines stating that these laws apply equally to all citizens regardless of their race, religion, sex, or gender.

Just three years after launching the 2011 Arab Spring Movements, Tunisia adopted its current constitution. It expressly states that “men and women have equal rights and duties and are equal before the law without any discrimination.” Tunisian politics is leading even the U.S. with 36% of parliamentarians and almost 50% of local politicians who are women. By comparison, after the 2018 U.S. mid-term elections which saw record numbers of women running and elected to political office, the U.S. still only has 21% of Congressional and 25% of state legislative seats held by women. (Yerkes & McKeown, 2018)The Tunisian people were able to achieve this level of success through constitutional changes and through quotas that were designed to boost the representation of women throughout their political system. The Tunisian population has become normalized to the idea of women as equals and the idea that women are just as capable as men.

Tunisia, as the model for the Saudi women’s rights movement, is a perfect example of how equality can be achieved in a majority Arab Muslim nation without turning away from their religion. Tunisia’s population is 98% native Arab and 99% of its citizens are Sunni Muslims. By comparison, Saudi Arabia has a more diverse population with 38% of the population being immigrants. It’s citizen population is (including immigrants) 90% Arab and 85% Sunni Muslims. (Central Intelligence Agency, 2020) Saudi women’s rights leaders should push for amending Saudi Arabia’s Basic Law in a similar manner to the Tunisian constitution. Using Tunisia as their example, Saudi women’s rights leaders can stress that equal rights can be extended to all citizens without dishonoring or abandoning their Islamic traditions and Arab heritage.

It is not just enough that the Saudi women’s rights movement push for policy changes on its own. The international community must help them achieve their goals by applying diplomatic pressure on the Saudi government. Saudi Arabia is a member of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Last year, the Saudi Arabian government was rebuked by 36 of their fellow council member nations, including all EU members, for their “aggressive crackdown on free expression” and their “treatment of Saudi women who have challenged the kingdom’s strict rules.”(Cumming-Bruce, 2019) It is not just enough to officially rebuke them. Saudi Arabia’s actions to curb freedom of expression and to oppress Saudi women violate the essence of what the UNHRC is trying to accomplish. The UNHRC should vote to remove them from their position if they continue to violate the human rights of their women.

Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Under the agreement, the Saudi government committed to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” (Kutesa, 2015)Failure to achieve its commitments under this program should constitute grounds for international economic and/or trade sanctions until the Saudi government complies with its obligations to institute changes that protect the rights of women and girls to freely participate in public life as equals to men and boys. Failure to meet this program would also be irrefutable proof of Saudi Arabia’s unfitness for continuing to participate as a member of the UNHRC.

Further, the U.S. has the ability to apply their own sanctions against the Saudi government until they choose to implement policies that extend equal rights to all Saudi citizens. The Saudi government has been locked into a proxy war with Iran through the Yemeni Civil War. The U.S. is the main supplier of the military hardware – F-15s – and munitions that the Saudi military has employed in Yemen.(Walsh & Schmitt, 2018) The U.S. should make any future arms sales contingent on the Saudi government implementing policies that support its obligations to fight against human rights violations and to provide equal rights to Saudi women and girls. Additionally, the U.S. Saudi foreign relations have revolved around their common security goals in the Persian Gulf/Arabian Peninsula. They have cooperated on policies to become an effective counterbalance to Iran in the region. The U.S. and Saudi governments have also cooperated on counter-terrorism efforts in the region. (Alyas, 2018)The U.S. should use the continuation of security relationships as additional leverage points to encourage Saudi Arabia to implement equal rights policies.

Saudi Arabia, of course, is a major exporter of oil to the European Union. It is also a major import nation because of the lack of natural resources on the Arabian Peninsula. Three of Saudi’s top ten import partners are EU member nations – Germany, France, and Italy. EU member nations have also been the source of military arms that have been used by Saudi in Yemen. (Global Edge, 2020)The European Union has been a long-time supporter of equal rights on the basis of sex and gender identification. The EU adopted its Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union in 2000. Article 23 states – Equality between men and women must be ensured in all areas, including employment, work and pay. (European Commission, 2000)Both the EU and Saudi governments have expressed the desire for trade and security agreements; instead of the bilateral agreements that exist between Saudi Arabia and individual EU member nations.(Oppenheim, 2019) The EU could stipulate adherence to UN standards for equal rights and fulfilling obligations under the Sustainable Development program are required to be met before the EU enters into any agreements with Saudi Arabia.

Realistically, the US and EU are unlikely to use their positions to help the Saudi women’s rights movement. The US and EU desire to continue trading with the Saudi government is too great to jeopardize over supporting a single issue that is essentially internal to Saudi Arabia.  The Saudi women’s rights movement should continue to push for further internal reform. It should appeal directly to the UN if the Saudi regime continues to resist further efforts to roll back the male guardianship system. The UNHRC should stop ignoring Saudi Arabia’s demonstrably poor record on human and women’s rights and push for its immediate removal from the UNHRC. The UN should also impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on the Saudi government until it becomes compliant with its obligations as a UN member and signatory to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Saudi women should heed the words of Iranian women’s right activist Shaparak Shajarizadeh, “Don’t wait for anyone to hand you your rights.” (Mahtani, 2020)

Paula Mallott is nearly finished with her graduate degree in International Security and Intelligence Studies at Bellevue University and works as a Senior RC-135 Training Specialist with Leidos, Inc. She is a retired Air Force Linguist specializing in Russian and Arabic (Syrian, Iraqi, and Libyan dialects).

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Turkey’s Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Cyprus, Turkey, Artsakh

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The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin of the Armenian Apostolic Church has recently hosted a conference on international religious freedom and peace with the blessings of His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.

Tasoula Hadjitofi, the founding president of the Walk of Truth, was one of the invited guests. She spoke about genocide and her own experience in Cyprus, warning of Turkey’s religious freedom violations. Hadjitofi also called for joint legal actions against continued ethnic cleansing and destruction of Christian cultural heritage in Cyprus, Turkey, Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) and other places by the Turkish government and its regional allies including Azerbaijan.

During the two-day conference, access to places of worship in war and conflict zones, the protection of religious and ethnic minorities, and preservation of cultural heritage were among the topics addressed by many distinguished speakers.  The conference paid particular attention to the situation of historic Armenian monasteries, churches, monuments, and archeological sites in parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that have been under Azeri occupation since the 2020 violent war unleashed by Azerbaijan.

Hadjitofi presented about the situation of Cyprus, sharing her recent visit to the Cypriot city of Famagusta (Varoshia), making historic parallels between the de-Christianisation of Asia Minor, Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh by Turkey, and its allies such as Azerbaijan. See Hadjitofi’s full speech here.

Author of the book, The Icon Hunter, Hadjitofi spoke with passion about her recent visit to the ghost city of Famagusta, occupied by Turkey since 1974. Her visit coincided with the 47th anniversary of the occupation. She was accompanied by journalist Tim Neshintov of Spiegel and photographer Julien Busch as she made several attempts to visit her home and pray at her church of Timios Stavrou (Holy Cross).

Hadjitofi explained how her own human rights and religious freedoms, alongside the rights of tens of thousands of Cypriots, were violated when Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan illegally entered her country and prayed at the newly erected mosque in her own occupied town whereas she was kneeling down in the street to pray to her icon in front of her violated Christian church. In comparison, her church was looted, mistreated and vandalized by the occupying forces.  

Hadjitofi reminded the audience of the historic facts concerning Turks discriminating against Christian Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians. They also massacred these communities or expelled them from the Ottoman Empire and the modern Republic of Turkey, a process of widespread persecution which culminated in the 1913-23 Christian genocide. Hadjitofi then linked those genocidal actions with what Erdogan is doing today to the Kurds in Syria, and the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh by supporting Turkey’s wealthy friends such as the government of Azerbaijan.  She also noted that during her recent visit to her hometown of Famagusta, a delegation from Azerbaijan referred to Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus as “Turkish land” and a “part of Greater Turkey”. This is yet another sign of Turkish-Azeri historic revisionism, and their relentless efforts for the Turkification of non-Turkish geography.

Hadjitofi called for a series of legal actions against Turkey and its allies, reminding Armenians that although they signed the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court (ICC), they have not ratified it. She noted that it must be the priority of Armenians if they want to seek justice. Azerbaijan and Turkey, however, neither signed or ratified the Rome Statute.

During her speech Hadjitofi also emphasized the need for unity amongst all Christians and other faiths against any evil or criminal act of destroying places of worship or evidence of their historical existence anywhere in the world. 

In line with this call, the Republic of Armenia instituted proceedings against the Republic of Azerbaijan before the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, with regard to violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

In its application, Armenia stated that “[f]or decades, Azerbaijan has subjected Armenians to racial discrimination” and that, “[a]s a result of this State-sponsored policy of Armenian hatred, Armenians have been subjected to systemic discrimination, mass killings, torture and other abuse”.

Hadjitofi said that “Armenia’s lawsuit against the government of Azerbaijan is a positive move in the right direction and more legal actions should be taken against governments that systematically violate human rights and cultural heritage. I’m also in the process of meeting members of the Armenian diaspora in Athens, London, and Nicosia to discuss further joint legal actions. But the most urgent action that Armenia should take is the ratification of Rome Statute of the ICC,” she added.

Other speakers at the conference included representatives of the main Christian denominations, renowned scholars and experts from around the globe, all of whom discussed issues related to international religious freedom and the preservation of the world’s spiritual, cultural and historical heritage.

Baroness Cox, a Member of the UK House of Lords and a prominent human rights advocate, was among the participants. She has actively defended the rights of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia through her parliamentary, charity and advocacy work.

Meanwhile, the organizing committee of the conference adopted a joint communiqué, saying, in part:

” We re-affirm the principles of the right to freedom of religion or belief, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent international and regional human rights treaties. We claim this right, equally, for all people, of any faith or none, and regardless of nation, history or political circumstances – including for those Armenian prisoners of war still illegally held in captivity by Azerbaijan, for whose swift release and repatriation we appeal and pray, and for the people of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh whose rights to free and peaceful assembly and association necessarily implicate the sacred character of human life.”

On September 11, the delegates of the conference were received by the President of Armenia, Armen Sarkissian, in his palace in Yerevan where they were thanked. The guests also visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial-Museum (Tsitsernakaberd), where Hadjitofi was interviewed on Armenian national TV. She said:

“I read about the Armenian Genocide and I am glad that more countries recognize it as such but I am disappointed that politicians do not condemn actions of Turkey and its allies in their anti Christian attitude towards Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh. I see an interconnection between the genocide and the adopted politics of Azerbaijan, when the ethnic cleansing takes place, when cultural heritage is destroyed, gradually the traces of the people once living there are eliminated and that is genocide”. 

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After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians

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The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.

The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.

“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”

Scandal of Al Hol’s children

Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.

“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”

Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. 

Blockades and bombardment

The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.

“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.

In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.

Living in fear

In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.

At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.

Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.

Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.

Division remains

The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”

Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants

The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.

“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”

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IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking

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IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi at a press conference. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calmaa

A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?


The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.

Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.

When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.

Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible.  Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.

Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.

The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.

It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.

“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.

I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.

Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.

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