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The Saudis, International Law and Yemen: Q&A with Binoy Kampmark

The January 2 mass execution of a group of 47 people by Saudi Arabia has sparked bitter tensions in the Middle East and brought the kingdom’s human rights record under the spotlight.

According to the Saudi officials, the people who were beheaded in the executions were Al-Qaeda affiliates and terrorists either plotting to carry out attacks both within and outside Saudi borders or were already convicted of violent crimes; however, there were reportedly a number of juveniles and political activists among the people on death row, most notably the dissident cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.

Saudi authorities deny the accusation that they hold political prisoners, but according to the unofficial accounts of advocacy organizations, there are as many as 30,000 political prisoners in Saudi jails. The repression of journalists and activists persists, and a noted blogger named Raif Badawi has been recently condemned to 10 years behind bars plus 1,000 lashes. Human Rights Watch noted in early 2015 that lengthy sentences are imposed on prisoners on such vague charges as “setting up an unlicensed organization” and “disobeying the ruler.” At least 90 people were executed in Saudi Arabia in 2014 through beheading and stoning, and the number rose to 158 in 2015, as detailed by the Human Rights Watch and Reprieve.

An Australian university professor and author says Saudi Arabia has been able to “get away with a good deal of bad behavior especially to its dissidents” and countries prefer not to risk their profitable trade with the monarchy by criticizing its human rights transgressions.

“The foreign ministry and house of al-Saud remain committed to a clandestine, authoritarian form of control that suspects human rights as a mechanism that undermines, rather than furthers governance,” said Prof. Binoy Kampmark in an interview with me.

The Australian academic however censures what he deems to be the inconsistent attitude of the major powers towards the notion of human rights, saying that the “Sunni states have Western backing, however atrocious their own human rights records might be, and Iran, the deemed enemy, does not.”

Prof. Binoy Kampmark is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at the RMIT University in Melbourne. He writes on international politics, human rights and Middle East current affairs. He has been a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge and regularly contributes to such publications as CounterPunch and International Policy Digest.

I interviewed Prof. Binoy Kampmark about the recent regional turmoil provoked by the Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric and anti-government critic, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and the international reactions to the deteriorating developments in the Arabian Peninsula.

The Saudi government claims that the majority of those who were executed on January 2 were Al-Qaeda affiliates and terrorists although several observers assert that many were Shiite activists and young people under 25. Has the Saudi government opted to fight Al-Qaeda through mass executions, or is this an example of a cover-up intended to quell political dissent?

There is little doubt that the executions were staged as a response to diminishing gains for the kingdom, rather than a concerted change in policy against Al-Qaeda. Iran has been making headway with the P5+1 nuclear deal, while the Saudis are not necessarily making the gains they wish for in such areas as Yemen and Syria. The execution was a clear statement against the Shiite camp.

What is your analysis of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr’s trial and execution? He is said to have been a non-violent preacher and democracy advocate. Amnesty International called his court hearing in October 2014 a “deeply flawed” trial marked by numerous irregularities. Could international organizations and the close partners of Saudi Arabia have intervened in this “flawed” trial and stopped the Saudi kingdom from carrying out the death sentence?

The relationship between the West and Saudi Arabia, fueled – literally – by oil interests has made a curious spectacle of the kingdom’s behavior vis-à-vis partners, allies and enemies. Riyadh knows that it can get away with a good deal of bad behavior especially to its dissidents. It also massages, mediates, and manages disagreement and opposition through a sophisticated global system of media cultivation, a fact revealed by the WikiLeaks Saudi cables. The result is that the Sunni states have Western backing, however atrocious their own human rights records might be, and Iran, the deemed enemy, does not. The default position here is that the Shiite Islamic world is frowned upon, while the Sunni world gets credit. This manifests itself in such cases as the trial of the cleric al-Nimr.

The attack by an angry mob on the Saudi embassy in Tehran shifted the focus to the Iran-Saudi rivalry and the presumed Sunni-Shiite divide. Do you agree with the premise that this worked well for the Saudis and relieved them of accountability and public pressure over the mass executions?

Such protests always give the impression of mob response and fanatical counter-attack. The realities were far more complex, and suggested how precarious Saudi policy can be. It did have the effect of jolting various Saudi-backers who have traditionally been more supportive. It is notable, for instance, that dissent regarding the cleric’s execution was noted in a traditional backer of Riyadh – Pakistan. What much media attention has tended to do, however, is return the focus back to sectarianism, which avoids, sadly, the human rights dimension in the entire case.

Saudi Arabia was described by the Washington Post as one of the world’s worst human rights offenders. However, in June 2015 it was named the chair of a key UN Human Rights Council. The decision infuriated many nations and Amnesty International. Why has Saudi Arabia been assigned such a major role and does this discredit the United Nations?

The position of the UN Human Rights Council has been traditionally laughed at by critics, notably in the US, Canada, Australia and Europe. It has been seen as a position where jockeying takes place on the issue of how best to portray a state and its human rights record, while also being involved in drafting conventions and mechanisms to protect human rights. Getting on it has been deemed important to that end, a sort of public relations fiesta.

It is not surprising then, that a position on the UNHRC is seen so cynically and separate from the actual human rights realities that afflict the state in question. This can be gathered by the British role behind backing Riyadh in getting a position.

According to the United Nations, around 5,800 Yemenis have been killed so far in the Saudi-led airstrikes on Yemen. Are they doing this to quell the rise of Shiites and do their actions violate the principles of international law?

The Saudi-backed mission in Yemen violates international law – its attacks on medical centers, for instance, and has further reduced the country to a state of desperation. There is little doubt that this is part of Riyadh’s efforts to prevent a “Shiite crescent” from gaining influence in the region. Should the Houthi rebels succeed, this will count as a blow against the Sunni regimes keeping a close watch on developments. Saudi Arabia, as the main Sunni backer and state, stands to lose most.

Are Saudi officials going to relax the restrictions on women’s rights, free speech, social media, the Shiite minority and unorthodox political activists due to international pressure? Will the major world powers and Saudi allies in the West demand that Riyadh enact reforms?

The short answer to all these inquiries is no. Certainly not in the immediate future. There is little doubt that progress is being made in some circles on the human rights front, but these are domestically driven rather than externally mandates. The foreign ministry and house of al-Saud remain committed to a clandestine, authoritarian form of control that suspects human rights as a mechanism that undermines, rather than furthers governance. While assignations by the West will, and have been made in part, this is much for show. Actual change will only happen within, and slowly.