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Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination examines the report of Saudi Arabia

Committee on the Elimination
  of Racial Discrimination 

27 April 2018

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination today concluded its consideration of the combined fourth to ninth periodic report of Saudi Arabia on its implementation of the provisions of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Nasser Al-Shahrani, Vice President of the National Human Rights Commission of Saudi Arabia, introducing the report, stressed that the basic precepts of the Saudi Vision 2030 were a vibrant society, a flourishing economy, and an ambitious nation.  Under this framework, comprehensive reforms were being undertaken to promote the right to health, education, training, employment, family protection, empowerment of women, participation of civil society, and other fields.  Saudi Arabia had amended in 2016 the law governing the National Human Rights Commission, thus granting it more independence, and it was currently finalizing the National Strategy on Human Rights.  It had appointed 30 women to the Shura Consultative Council and six women to the Council of the Human Rights Commission.  A system that facilitated the registration of civil society organizations had been promulgated to further promote the role of civil society and achieve social interdependence, and steps had been taken to further improve the situation of domestic workers through the regulation of their relationship with employers.  For example, the term “employer” would replace the term “kafil” and any differences in wages between female and male workers would be eliminated.  Mr. Al-Shahrani concluded by firmly rejecting racial discrimination and underlining Saudi Arabia’s active role in promoting tolerance and dialogue, and strengthening the values of peace and coexistence.

Committee Experts said it was regrettable that Saudi Arabia was not a party to the two International Covenants, on economic, social and cultural rights and on civil and political rights, and went on to urge the country to adopt a definition of discrimination in line with the Convention, withdraw its reservations, and ensure that the draft law on hate speech included the notion of racial hatred.  Experts inquired about measures taken to protect the Shia Muslims from political, social and economic marginalization, steps taken to counter stereotypes linked to people of African descent, and efforts to improve the situation of minority women.  Saudi Arabia had the second largest number of migrant workers in the world, and their situation was of particular interest during the dialogue.  Experts were concerned about violence and abuse against migrant workers, especially domestic workers, instances of arbitrary detention and death sentences imposed on migrant workers, and their disproportionate representation in the prison population.  The delegation was asked about specific measures to improve the situation of Indian and Filipino domestic workers, the status of Myanmar citizens, and how the rights of Qatari citizens were affected by the suspension of relations between the two countries.  The State party needed to abolish the guardianship system for women and address discrimination in the transmission of Saudi citizenship, Experts said, and expressed concern about restrictions on religious freedoms.

Fatimata-Binta Dah, Committee Rapporteur for Saudi Arabia, in her concluding remarks recognized that since the last review by this Committee 15 years ago, Saudi Arabia had made a great deal of progress and that the general reservations to the Convention had no foot to stand on.

Mr. Al-Shahrani closed by urging the Committee to consider all the progress Saudi Arabia had made to fight against racial discrimination and to ensure the participation of everyone in the socio-economic development of the country, which was the economic and political power in the heart of the Islamic world.

The delegation of Saudi Arabia consisted of representatives of the National Human Rights Commission, Ministry of Labour and Social Development, Ministry of Health, Ministry for Social Affairs, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Ministry of Education, and the Permanent Mission of Saudi Arabia to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will next meet in public on Monday, 30 April, at 10 a.m., to hold an informal meeting with non-governmental organizations in relation to reports of Nepal, Mauritania and Sweden, which the Committee will review during the second week of its session.

Report

The Committee has before it the combined fourth to ninth periodic report of Saudi Arabia: CERD/C/SAU/4-9.

Presentation of the Report

NASSER AL-SHAHRANI, Vice President of the National Human Rights Commission of Saudi Arabia, commended the important role that the Committee played in following up on States parties in implementing the provisions of the Convention, and stressed that Saudi Arabia accorded great importance to its work.  The State party’s report had been prepared in consultation with various Government authorities and civil society, and it reflected measures taken by the Government to implement the Convention.  The country had undergone comprehensive reforms under the Saudi Vision 2030, which focused on the promotion of the right to health, education, training, employment, family protection, empowerment of women, participation of civil society, and other fields.  The basic precepts of the Vision were a vibrant society, a flourishing economy, and an ambitious nation.  The Government was currently finalizing the draft of the National Strategy on Human Rights, which was based on the following six pillars: legislative framework, institutional capacity, civil society, business sector, promotion of human rights culture and education, and regional and international cooperation.  Since the previous periodic report, Saudi Arabia had adopted a law on combatting trafficking in persons, in line with international standards, and focusing on trafficking of women and children.  In order to promote the role of civil society and achieve social interdependence, the authorities had promulgated a system that facilitated the registration of civil society organizations.  To improve the situation of domestic workers, the Government had regulated the relationship between the employer and the domestic worker, defining their obligations.

The head of the delegation explained that the law governing the Human Rights Commission had been amended in March 2016, granting it more independence.  A Council on Family Affairs had been established in July 2016 to form technical committees on children, the elderly and women.  Another Council had been set up to ensure the rights of persons with disabilities.  Some 30 women had been appointed to the Shura Consultative Council, and another six women to the Council of the Human Rights Commission, amounting to some 20 per cent of the overall membership.  Turning to healthcare, the head of the delegation noted that the Government had instituted programmes of vaccination and dealing with maternal mortality.  In terms of education, Saudi Arabia offered free of charge high and higher education, programmes to fight illiteracy, and incentives to female and male students alike.  All school curricula strengthened the importance of anti-discrimination.  In cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Government worked to mainstream human rights in educational institutions.  In the field of employment, the kafala system would be changed and the term “kafil” would be substituted by the term “employer”.  Any differences in wages between female and male workers would be eliminated.  Workshops on the rights of domestic workers had been held, and there were five programmes to address the needs of women.  Saudi Arabia rejected racial discrimination and had organized training programmes targeting more than 6,000 beneficiaries on tolerance and dialogue, and strengthening the values of peace and coexistence.  In conclusion, the head of the delegation reminded that in 2005, the authorities had created 15 standing committees to prepare reports of Saudi Arabia to United Nations treaty bodies.

Questions by Country Rapporteur

FATIMATA-BINTA DAH, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Saudi Arabia, regretted that Saudi Arabia was not party to the two International Covenants on civil and political rights and on economic, social and cultural rights.  She said that the population structure was not satisfactorily presented in the report.  How were the 21 million Saudi citizens divided into ethnic groups and minorities, potentially different tribes or indigenous peoples.  What were the nationalities of the 10 million non-Saudis living in Saudi Arabia?  How many stateless persons or refugees were there in the country?

Ms. Dah said that the drafting of the State party report seemed to have been a largely inclusive process.  Were there any civil society organizations particularly concerned with racial discrimination?

What institutional, legislative and administrative steps had been taken to implement the Convention?  Ms. Dah asked the State party to consider withdrawing its reservations to the Convention.  As for the status of the Convention in Saudi Arabian law, she noted that there was no information of the Convention being mentioned by courts.  In addition, it seemed that the Sharia law took precedence over the Convention.

Ms. Dah suggested that the State party adopt a definition of discrimination in line with the Convention, adding that there was no law on acts of discrimination.  The general principles of non-discrimination, equality and justice were not sufficient to fight or prevent racial discrimination.

If it was true that Saudi Arabia had a draft law on hate speech, it should include the notion of racial hatred, Ms. Dah said.  Which institutions had been set up to receive complaints of racial discrimination?  Which institution was considered the national human rights institution?

What measures had the State party taken to ensure that Shia Muslims did not suffer from political, social and economic marginalization?  Ms. Dah reminded that in Saudi Arabia African descent was often linked with slavery, while persons of Asian descent were often confused with migrant workers.  The State should take upon itself to counter those stereotypes.

Special measures could be targeted at minority women, Ms. Dah noted.  Efforts had to be made to stop early or forced marriage, and ensure the right to health, employment, and access to justice.  

Ms. Dah drew attention to discrimination in the transmission of Saudi citizenship to children, and she urged the State party to follow the recommendations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

Saudi Arabia had not ratified any conventions on refugees, and Ms. Dah invited the State party to ratify them.  What were the living conditions in refugee camps?  What was the situation in the Rafha camp?

Turning to migrant workers, Ms. Dah reminded of the reform of the Labour Code and stricter obligations for employers.  Had there been any real impact on Indian and Filipino domestic workers?  Arbitrary detention occurred and death sentences were imposed on migrant workers, who were disproportionately represented in the prison population.  Ms. Dah therefore urged the State party to ratify the International Labour Organization’s Convention 189 on domestic workers.  What did labour inspectors do to investigate potential abuse?

The State party needed to abolish the guardianship system for women.  Some 70 per cent of the society was made up of young people, who could take ownership of the Vision 2030.

Questions from the Committee Experts

GUN KUT, Committee Rapporteur for Follow-up to Concluding Observations, informed that the Committee’s previous concluding observations on Saudi Arabia dated back to 2003, before interim reports had been instituted.  Nevertheless, the Committee had decided to request the State party to provide information within one year on several issues.

An Expert drew attention to the fact that two thirds of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia were migrants, and recommended that the State party ratify the International Labour Organization’s Convention 189.  Were there any cases when domestic workers could be voluntarily transferred from one employer to another?

Reminding that more than 29,000 lawsuits on domestic workers had been settled by the labour dispute settlement councils, Experts inquired about their functioning.  What was the cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation?

Saudi Arabia had the second largest number of migrants in the world.  What was the exact number of migrants in the country?  How was the status of Myanmar citizens in Saudi Arabia regulated?  What measures had the State party taken to facilitate a remittance system for them?

How were the rights of Qatari citizens affected by the suspension of relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar?  Did migrants have the right to movement when placed in refugee camps?  What could the Committee do to encourage more reports submitted by civil society organizations?  Were migrants allowed to establish their own associations?

With more than 14 million migrants in Saudi Arabia, how did migrant children gain access to education?  Could they receive religious education desired by their parents, or could they decide not to receive any religious education at all?  Had derogatory comments about other religions been removed from school textbooks?

What was the prison situation in Saudi Arabia, especially the proportion of migrants in the prison population?  Experts asked the State party to provide information about cases of racial discrimination, and about the burden of proof in such cases.  What kind of sentences and fines had been handed out?  What were the links between trafficking in persons and prostitution?

How could migrants benefit from unemployment benefits?  What was the number of people of African descent in Saudi Arabia and how did the State party plan to implement the International Decade for People of African Descent?

Experts raised the issue of violence against female domestic workers.  Were such cases punished according to the Sharia or ordinary law?  Could nationality be granted to children born of a Saudi mother?

Had the 2016 act to reform the National Commission of Human Rights accorded it greater independence?  Following the prohibition of the kafala system, how many prosecutions had been launched to investigate cases of its continuation?  How was the arrival of seasonal workers during the Hajj managed?

One Expert observed that general reservations of the kind that Saudi Arabia had made upon its accession to the Convention contributed to undermining the efficiency of the rights enshrined in the Convention.

When there was a great imbalance of power between the employer and workers, contracts were perhaps not the best way to guarantee workers’ rights.  It would be better to have a separate labour law, an Expert noted.  The same Expert underlined that the death penalty in Saudi Arabia was applied on a scale almost unprecedented in the world.

To what extent were members of various State councils elected as opposed to appointed?  Since racial discrimination perpetrated by State officials was considered an abuse of power, what kind of punishment was handed down to State officials?  Had there been any such cases?

Who appointed judges and did they have security of tenure?  In what circumstances could they be removed?  Could high-ranking officials be judged in courts?  It appeared that the monitoring of prisons was not in line with international standards.

Turning to religious worship, Experts voiced concern that those who practiced a religion that was different from the dominant one could not do so in public, or even in private.

Replies by the Delegation

NASSER AL-SHAHRANI, Vice President of the National Human Rights Commission of Saudi Arabia, thanked Committee Experts for their careful reading of the State party’s report, and of other relevant reports.  He noted that some of the questions had already been answered in the State party’s report.  As for the fact that Saudi Arabia was not party to the two International Covenants on civil and political rights, and on economic, social and cultural rights, the head of the delegation explained that the Government was examining them.  Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia was keen to become party to any convention that strengthened human rights.  Despite general reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Saudi Arabia had not identified any contradictions between the principles of the Sharia law and the Convention.  Islamic Sharia completely repudiated racial discrimination.

The head of the delegation clarified that the Rafha refugee camp had been closed for 20 years.  It had been established following the Gulf War in 1991 to host refugees from Iraq.  Many of them had returned to their country, while others had regularized their status in Saudi Arabia.  The head of delegation noted that there were no marginalized groups in Saudi Arabia and that the authorities had always strived to promote equality.  Everyone was a partner in the Saudi society, and everyone was equal in their rights and obligations.  All policies were meant to develop and protect human beings.  The authorities viewed migrant workers as partners in development.  There were 12 million migrant workers in the country.  Saudi Arabia had concluded bilateral agreements with several countries to protect migrant workers coming from there.  Migrant remittances from Saudi Arabia were the highest in the whole world.

The delegation clarified that the principles of Islamic Sharia prohibited all forms of racial discrimination.  All State institutions worked to prevent any form of discrimination based on ethnicity, race or any grounds.  For example, the recruitment of civil servants was based on meritocracy, healthcare services were provided to all citizens on an equal footing, and all institutions that worked to protect children provided equal opportunities to all children.  Incitement to hatred and racial remarks were punishable under the law.  Likewise, State institutions worked to implement all international treaties to which Saudi Arabia had acceded.

As for the role and mandate of the National Human Rights Commission, the delegation explained that it enjoyed legal capacity and was completely independent in the exercise of its mandate.  It reported directly to the King.  Its board ran its operations according to its foundational act, and it comprised experts on human rights from different provinces and ethnicities.  There were six female members, and members were appointed for a period of four years, which could be renewed.  The head of the Commission was at the level of a Minister.  The Commission disposed of an independent budget.  The National Society for Human Rights was a civil society organization, whereas the Commission was a Governmental body that represented Saudi Arabia in the international arena.

In response to further questions raised about the mandate of the National Human Rights Commission, particularly in relation to racial discrimination, the delegation said that the Commission had the mandate to protect and promote human rights in the country and to receive complaints of racial discrimination.  The National Human Rights Commission conducted unannounced visits to prisons and reported to the King, and verified the claims of human rights violations and took adequate steps to address them.  It also provided opinions and proposals on laws to ensure their compatibility with international human rights obligations.  The Commission promoted human rights through awareness raising and education activities and engaged in regional and international cooperation.

The delegation reiterated that the National Society for Human Rights was a civil society organization without any links to the Government and was completely independent.

In terms of the ethnic make-up of the Saudi population, the delegation stressed that everyone who came to the country had to accept the country’s laws and customs.  Discrimination based on ethnicity, race or colour of skin was criminalized.  The National Statistics and Demographic Programme provided population figures, based on estimates of births and deaths and on migratory balances.  The latest figure put the population at 32 million people of which around 12 million were non-nationals.  Preparations were ongoing for the 2020 national census.

Saudi Arabia was not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and dealt with people seeking refuge on the basis of Islamic and Arabic values of peace and tolerance.  They were considered as guests and not refugees.  There were no refugee camps in Saudi Arabia; everyone who sought safety and refuge in the country could access all basic services, which went beyond internationally prescribed standards.  They could stay in the country until the conditions were in place for their safe return; they had access to health and education services and had the right to work.

In 2013, there were over 300,000 Yemeni students in Saudi Arabia’s schools and over 18,000 studying in higher education.  Yemeni citizens also had access to employment.  There were over two million people from Syria who were free to move throughout the country; they were entitled to legal residence permits, and enjoyed access to education and health free of charge.  Saudi Arabia further provided support to another three million Syrians living in neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon.

Foreign workers in Saudi Arabia were considered as partners in the development of the country.  The legal and institutional framework for the protection of workers, both nationals and non-nationals, was strong.  The recent changes in the law had abolished the use of the word “kafil” and replaced it with the term “employer”, and prohibited employers to take possession of a worker’s passport.  Furthermore, they reconfirmed the principle of the best interest of the workers in line with the Labour Code, and gave the right to the worker to leave work without prior notice and without repercussions.  Domestic workers were given the right to change employer without the employer’s consent, and sanctions for the violation of workers’ rights had been strengthened.

Saudi Arabia prohibited racial discrimination in all its forms and manifestations and was taking active measures to implement the provisions of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.  Racial discrimination was recognized as an aggravated circumstance for crimes, as was gender and disability.

The Shura Consultative Council studied the laws and put forward relevant proposals; the National Human Rights Commission provided its opinion on human rights-related laws to ensure they were compatible with international human rights standards while respecting Islamic Sharia.  Each Ministry had an obligation to implement human rights without any discrimination and address discriminatory practices through deterrent measures.

The National Human Rights Commission undertook periodic verification of the Government’s compliance with its human rights obligations.  It monitored the implementation of the Convention, including through receiving complaints of racial discrimination and providing periodic reports on the situation of human rights in the country.

The Citizenship Law acknowledged, as a general rule, the acquisition of citizenship through descent.  There were exceptions in relation to individuals born in the Kingdom and to those born to mothers with Saudi citizenship.  There was no gender-based discrimination in the matters of citizenship.  The Citizenship Law and other administrative provisions regulated the matter of statelessness.

On marriage and family relations, the delegation said that everyone had the right to marry and choose a spouse in accordance with Islamic Sharia.  The Kingdom aimed to strengthen the role of family and maintain Islamic and Arabic traditions in this regard.  A study on the marriage of minors conducted in collaboration with civil society had found that this phenomenon was decreasing, and it provided several recommendations in this regard.

Responding to questions asked about access to justice for workers, a delegate said that the Labour Reconciliation Commissions, which were active throughout the Kingdom and received complaints from workers, had heard 24,000 cases in 2014; almost 27,000 cases in 2015; 62,000 cases in 2016; and in 2017, they heard 94,000 cases.  The Ministry of Labour had taken a number of measures to protect domestic workers from the violation of their labour rights, which included the establishment of the complaint mechanism, including through hotlines available in eight languages.  With over 10 million foreign workers, Saudi Arabia was one of the most attractive labour markets in the whole world, and this was an attestation of the quality of its labour framework.

The Law on Social Solidarity aimed to improve the socio-economic status of widows and children of Saudi nationals and Saudi widows of foreign husbands and their children.  Most foreigners who came to Saudi Arabia came under a working contract, which defined their rights.  Everyone residing in the Kingdom enjoyed equality in law and before the courts, which was in line with the principles of Islamic Sharia.  Freedom of expression came with duties and responsibilities and blasphemy was punished accordingly.

Everyone had the right to education without discrimination, and general education was mandatory for anyone between the age of six and 15.  Preventing a child from accessing mandatory education, regardless of the child’s citizenship or nationality, was a form of child abuse and was prohibited by the law.  All children from Myanmar and children of stateless fathers were admitted to school – they numbered some 500,000 and represented about 47 per cent of the total number of expat students who hailed from dozens of countries.

Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Saudi Arabia had welcomed over 2.5 million Syrian citizens; they had the right to a legal stay permit, access to health and education services free of charge, and work.  Saudi Arabia was also providing care and support for millions of Syrian refugees abroad and in this regard it was actively cooperating with international organizations.  Legal residence permits had been granted to brothers and sisters from Myanmar, and they had free access to health and education services, and the right to work.  The experience of Saudi Arabia had been recognized as a model for other countries to follow.

Questions by Committee Experts

In the next round of questions, Committee Experts asked about the implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action and the International Decade for People of African Descent.  They inquired about the methods to educate visitors and new residents about the societal sensitivities and compliance with the Sharia law, and especially what happened if it was accidentally violated; and asked how the curriculum promoted cross-cultural education and equality of all ethnic groups in the country.

Experts commended the country’s efforts in providing support and assistance to Syrian refugees and asked what explained the fact that the country was not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention.  In a similar vein – and considering the very large numbers of migrant workers, including domestic workers present in the country – it was puzzling that Saudi Arabia was not a party to the International Labour Organization Convention on domestic workers and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.  What were the plans concerning the ratification of those important international instruments?

Would the 2020 census include questions concerning statelessness, ethnicity or tribal affiliation?  Experts were concerned about stripping of nationality and asked whether the law contained provisions that protected against statelessness arising from the removal of nationality.

The National Human Rights Commission of Saudi Arabia did not have any status with the Global Alliance for National Human Rights Institutions – had any steps been taken to address this issue?

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation stressed that Saudi Arabia was located at the heart of the world and its society was open to all nationalities and all religions.  All schools were open to all without discrimination.

The punishment for the crime of human trafficking ranged from 15 years’ imprisonment, to a one million riyal fine, or both; for legal persons, a sanction might include a dissolution of the company.  There were 57 cases of trafficking in persons in 2017, which was a result of increased monitoring of business activities.

The delegation recalled that prior to ratifying an international treaty, Saudi Arabia needed to ensure its conformity with the said treaty.  The ratification of the international human rights treaties related to refugees, domestic workers or migrant workers were under consideration and Saudi Arabia would become a party when deemed necessary.  The non-ratification did not prevent Saudi Arabia from actively promoting and protecting the rights of those groups, stressed a delegate.

The acquisition of the Saudi citizenship was not impossible and was subject to the provisions of the law.

The preparation for the 2020 census and its technical structure was underway, and the type of data to be collected would be carefully examined, with a view to provide an accurate demographic picture of the population and so enable the Government to better orient socio-economic development.

Concluding Remarks

FATIMATA-BINTA DAH, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Saudi Arabia, recognized that since the last review by this Committee 15 years ago, Saudi Arabia had made a great deal of progress, and remarked that the general reservations to the Convention had no foot to stand on.  The Committee would work as a whole to adopt the concluding observations to support the fight against racial discrimination in Saudi Arabia.

NASSER AL-SHAHRAN I, Vice President of the National Human Rights Commission of Saudi Arabia, reiterated Saudi Arabia’s firm belief that the Convention was a cornerstone in the global fight against racial discrimination and said that following the restructuring of the national mechanism for treaty bodies reporting, all future reports would be submitted in a timely fashion.  The Committee should consider all the progress made in the fight against racial discrimination and in ensuring the participation of everyone in the socio-economic development of the country, which was the economic and political power in the heart of the Islamic world.
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