Human rights in Saudi Arabia: the case of Ali Mohammed Al- Nimr

Ali Mohammad Al-Nimr is a name which has rapidly spread around social media in recent weeks, accused of participating in anti-governmental protests in Saudi Arabia in 2011. State media have disclosed how Al- Nimr was found guilty of a series of crimes, most notably sedition (overt conduct that tends toward uprising against the established order), breaking allegiance to the King, and rioting. He has been sentenced to death by crucifixion.

At the time at which Al-Nimr was charged with these crimes he was only 17 years old, encouraging attention towards his case and its relation to United Nations guidelines.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Saudi Arabia is a signatory, prevents the use of capital punishment for felonies carried out by minors. United Nations Human Rights experts have claimed that the state has failed to give Al-Nimr a fair trial, denied him access to lawyers, tortured him, and also forced him to sign a confession whilst under duress. Anti-death penalty group Reprieve insists that Al-Nimr was also arrested without a warrant and that he was not informed of offences until proceedingswere halfway through.
To further compound the situation, Al-Nimr is the nephew of prominent religious cleric and critic of the Saudi regime, Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, who was also arrested on similar charges. Many have been quick to conclude that the arrests and subsequent sentencing given to both men is a stark reflection of the troubles arising from the sectarian fault line which currently divides the country. The protests in which both men were detained took place in the Eastern Province where there is a Shia majority, an area which has long lamented its marginalisation at the hands of the Sunni ruling family.

Al-Nimr’s legal challenges are allegedly exhausted meaning that it is perhaps down to the International Community to save him by pressuring Saudi leaders to drop the charges. Ironically, in the last fortnight, Saudi Arabia has been appointed head of a key United Nations Human Rights Panel. The head of the panel selects top officials who then models international human rights standards and opines on violations around the world. The executive director of UN Watch Hillel Neuer declared concern that the appointment may have been given as part of a backhand deal in exchange for the Saudi regime abandoning its bid to become president of the entire 47-nation council.

Human rights activists are calling on developed nations to take a stand and step in to resolve Al-Nimr’s situation, however this opens up a huge debate between the principles of inalienable human rights and that of state sovereignty. The principle of state sovereignty clearly holds that a governing body is vested with full power to rule inside its borders without any interference from external forces and/or bodies.

This principle means that if the West were to intervene in a case such as Al-Nimr’s they would be breaking a cornerstone of established international law and in violation of Article II of the UN Charter. However, international law, which is acknowledged as binding by Saudi Arabia, maintains that capital punishment may only be enforced following free trials that follow due process. In such case, human rights standards should take precedent over the state’s capital punishment laws, particularly when Al-Nimr was a minor upon detainment, and thus the use of the death penalty is forbidden by international law.

It is a delicate area of debate in international politics, one that cannot be solved through the use of military action. The best way to discourage such situations as Al-Nimr’s is through economic sanction and particularly through diplomacy. This is perhaps why the US state department welcomed the appointment of Saudi Arabia as head of a key UN Human Rights council, with spokesman Mark Toner saying “we hope it’s an occasion for them to look at human rights around the world but also within their own borders”.


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Ollie Watts

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January 2022
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