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The U.S. Government’s Selective Outrage Over Human Rights

Wrapping up a two-day trip to Saudi Arabia recently, a high-ranking State Department official sharply criticized the ruling family’s egregious and intensifying human rights abuses.

“Lack of progress in Saudi Arabia has led to a great deal of frustration and skepticism in my government and in the international community,” an assistant secretary of state told reporters in Riyadh. “There hasn’t been sufficient action taken by the government to address the issues of justice and accountability,” this official asserted. “We heard from many people about people who are still unaccounted for, whose whereabouts and fates are unknown to their family members.”

The United States, justifiably incensed by the Saudi regime’s ongoing assault on human rights, is considering tabling a resolution at the March session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which might include a call for an international investigation. “We understand growing concern, frustration, and skepticism among many in my country and many in the international community that has led to increasing calls for international investigation and an international process,” the visiting diplomat warned.

None of what you have just read actually happened, of course. In reality, the U.S. official is assistant secretary of state Nisha Biswal, she was speaking to reporters in Colombo, not Riyadh, and her blunt criticism was in reference to the government of Sri Lanka, not the ruthless, theocratic dictatorship that rules Saudi Arabia.

The United States is, in fact, considering serious action against President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government at the United Nations, and for good reason. It’s well-established that serious atrocities were committed – by both sides, in fact, but in greater scale by the regime – in the final throes of the 26-year-long civil war between the government and the Tamil Tigers that ended with the rebels’ defeat in 2009. No reasonable person can disagree with the notion that governments should be held accountable for their crimes.

As demonstrated above, though, if one simply substitutes our dear ally Saudi Arabia for Sri Lanka, the U.S. official’s righteous denunciation over human rights would still be entirely accurate. Consider the criticism over “lack of progress” and “issues of justice and accountability.” By most accounts, Saudi Arabia’s notoriously terrible human rights outlook has actually gotten worse in recent years. The Kingdom is now a “human rights horror show,” to quote journalist David Mizner. Activists, atheists, and other undesirables are being subjected to a merciless crackdown on dissent – which, conveniently enough, is going “largely unnoticed in the Unites States.”

As for “justice and accountability,” these are simply fantasies for the people of Saudi Arabia, now more so than ever after the regime’s new “counterterrorism” policy officially took effect on February 1. The regime has expanded the definition of “terrorism” to include “disturbing the public order of the state” and “harming the reputation of the state or its standing.” The law also substantially weakens oversight on the Ministry of Interior’s search and seizure powers. Amnesty International called the law “disturbing.” Human Rights Watch says the law violates no less than seven fundamental human rights and “could wipe out a decade of the most modest progress.”

Biswal rightly raised the issue of “people who are still unaccounted for, whose whereabouts and fates are unknown to their family members” in Sri Lanka. Many luckless souls who happen to reside on the Saudi peninsula, though, have experienced a similar fate. In 2011, Reuters reported on the “black hole of Saudi prisons” into which “thousands of people have disappeared.” And, because of the “high level of secrecy maintained by the security in Saudi Arabia,” it’s “difficult for human rights organizations to have a precise number and details of people detained.”

Stories abound of unconscionable repression and cruelty in the Kingdom. Raif Badawi, sentenced in 2012 to seven years in prison and 600 lashes for the crime of starting an online forum dedicated to freethinking, is now facing a potential sentence of death for apostasy. In March of 2013, Mohammed Al-Qahtani and Abdullah Al-Hamid, co-founders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, a domestic human rights group, were ordered to spend the next decade of their lives in cages for a litany of heinous offenses including – but by no means limited to – “providing inaccurate information to foreign media” and “founding and operating an unlicensed human rights organization.”

These high-profile cases and others like them have, for a variety of reasons, generated significant international attention. But an untold number of nameless Saudis, who have fallen into the “black hole” typically for being insufficiently loyal subjects, will never receive the support of global awareness campaigns or have petitions signed on their behalf. Like so many members of the Tamil population in northern Sri Lanka, they have simply been disposed of. They, too, deserve the public advocacy of the Leader of the Free World™ – but no one should hold their breath. That would require integrity, compassion, honesty, and other traits rarely found in the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

Outrage over human rights that is so reliably inconsistent, so transparently dependent on considerations of geopolitical self-interest, rings utterly hollow. Maybe one day, with enough public pressure, the United States will be forced to meaningfully address abuses of human rights in allied states, and Saudi Arabia would necessarily be first in line for criticism. But no government that only fumes selectively over fundamental issues of right and wrong deserves to be taken seriously. To refuse to support human rights universally is to refuse to support them at all.

Justin Doolittle writes a political blog called Crimethink. He has an M.A. in public policy from Stony Brook University and a B.A. in political science from Coastal Carolina University.

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Justin Doolittle is a freelance writer based in Long Island, New York. You can follow him on Twitter @JD1871.

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