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MENA Rights Defenders Call on Obama to Put Rights First When Meeting Gulf Leaders

Open Letter to President Obama:
Put human rights first, Mr. President
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
United States
Mr. President,
Greeting with respect and appreciation.
As you prepare for your next visit to Saudi Arabia to meet with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on 21 April, we human rights defenders in the Middle East and North Africa are writing you this letter to urge you to include human rights issues in your discussions with officials and leaders of the Gulf. Although the aim of the visit is on ways to “settle regional conflicts and alleviate the regional and sectarian tension,” but we strongly believe, especially after the establishment of the broad popular protest movements that began with the Arab Spring in 2011, that there is a deep connection between security and stability in the entire region and the protection of human rights of all its citizens without any exception. You cannot separate them, as recent history has proved many times.
We recall in this instance what you mentioned less than a year ago in your statements after the meeting with your partners from the governments of the Gulf states on 14 May 2015: “while this summit was focused on security cooperation, events in the Middle East since the beginning of the Arab Spring are a reminder that true and lasting security includes governance that serves all citizens and respects universal human rights.  So, in the Middle East, as we do around the world, the United States will continue to speak out on behalf of inclusive governance, representative institutions, strong civil societies and human rights.”
Mr. President, Gulf governments have continued to commit massive human rights violations against their own people in recent years. These violations have formed the cornerstone of a complete collapse in these states’ relationships with their citizens, when they should instead sponsor and foster the rights of all citizens. Governments of these countries have closed all paths to the participation of representatives of civil society in monitoring the performance of government authorities. They carry out their human rights duties independent from government, which has resorted also to criminalize citizens who exercise their freedom of opinion and expression independently, including the right to criticize bad practices and corruption. These governments have passed new laws such as anti-terrorism laws to ensure prosecution, harassment and imprisonment of political activists and human rights defenders in a manner totally contrary to their obligations under the internationally recognized human rights treaties, which the United States government has been advocating to respect.
Gulf countries have witnessed an increase in the number of forcibly disappeared people at the hands of security authorities, who have also increased at the same time in some countries the pace of resorting to the use of the politicized judiciary through false charges and unfair trials against human rights activists and political activists. Gulf governments resorted to stripping some of them of their nationality in a manner that is not humane, throwing them outside the borders of their home countries with their families and their children. They also aggravated forms of discrimination against women and deprive them of minimum rights that ensure human dignity, justice and equality.
According to data compiled by international human rights organizations, the number of prisoners of conscience in the Gulf states has exceeded forty thousand people.
At a time when international organizations concerned with human rights continue to observe these violations and practices and condemn them, they have internally a general feeling of frustration, due to the reduced interaction between representatives of the international community with the causes and perpetrators of these violations. There is a general impression, amongst the staff of international organizations and local activists in these countries, that the silence of the international community, particularly the governments of the Western countries that are allied with the Gulf states, led by the US government, is effectively contributing to the continuation of these violations, and offers also encouragement to these governments to pursue hostile policies to human rights and democracy.
Mr. President,
Human rights defenders in the Gulf region in general are exposed to an unprecedented onslaught, including:

  1. The use of laws such as Cybercrime Laws and Anti-Terrorism Acts to direct false charges against human rights defenders using a politicized judiciary;
    2. Reprisals against human rights defenders who work with international mechanisms such as the United Nations, in an organized campaign aimed at isolating human rights defenders from the international community and covering up the massive violations of human rights, including through travel bans which are taking place across the region;
    3. Lack of required space for peaceful civil work as in countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain where the human rights movement faces a systematic campaign planned and carried out by the highest authorities. These campaigns do not stop at any limit, as they include threats, imprisonment, torture and abuse, prosecution of family members, rescinding nationality and even killing in some cases.

Mr. President, it may be easy to review these facts about violations against activists and human rights defenders, through the media or through human rights reports issued by international organizations, but we assure you that there is a high price being paid, not the least being imprisonment or the withdrawal of nationality or deportation or travel bans. The delivery of information about these violations and its documentation requires activists on the ground to exceed huge challenges and make exceptional efforts surrounded by dangers from all sides.
The US was a friend and partner to the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, which plays an essential role in maintaining security in these countries, so you should take serious steps to help end the ongoing repression of the human rights movement in different parts of the Gulf region as well as the targeting of peaceful dissent. We ask you as independent human rights defenders and as human rights organizations to put pressure on leaders of the GCC who will meet you, in order to achieve the following urgent demands:

  • Release political activists and human rights defenders detained and those who are forcibly disappeared in unknown places, immediately and without any conditions, and to ensure their active independent participation in the construction and development of their communities;
  • Abolish legislation and laws that have been enacted in the last period to prosecute, imprison and silence critics through the means of social media websites or other media and work to re-formulate them to be appropriate to the spirit of the times and be respectful of the public rights of citizens;
  • Reinstate nationalities of the individuals that have been withdrawn in an inhumane and illegal manner, due to their peaceful activities in the field of human rights;
  • Allow the establishment of independent civil society organizations, without restrictions, and to overcome legal obstacles;


  • Conduct an independent, thorough and impartial investigation into what has been reported of the torture and ill-treatment of human rights defenders and other activists, in order to identify those who are responsible and bring them to justice; and
  • Guarantee in all circumstances that on-line activists and all human rights defenders and independent journalists across the Gulf region are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions including judicial harassment.Kindly accept our thanks and appreciation in advance. MENA Human Rights Defenders Group

Original Arabic text with names of signatories here