Japan: Press Saudi Arabia on Human Rights

Human Rights

(Tokyo) – Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida should publicly call on Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to respect human rights, Human Right Watch said today. The crown prince’s visit to Tokyo from May 20-23, 2024, is his first visit to Japan as Saudi Arabia’s prime minister.

As the Japanese government increases its engagement with Saudi Arabia, spanning sectors such as energy, trade, investment, and tourism, it should also be strengthening its calls for improvements in the country’s human rights situation. Most recently, during Saudi Arabia’s Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council in January 2024, Japan urged Saudi Arabia to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as to “take further actions to ensure women’s rights and participation in society, including for women with disabilities.”

“A healthy and productive Japanese relationship with Saudi Arabia means publicly urging Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to respect the rights of women, human rights defenders, and migrant workers, among others,” said Kanae Doi, Japan director at Human Rights Watch. “A mutual understanding and respect for human rights are critical for a strong friendship between the two governments.”

Since Mohammed bin Salman came to power in 2017, Saudi Arabia has experienced the worst period of repression in the country’s modern history, Human Rights Watch said. Saudi Arabia formally enshrined male guardianship over women through its “personal status” law, issued on May 8, 2022. Although bin Salman and other Saudi officials touted the law as “comprehensive” and “progressive,” it contains discriminatory provisions against women concerning marriage, divorce, and decisions about their children, and includes provisions that facilitate domestic violence and sexual abuse in marriage.

Saudi women’s rights activists had long campaigned for a codified Personal Status Law that would end discrimination against women. However, the authorities provided them with no opportunity to offer input, as the bill was not made public before it was adopted. In recent years, Saudi women’s rights activists have faced arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, and travel bans. Women’s rights defenders, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Nassimah al-Sadah, and Samar Badawi, remain banned from travel and under suspended prison sentences, allowing the authorities to return them to prison for any perceived criminal activity. Kishida should urge Mohammed bin Salman to end the arbitrary travel bans on women’s rights defenders, including Loujain al-Hathloul.

Repression of civil and political rights has worsened as Saudi Arabian authorities arbitrarily arrest peaceful dissidents, public intellectuals, and activists. Dozens of Saudi human rights defenders and activists have been serving long prison sentences for criticizing government policies or advocating for political and rights reforms.

Saudi authorities increasingly target Saudi and non-Saudi social media users for their peaceful expression online and punish them with decades-long sentences, and even the death penalty. In July 2023, the Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism tribunal, convicted Muhammad al-Ghamdi, 54, a retired teacher, of several criminal offenses related solely to his peaceful expression online. The court sentenced him to death, using his tweets, retweets, and YouTube activity as the evidence against him.

Mohammed al-Rabea, a human rights activist; Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, an aid worker; and Waleed Abu al-Khair, a human rights lawyer; remain imprisoned on charges relating to peaceful expression or activism. Kishida should press Mohammed bin Salman to immediately and unconditionally release al-Rabea, al-Sadhan, and al-Khair, Human Rights Watch said.

Saudi Arabia’s economy relies heavily on migrant workers, who make up 42 percent of the population. These workers face widespread abuses including wage theft, exorbitant recruitment fees, and passport confiscation with little government protection. Despite recent reforms, the abusive kafala (sponsorship) system continues to give employers excessive power over migrant workers’ mobility and legal status in the country. Migrant workers struggle to change jobs or leave the country while many become undocumented because their employers do not issue or renew their residency permits.

Workers who leave their employers without consent can be falsely charged for “absconding,” even when they are fleeing abuse, and face imprisonment, and deportation. Migrants are denied the right to contest their detention and deportation. In addition to these widespread abuses, migrant domestic workers also face forced confinement, isolation, and physical and sexual abuse.

Kishida should press Mohammed bin Salman to fully dismantle the abusive kafala system and fully enforce the labor reforms to improve protections for workers.

Japan should be incorporating a strong human rights message in its growing dealings with Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch said. In 2017, the two governments established a “framework” called the “Japan-Saudi Vision 2030,” which “aims to facilitate public and private sector involvement between Saudi Arabia and Japan by aligning and reporting on strategic initiatives that contribute to the objectives of each country’s national growth and development strategies.”

During a July 2023 visit to Saudi Arabia, Kishida told the crown prince that “Japanese companies are highly interested in investing in Saudi Arabia and that a number of companies” had accompanied him. During his stay, Kishida also “expressed his desire to continue working closely with Saudi Arabia in addressing various challenges the international peace and security.”

“Prime Minister Kishida should take this rare opportunity to publicly impress upon Mohammed bin Salman that Japan will not conduct ‘business as usual’ if the Saudi government continues to commit serious rights violations,” Doi said. “Japan’s silence will not only embolden Saudi authorities, but also betray its own pledge to promote human rights in its diplomacy.”

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