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Congress: Obama Must Press Saudi Arabia on Human Rights

Obama is going to Saudi Arabia to mend fences in the bilateral relationship, but Congress and human rights groups want him to do more to confront Riyadh on its shoddy human rights record.

Adem Altan/AFP/Getty

On his upcoming trip to the Gulf, President Obama should confront the leaders of Saudi Arabia about that country’s “serious human rights violations,” 52 Members of Congress and over a dozen non-governmental organizations wrote to the president Tuesday.

“The government of Saudi Arabia has repeatedly engaged in systematic human rights violations targeting women, religious minorities, and peaceful political reformers. Your meetings with King Abdullah and other officials will be an opportunity to publicly integrate human rights concerns, as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, into the U.S.-Saudi relationship,” the letter stated.

The letter was signed by a broad bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Trent Franks (R-AZ), Jim McGovern (D-MA), Frank Wolf (R-VA) and John Lewis (D-GA). NGOs on the letter included Amnesty International, International Christian Concern, Human Rights Watch, Christian Solidary Worldwide – USA, and the National Organization for Women.

Even symbolic gestures by the president on human rights could have a meaningful effect in Saudi Arabia, the letter stated. The lawmakers and organizations are calling on Obama to do things such as meet with the activists who are fighting against the ban on women driving and the families of imprisoned human rights activists, such as Mohammad al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid.

“Saudi Arabian authorities have harassed, intimidated, and imprisoned almost all of the country’s leading independent human rights activists,” the letter said. “In addition to public meetings, we urge you to address specific human rights reforms in your direct meetings with King Abdullah and other officials.”

President Obama said last month at the National Prayer Breakfast that “promoting religious freedom is a key objective of U.S. foreign policy.” But when it comes to Saudi Arabia, any and all criticism has been done in private and behind the scenes. For example, a State Department study on Saudi textbooks completed in 2012 has never been publicly released. Meanwhile, the government of Saudi Arabia has routinely punished people for holding peaceful public gatherings of any religion other than its strict brand of Islam and criminalizes all forms of public dissent.

“If your administration has previously raised such concerns through private channels, the Government of Saudi Arabia’s grave human rights record reveals its willingness to ignore such advice,” the letter stated. “Consequently, we urge you to combine symbolic actions with direct advocacy for human rights reforms. It is time to publicly demonstrate U.S. support for those in Saudi Arabia who are willing to take such risks to advance fundamental rights in their society.”

A letter from the NGOs written to encourage lawmakers to sign the Congressional letter to Obama points out that the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life listed Saudi Arabia as the 4th most restrictive nation on earth in terms of government regulations on religion.

In a separate letter, Amnesty International urged Obama to have a female Secret Service agent drive him around while he is in Saudi Arabia.

“In addition to the driving ban, Saudi Arabian women continue to face severe discrimination in law and practice. They are also inadequately protected against domestic and other gender-based violence,” Amnesty International wrote.

Prospects for the president to confront Riyadh on human rights are low. Obama is set to focus his trip on mending U.S.-Saudi rifts over U.S. negotiations with Iran, U.S. lack of support for the Syrian opposition, and U.S. efforts to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians.