Saudis object to UN report on torture of women

Saudi Arabia, elected to the UN Human Rights Council three years ago in dubious circumstances, continues to play a negative role in the organisation's affairs. During the most recent session of the council, last month, it took a stand against protecting women, children and sexual minorities from torture. 

On behalf of itself and "a number of countries" which were not named, the kingdom objected to a report from Juan Méndez, the UN special rapporteur on torture, who had been asked to consider how the prohibition of torture in international law could be applied "to the unique experiences of women, girls, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons". The reason for looking into this, the report explained, was that the current legal framework had developed "largely in response to practices and situations that disproportionately affected men". It added:

"Full integration of a gender perspective into any analysis of torture and ill-treatment is critical to ensuring that violations rooted in discriminatory social norms around gender and sexuality are fully recognised, addressed and remedied."

According to the UN's record of the ensuing discussion, Saudi Arabia complained that the report included 65 references to sexual orientation (there were actually 13) and described it as "an attempt to use the eradication of torture to promote other issues, which lacked any ground in international law".

In adopting this position, the kingdom seems to be disputing the definition set out in the international Convention Against Torture which says torture includes "severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental" inflicted "for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity".

Saudi Arabia is a party to the convention, though it rejects Article 20 which provides for international investigation of "well-founded indications that torture is being systematically practised in the territory of a state party".

Although Méndez's report did not mention Saudi Arabia by name, many of the practices it condemned are familiar ones in the kingdom.

Here are some key points from the report:

  • Women, girls, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons are at particular risk of torture and ill-treatment when deprived of liberty, both within criminal justice systems and other, non-penal settings. 

  • Women and girls are at particular risk of sexual assault by male prisoners and prison staff, including rape, insults, humiliation and unnecessary invasive body searches. 

  • Women are at particular risk of torture and ill-treatment during pretrial detention because sexual abuse and violence may be used as a means of coercion and to extract confessions. 

  • The use of shackles and handcuffs on pregnant women during labour and immediately after childbirth is absolutely prohibited and representative of the failure of the prison system to adapt protocols to unique situations faced by women.

  • Detention, often for prolonged periods, is sometimes used on the grounds of “protecting” female victims of rape, honour-based violence and other abuses or to ensure that they will testify against the perpetrator in court. This practice further victimises women, deters them from reporting rape and sexual abuse and can amount to torture or ill-treatment per se.

  • Many states use the criminal justice system as a substitute for weak or non-existent child protection systems, leading to the criminalisation and incarceration of disadvantaged girls who pose no risk to society and are instead in need of care and protection by the state.

  • A clear link exists between the criminalisation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons and homophobic and transphobic hate crimes, police abuse, community and family violence and stigmatisation.

  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender detainees report higher rates of sexual, physical and psychological violence in detention than the general prison population.

  • Women are vulnerable to torture and ill-treatment when seeking medical treatment on the basis of actual or perceived non-conformity with socially determined gender roles.

  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons are frequently denied medical treatment and subjected to verbal abuse and public humiliation, psychiatric evaluations, forced procedures such as sterilisation, “conversion” therapy, hormone therapy and genital-normalising surgeries under the guise of “reparative therapies”.

  • In many states, children born with atypical sex characteristics are often subject to irreversible sex assignment, involuntary sterilisation and genital normalizing surgery, which are performed without their informed consent or that of their parents, leaving them with permanent, irreversible infertility, causing severe mental suffering and contributing to stigmatisation. In some cases, taboo and stigma lead to the killing of intersex infants.

  • Domestic violence amounts to ill-treatment or torture whenever States acquiesce in the prohibited conduct by failing to protect victims and prohibited acts, of which they knew or should have known, in the private sphere. States are internationally responsible for torture when they fail – by indifference, inaction or prosecutorial or judicial passivity – to exercise due diligence to protect against such violence or when they legitimise domestic violence by, for instance, allowing husbands to “chastise” their wives or failing to criminalise marital rape, acts that could constitute torture. 

  • Women and girls are disproportionately impacted by harmful practices. Typically justified on the basis of social norms and cultural beliefs, tradition or religion, harmful practices are motivated in part by stereotypes about sex and gender-based roles and rooted in attempts to control individuals’ bodies and sexuality. Female genital mutilation, child and forced marriage and honour-based violence are acknowledged as forms of gender-based violence that constitute ill-treatment and torture. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 19 April 2016