WH: Pressing Gulf States on Human Rights Unlikely to Change Them

By Patrick Goodenough | May 15, 2015 | 4:25am EDT
President Obama meets with Gulf Cooperation Council leaders and delegations at Camp David, Md. on Thursday, May 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration does talk to Gulf states about human rights concerns, but applying pressure on them to reform would not necessarily “lead these countries to embrace different political systems,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Thursday.

“They clearly have a different view of how to organize their society,” he added.

Briefing reporters about President Obama’s Camp David summit with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders, Rhodes was asked whether human rights had come up in the talks.

He replied that the focus at the summit was on regional security, but added that “as a general matter, we regularly raise issues associated with human rights, and inclusive governance, with each of these countries.”

The administration did this, he said, not just to promote U.S. values, but also because of the importance when addressing challenges in the region of providing “models” of inclusive political and economic participation.

A reporter asked whether the administration ever goes beyond simply raising the issue of human rights – for instance by linking the provision of arms deals to political reforms in these countries.

“We have not leveraged, you know, our security cooperation to try to force a change in terms of the political systems inside these countries,” he replied.

“I think applying that type of pressure, frankly – generally in these relationships, it’s not clear to us that that would lead these countries to embrace different political systems,” Rhodes said. “They clearly have a different view of how to organize their society.”

“What we have said, repeatedly, is there are issues that we care deeply about, that we’ll continue to discuss. Whether that’s again, freedom to assemble, whether that’s the rights of women, and minorities inside of countries, we speak up for those things everywhere, and we’ll continue to do so.”

Rhodes said that in specific situations to which the U.S. objects, it has acted to limit or hold up certain assistance. In response to abuses against protestors in Bahrain in 2011-12, for example, it had withheld some security assistance amid concerns it could be used in the crackdown.

At the end of Thursday’s summit, the U.S. and GCC leaders issued a joint statement in which they stressed the need for “inclusive governance” and “protection of all minorities and of human rights” – in conflict zones like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya.

An accompanying annex to the statement also referred to “the importance of inclusive governance; and respect for, and protection of, minorities and human rights” – again in the context of Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya.

Neither the statement nor the annex said anything about governance, human rights or the protection of minorities in the GCC states.

‘Worst of the worst’

Five of the six GCC member-states – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates – are ranked “not free” by the Washington-based democracy watchdog, Freedom House. The sixth, Kuwait, is ranked “partly free.”

Saudi Arabia was moreover listed as one of 12 “worst of the worst” countries in Freedom House’s latest annual report, on the grounds it received the organization’s worst possible scores for political rights and civil liberties.

On religious freedom, the Sunni-ruled kingdom that is home to the two most revered sites in Islam is also regarded as one of the world’s most egregious violators.


Saudi Arabia featured in the top five positions on the annual Open Doors USA watch list of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians every year from 2003 to 2013, although it dropped into sixth place in 2014 and to 12th in 2015.

Saudi Arabia is one of nine nations designated under U.S. law as “countries of particular concern” for religious freedom violations. It has been on that list since 2004, although both the Obama administration and its predecessor waived sanctions against Riyadh.

As reported earlier, Saudi Arabia is understood to be seeking the presidency of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva next year. Human rights advocates are urging the U.S. and European democracies to try to thwart its bid.

“The U.N. has not ever really made any push for human rights or democracy in Saudi Arabia,” Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, said on Thursday.

“Now more than ever people are realizing that the U.N. is not on the side of human rights and democracy in Saudi Arabia and the GCC.”

Al-Ahmed voiced pessimism about the chances that the U.S. would be active in trying to block a Saudi presidency of the HRC.

“The U.S. will support the Saudi monarchy like it did before, and will use the use twisted logic that it will push the Saudi monarchy to uphold human rights,” he said.

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