Recent events in Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia show why authoritarian regimes believe they can get away with the grossest abuses of human rights: because they can and they do.
In Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation held a meeting this month to discuss “full and effective implementation” of a resolution, approved by the U.N. Human Rights Council six years ago, backing religious freedom and tolerance. The resolution deplored “all acts of violence against persons on the basis of their religious beliefs,” among many other noble sentiments. In a statement at the opening session, the acting U.S. envoy to the OIC, Arsalan Suleman, declared it a “critical time” for fighting intolerance and called on participants to “focus our attention on implementation” of the lofty goals of the resolution. The head of the U.N. Human Rights Council, Joachim Rücker, said that tolerance must include “all religions and beliefs everywhere.”
Three days later, the Saudi Supreme Court upheld the sentence of 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for Raif Badawi, a blogger who was arrested in 2012 for expressing his views on the Internet. Badawi, whose blog posts called for open debate about interpretations of Islam, suffered the first 50 lashes in January, but the remainder were postponed after international outcry.
The court’s affirmation on June 7 of Badawi’s sentence made a mockery of the Jiddah meeting. It showed that, in practice, Saudi Arabia adheres to none of the principles of the resolution. Almost as disturbing is the way that the international community blithely came to Jiddah without so much as a tip of the hat to Badawi’s plight. Suleman didn’t let Badawi’s name pass his lips in his remarks, according to the State Department text. Rücker, too, failed to mention the jailed blogger. According to a published summary of the Jiddah meeting, Badawi’s case wasn’t discussed.
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Repressive regimes commit such abuses because they calculate there will be no cost. If Saudi Arabia can host an international meeting on human rights, then what’s the worry? Indeed, the Saudi foreign ministry put out word to the media after the court ruling that criticism of the Badawi sentence was misplaced and the kingdom “does not accept any interference in its internal affairs.” Saudi Arabia sits on the U.N. Human Rights Council even though it has one of the worst records of abuse in the world today.
The same calculus is evident in Baku, Azerbaijan, where the European Games kicked off Friday. Six thousand athletes are expected to compete in 20 sports, some seeking qualification for next summer’s Olympics in Brazil. With all this pomp and circumstance, does anyone think that Azeri President Ilham Aliyev is concerned about criticism for arbitrarily locking up dozens of journalists and activists?
Aliyev moved in recent days to bar Amnesty International from entering the country and also blocked news coverage by the Guardian. His regime has ordered the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to close its offices in the country. All in a day’s tyranny. Why hesitate if there are no consequences — and people in the stadiums are cheering?