By Peter Dudič, Institute for Cultural Diplomacy.
The execution of Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan migrant houseworker in Saudi Arabia, on January 9th 2013, caused immense dismay to the international community. Rizana spent almost seven years in a Saudi Arabian jail before her verdict was announced earlier last month. Indeed, there are many questions that need to be answered surrounding the case; primarily, it needs to be examined whether in fact the execution was justifiable under national and international law. Also, can it be said that “diplomacy” has failed in this case, given that the Sri Lankan government wasn’t able to do “enough” all this time. Many Sri Lankans have argued that the failure to protect Rizana not only reflects an insensitive approach to marginalized groups in society, but also demonstrates a lack of seriousness on the part of the Sri Lankan government to deal with the issue properly.
To provide some background information first, Rizana was arrested in May 2006 on false charges of murdering a 4-month old infant in her care. According to Rizana, the baby suffocated while being bottle-fed and due to her lack of experience in babysitting, she was unable to save the baby. In June 2007, she was sentenced to death by a court in Dawadmi. Later, the sentence was upheld by the Court of Cassation and was put forward for ratification by the Supreme Judicial Council. However, the case was subsequently sent back to the lower court as further clarification was needed. Afterwards, the case was sent to the King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for ratification of the death sentence which was later confirmed, and the execution was accordingly carried out on 9 January at 11:48am. During the legal proceedings, Rizana had no access to lawyers or legal representation, and during interrogation, she was forced to confess to murder under duress. Moreover, Rizana’s statements were not translated by an official translator despite the fact that she could not speak Arabic. It has been confirmed that at the time of the incident, she was 17 years old, thus underage. The court in its first hearing did not take into consideration her birth certificate but only her falsified passport. In addition, there was no post mortem report on the death of the baby.
All the above-mentioned facts suggest that the entire “legal process” is a sham, which resulted in the death of a young girl who had no chance to defend herself in proper legal proceedings. Rizana’s case, however, is no exception. In the World Report 2012, the Human Rights Watch informs that there are around 8 million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia whose rights are continuously suppressed by authorities which fail to protect their rights. Furthermore, each year there are thousands of people who receive unfair trials or are subject to arbitrary detention. No doubt, Saudi Arabia continues to face widespread criticism from the international arena for not respecting international doctrines and treaties. Even though it has acceded to major United Nations conventions, one of them being the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1996), the government has made reservations on certain provisions under the argument that these provisions contradict Sharia Law. In this case itself, the judges violated Article 37(a) of the Convention by imposing a death sentence on a child who was under the age of 18 at the time of the alleged offence.
The fundamental problem is that Saudi Arabia “categorically rejects any interference in its affairs or in the provisions of its judiciary under any justification”. According to Bijo Francis, Interim Executive Director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, this clearly highlights that Saudi Arabia is turning a blind eye to its obligations under international law to respect universal human rights norms and standards. Whilst Saudi Arabia is clear on its position under Sharia law, it fails to recognize its obligations under international law, by exercising almost an absolute form of sovereignty and limiting its human rights obligations. Of course, national laws are defined by the social, cultural, and economic conditions of a country, and there may be differences in the values acceptable within different groups of society; but when it comes to basic human rights principles, including the right to a fair trial, these can never be compromised, particularly when a country has subscribed to these norms. The landmark treaty – the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers- passed by the International Labour Organisation in 2011 to protect domestic workers, is considered a milestone in this area, however for the treaty to be effective in practice, states need to fully implement provisions at the national level.
As mentioned earlier, Rizana suffered seven years in jail before she was executed, which raises an additional concern that the Sri Lankan government probably didn’t do as much as it should have to protect the young girl. In fact, there has been strong critique against the President, Mahinda Rajapaksha, and his government, for not having taken the issue seriously, despite the fact that in October 2012, the government sent a delegation to Saudi Arabia to seek pardon for Rizana. Several official statements were also made but unfortunately to no effect. The Asian Human Rights Commission has stated that if “proper diplomatic effort was made with the required seriousness, the life of this girl could have been saved.” It goes without saying that Saudi Arabia needs a more transparent justice system, but at the same time, it could be argued that the Sri Lankan government also has a responsibility to protect its nationals who are working abroad. While imposing a ban to work in Saudi Arabia may be an effective policy decision in the long run, it is not very practical given that there are currently around 1.8 million Sri Lankan nationals in Saudi Arabia, who are often mistreated and consequently left alone to navigate through foreign legal systems.
Given that cross-border migrants are particularly vulnerable in Saudi Arabia, it is extremely important for the wider community to step in and influence the laws through diplomatic and legal pressure, in order to ensure that citizens are rightfully protected. International agencies including ILO and Human Rights Watch should also take very stern action in order to prevent similar violations in the future. It is equally crucial to engage in constant dialogue in order to persuade governments to cooperate in efforts as well as improve their own human rights records. All countries which have subscribed to international treaties must ensure that these universal norms and practices are upheld within their national legal systems too. At the end of the day, international law is the law of consent. Basic human rights and freedoms must always be respected, for these are common ideals ingrained in our international system.