GENEVA — Dozens of Western countries rebuked Saudi Arabia for its aggressive crackdown on free expression in a landmark initiative on Thursday in the United Nations’ top human rights body.
It was the first time states had ever confronted the kingdom over its human rights record in the United Nations Human Rights Council, where Saudi Arabia is one of 47 members.
The rebuke came in a statement signed by 36 nations — including every member of the European Union — that condemned Saudi Arabia’s “continuing arrests and arbitrary detentions of human rights defenders” and its use of counterterrorism laws to silence peaceful dissent.
The statement pointed in particular to the treatment of Saudi women who have challenged the kingdom’s strict rules.
The nations also called on Saudi Arabia to cooperate fully with investigations into the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was killed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
“Those responsible must be held to account,” they said.
The statement drew applause from human rights groups, which said it broke Saudi Arabia’s apparent impunity from condemnation in the council.
“It sends a strong signal that Saudi Arabia is not untouchable, and that council members should be held to a higher level of scrutiny,” said Salma El Hosseiny, an advocate for the Geneva-based International Service for Human Rights.
Led by Iceland, which occupies the Human Rights Council seat vacated by the United States when it quit the body last year, the states urged Saudi Arabia to release all those held for exercising their right to protest.
It specifically named 10 people, all arrested last year in a crackdown that started shortly before Saudi Arabia introduced reforms allowing women to drive: Loujain Al-Hathloul, Eman Al-Nafjan, Aziza Al-Yousef, Nassima Al-Sadah, Samar Badawi, Nouf Abdelaziz, Hatoon Al-Fassi, Mohammed Al-Bajadi, Amal Al-Harbi and Shadan al-Anezi.
Saudi interrogators have reportedly tortured at least four of the women with electric shocks, and by whipping their thighs and sexually harassing and assaulting them, Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Thursday.
The nations’ statement said, “We call on Saudi Arabia to take meaningful steps to ensure that all members of the public, including human rights defenders and journalists, can freely and fully exercise their rights to freedoms of expression, opinion and association, including online, without fear of reprisals.”
The rebuke also signaled the enduring international outrage over the murder of Mr. Khashoggi six months after Saudi agents killed and dismembered him at the consulate. The Saudi authorities have charged 11 people in the case, but it has denied American intelligence reports that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing.
The 36 nations that backed the rebuke, among them Australia and Canada, urged Saudi Arabia to cooperate with an inquiry into the murder led by a United Nations expert, Agnès Callamard. She is to submit her findings to the Human Rights Council in June.
“The circumstances of Mr. Khashoggi’s death reaffirm the need to protect journalists and to uphold the right to freedom of expression around the world,” the statement said.
Though the 28 members of the European Union spoke with one voice Thursday in the council to condemn Saudi human rights abuses, the bloc’s leaders in Brussels backed away from a proposal to blacklist the kingdom over accusations that it helps fund terrorism and launders money.
European lawmakers said last month they planned to expand a list of states seen as weak when it comes to cracking down on tainted money, proposing to add Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Panama, among others, to a roster that already included countries such as North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Ethiopia and Afghanistan.
The United States Treasury Department sharply criticized the proposed expansion, which extended to four American jurisdictions: American Samoa, the United States Virgin Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico.
The European Union said Thursday that its members had unanimously rejected the list on the grounds that it had not been produced “in a transparent manner that incentivized states to take decisive action” and had not respected their right to be heard.
European Union officials, cited by Reuters, said that Saudi Arabia had threatened to cut off lucrative contracts to European arms manufacturers and that King Salman had written to European Union leaders asking them to reverse course.