Interview, Christoph Wilcke – Human Rights Watch

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1.    Could you state your name, profession, and country? If your country of origin is different from the one you currently reside in please elaborate.
My name is Christoph Wilcke, and I am a senior researcher for Saudi Arabia for Human Rights Watch. My country of origin is Germany and I currently reside here.

2.    I know that you work for Human Rights Watch. What exactly is it that you do?
I am a researcher which means that I document human rights violations and then engage in rectifying these violations, including by making our findings available to the public. We like to engage directly with the government when these issues surface, but in Saudi Arabia specifically that is very difficult because they don’t allow us access to the country.

3.    How long have you been doing this? How and why did you get into this type of work?
I have been working for Human Rights Watch for about 6 years. For another 5 years before that I worked with NGOs that dealt with Middle Eastern issues, mostly on Palestine and Iraq, in human rights work, humanitarian issues, and conflict resolution. I got into this work because the Middle East was my academic specialization and because I feel very strongly that human rights are universal and are the appropriate framework to allow people to live a better life.

4.    Could you tell me about some of your personal accomplishments in this work? How has what you do made a difference?
In Human Rights Watch we have cases where there is an individual impact and we are able to advocate for them specifically, but other cases involve large groups of people. In Saudi Arabia, we’ve had some successes with individuals and are able to see a real difference, but with other cases we’re still working. For example, we have not been able to release Hadi al-Mutif from prison yet, but he is being re-examined at the highest level of authority so we are at least proud of that accomplishment.
There has also been some debate about human rights reform in Saudi Arabia, but little action has been done on this issue. For example, Human Rights Watch’s work on women rights identified the male guardianship system as the underlying cause that keeps women minors in their own affairs and from having a say about their own lives, but we have yet to see the amount of reform we’d like.
We have also helped shape debate on a major issue in the criminal justice system, by pointing out that Saudi Arabia lacks a penal code, a key reason for unfair trials. Nowhere is it written down what is a crime and what is not. King Abdullah has made judicial reform a major area of reform, including a plan to write a penal code. Another issue in which we identified the core problem is the sponsorship for foreigner workers that facilitates their abuse. Reform of the sponsorship system is now a major plank in every Gulf country.
At Human Rights Watch we are trying to keep Saudi Arabia honest–a difficult task because it remains a very closed country. It is an absolute monarchy and therefore there is no pressure from civil society, or subsidiary government bodies for reform. The council of ministers takes the major decisions, and even on issues where local media reporting has brought some pressure, such as domestic abuses and abuses committed by the religious police, the government has only made vague promises of reform but not instituted real change.

5.    How do you feel about the current restrictions put on women in Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia is one of the most unfriendly places on the planet for women. Due to the male guardianship laws, women are unable to make important decisions in their life. Issues such as sexual harassment are occurring in a lot of other countries, but in Saudi Arabia, the government supports policies that violate women’s rights and does not hold anyone accountable for such violations.

6.    How do you feel about the argument that these values are embedded into the Islamic religion and culture?
Now I can’t say much to the Islamic culture, but in my experience there are enough women in Saudi Arabia that argue that Islamic law them many rights that their leaders do not allow them. For example, young girls are forced into child marriages and these activists point to Islamic law that says you need the consent of both spouses to marry.

7.    We here at The Institute for Gulf Affairs are working on the No Women. No Play. campaign to pressure the International Olympic Committee to ban Saudi Arabia from the 2012 Olympic Games. This is due to the way they treat women and the illegality for them to play sports at any level. But the campaign isn’t really just about sports; it is a small effort to assist in the abolishment of the Guardianship Laws and to help women to obtain basic human rights.

What are your thoughts on this issue?
Human Rights Watch met with the International Olympic Committee that pointed to some progress for women in sports, but the question for us is whether these actions are just a public relations move or whether there is institutional change.

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