Saudi Executions: Beyond the Numbers

Every nation that proclaims the rule of law at home must respect it abroad and every nation that insists on it abroad must enforce it at home.

- Kofi Annan

On 2 January 2016, Saudi Arabia executed 47 individuals accused of terrorism, in what Human Rights Watch (HRW) called a "shameful start to 2016." Among the 47 men was a prominent Shi'a cleric who was convicted, according to both Amnesty International and HRW, for his non-violent opposition to the Saudi regime. In addition, MiddleEastEye reported that "prisoners arrested when they were children and others suffering from mental illness" were among those executed.

In dealing with the repercussions of the executions, many pro-Saudi commentators were quick -- and correct -- to draw attention to the fact that Iran executes more people on an annual basis, as documented by Amnesty's annual review of the death penalty worldwide.

Hence, the tu quoque argument was put to good political use, as it is usually enough in political polemics to point out the opponent's double standards in order to weather the storm of criticism in relation to controversial affairs or in dealing with "bad press."

For Iran and its proponents, the main issue was that of the unjust killing of a religious figure whose only fault was to call for a greater voice for the disenfranchised Shi'a minority in the Kingdom. Also, his reported principled defense (transcending the Sunni-Shi'a divide) of any victim or oppressed group -- including in Syria -- was further evidence for some that he was a prisoner and martyr of conscience and not a terrorist.

On both issues -- the death penalty and unjust criminal proceedings for political dissidents -- the two regional rivals have a dismal record. And this comment does not seek to get into the "who is better or worst" argument -- an argument that is conducted on a daily basis by both countries' officials, as well as by the 'more of a royalist than the king/ruler' pundits who present their reasons as to why either Saudi Arabia or Iran is the true backer of moderation and people's concerns in the region.

Rather, the interest here is in exposing the danger to the culture of the "rule of law," which is undermined ever more deeply by the recent Saudi executions and by the reactions we have seen thereto.

The "rule of law" is an all-encapsulating term for the values of freedom, democracy, equality and non-discrimination. It can be defined, as we see in UN documents, reports and resolutions, as follows:

The rule of law involves adherence to a principle of governance whereby all persons... including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced... and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards. It requires...equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in the application of the law...avoidance of arbitrariness, and procedural and legal transparency.

In this light, the benchmark for a state's action should be the extent to which the "rule of law" is upheld, especially in terms of the laws being "consistent with international human rights norms and standards." This emphasis is important to avoid any confusion between the "rule of law" and "national laws," which may or may not be consistent with human rights norms.

The executions should be an issue that goes far beyond the "tit for tat" arguments we have seen thus far in the press. If indeed the purpose of the Arab uprisings was/is to express popular dissatisfaction with autocratic regimes and to call for greater freedoms and participation in public life, the inability to recognize an affront to the rule of law reveals our region's dire state of affairs, politically, morally and intellectually.

It is an unfortunate reminder of our region's devotional partisanship to either Iran or Saudi Arabia that we do not have a wide condemnation of abuses, wherever they occur, and whoever the alleged perpetrator is. Political researcher Ziad Majed piercingly noted that "we have a public that increasingly only cares about the confessional identity of the killer and the victims whenever it is confronted with killings, repression, and aggression." I had similarly written in an earlier piece regarding selective grief and solidarity that people in the Arab region

Could care less about the plight of victims from other sects or from opposing political parties...each side seems to only care about the crimes committed by the opposing parties domestically, and regionally. In Syria, media and individual solidarity is dependent on whether one supports Saudi Arabia or Iran, and in turn Assad or his opponents.

The ability to maintain a critical eye and the ability to criticize the ruler -- even if one has voted for him/her -- is a hallmark of democratic societies. It is the ability to call for accountability for a wrongdoing, even if the perpetrator is the head of the state him/herself.

Freedom is the ability to speak out, including against the ruler, according to one's opinions and beliefs, even -- and especially -- if those opinions and beliefs run counter to the ruling class or majority opinion.

This is a crucial point for our societies. Let us not get lost in an argument about who executes more or fewer individuals every year, as if a lower ranking signals an achievement of sorts for us to take pride in. Instead, our concern should be whether the vision and struggle for a free pluralist democratic Middle Eastern region is strengthened or undermined by the recent executions.

And until we are able to assess such situations without a near-automatic resort to the tu quoque argument, i.e. that the other side also kills individuals, or that the other side kills more individuals every year, we remain completely disconnected from the people's rightful chants for dignity, life, social justice, freedom, and an end to autocratic political regimes who rule with no regard for human lives and individual freedoms.

This is an abridged version of an article that was originally published on openDemocracy.