Feminists Urge Pompeo to Withdraw U.S. from G20 Summit Hosted by Saudi Arabia

Feminists Urge Pompeo to Withdraw U.S. from G20 Summit Hosted by Saudi Arabia
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., speaks at a virtual news conference Oct. 21, to urge the U.S. to withdraw from the G20 summit in Saudi Arabia next month unless the kingdom makes dramatic changes to human rights abuses and frees women’s rights activists from prison. (Screenshot)

As the Saudi-hosted “W20” women’s summit began virtually in Riyadh on Oct. 21, two leading women in Congress joined advocates and family members of jailed Saudi dissidents to call on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to withdraw from the G20 summit unless its Saudi hosts substantively address systemic rights abuses. 

In a press briefing, U.S. Representatives Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) unveiled a letter signed by 45 Members of Congress and delivered to the Department of State calling on the Trump administration to stand up for women who are facing torture, forced separation from their children, arbitrary detention and more in Saudi Arabia. (Watch the emotional video here.)

“Today is the W20the women’s summit 20and it’s ironic, and really actually inappropriate that Saudi Arabia is leading this discussion of women’s rights because they are abusers. Saudi Arabia still maintains a male guardianship system where women’s lives are controlled by men from birth to grave, and it maintains domestic violence laws that fail to make clear that marital rape is actually a crime,” said Rep. Schakowsky “Our hope is with making the letter public and sending it to the Secretary of State that it will be clear that Americans take note of what is happening as unacceptable.”

“I could not think of a worse selection to host the G20 summit. Saudi Arabia’s government stands in stark contrast to every ideal we claim to uphold as Americans. Saudi Arabia’s brutal record has only intensified since Mohammed Bin Salman became Crown Prince in 2017 and it has been directly enabled by this administration,” said Rep. Omar, adding, “As the world’s leading democracy and purveyor of human rights, the United States should demand drastic changes to Saudi Arabia’s dismal record of human rights violations, repression, war, and environmental destruction. At the very least, we should withdraw from the Saudi-led G20 summit and commit to making human rights reforms a condition of all future dealings with Saudi Arabia government.”

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The congressional representatives were joined by Bethany Alhaidari, Areej al Sadhan and Lina AlHathloul, Saudi and U.S. women with deeply personal experiences with Saudi abuses—including family members of prisoners of conscience named in the congressional letter—in a powerful endorsement of the call for the U.S. to stand up for its citizens and ideals against Saudi Arabia’s attempts to use its position as G20 host to paper over its egregious record of abuses.

Bethany Alhaidari, human rights researcher, Saudi desk officer at Freedom Initiative and a U.S. citizen who was trapped in Saudi Arabia for years because her Saudi husband would not let her and her daughter leave and now may be forced to send her daughter back to the kingdom, explained:

“I went through months of struggling to be seen as fully human as a female in Saudi courts, struggling where evidence could be sworn away if the man simply stated that what I said wasn’t true. I was subject to baseless arrest warrants and a ten-year travel ban without the right to be heard in court without proper service or due process. And in July of last year, the Saudi court stripped me of custody….We escaped to Washington state in December and were granted temporary emergency jurisdiction, but I continue to literally battle for our lives as he’s seeking our return to Saudi Arabia.” 

She continued, “Our government has to call on Saudi Arabia to abolish the kafala (foreign sponsorship) system and the male guardianship system, and to end the entrapment and abuse of Saudi and American women and children, and to extend protection to women that are trapped there and to free prisoners of conscience who are being detained, tortured, and even killed just for speaking out and wanting better for the country.”

“We are not the only family who are suffering. There are a thousand other women, mothers in the Kingdom who are suffering from this separation. There are women who lost their husbands and they have to adjust their lives to take care of their children, their children who don’t know what’s going on and seeing the abuse and the torture that their families have to go through,” said a tearful Areej Sadhan, sister of Saudi humanitarian aid worker Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan, who has been detained in Saudi Arabia for three years.

She added, “During my brother’s detention and disappearance, he was subjected to severe torture, severe abuse, threats of murder and so forth. That put all of my family under a lot of stress and pain, especially the women in my family. My mom has been to the hospital several times as a result of this.

“It’s been more than eight months, and we haven’t heard from him again, even under the circumstances over the pandemic coronavirus. We’re American citizens, me and my mom, living in the United States. So I ask our government, the U.S. government and the president of the United States to take a serious stand to tackle basic human rights abuses in the Kingdom.”

A Global Campaign for Saudi Accountability

With the congressional letter, led by Rep. Schakowsky and supported by Freedom Forward and a coalition of NGOs, the 45 congressional co-signers join a growing global campaign pushing for accountability around the Saudi-hosted G20.

In recent weeks, the mayors of London, Los Angeles, New York and Paris boycotted the U20; the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to downgrade the EU’s participation in the G20; Members of Parliament in the UK filed a motion to condemn Saudi and downgrade UK’s G20 participation; and Saudi Arabia was rejected in its bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council and passed over for director general of the World Trade Organization.

And on Tuesday, Jamal Khashoggi’s widow joined with DAWN, which Khashoggi founded shortly before he was murdered, to file suit against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in a U.S. court.

“Question the situation of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. All the reforms that are happening today in Saudi Arabia will touch only people that have supportive families, because there are many other laws that contradict what the reforms are doing. So even if they are saying they are easing the male guardianship system, for other women it is still applicable. And if they stopped Loujain because she tried to help to improve the situation, they will do it again and again,” declared Alia AlHathloul, whose sister Loujain Alhathloul is currently detained in a Saudi prison, where she has been subjected to torture for her human rights work. 

She continued, “I would love to talk very positively about Saudi Arabia, but they are doing everything for the image. I would say to Saudi authorities, if you really want to have a good image, stop paying for PR campaigns and engage with your own people, listen to your own people.”

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Sunjeev Bery serves as director of Freedom Forward. Previously, Bery served as advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) at Amnesty International USA, where he lobbied U.S. officials, diplomats, and officeholders regarding human rights concerns across the MENA region; as a regional director for the American Civil Liberties Union, where his work included advocacy on post-9/11 security policies; as a public interest lobbyist on student financial aid issues in Washington, DC; and as a fundraiser for environmental and human rights organizations. His commentaries on U.S. foreign policy and human rights have appeared in a range of U.S. newspapers and publications. Bery holds a B.A. from UC Berkeley and an M.P.A. from the Harvard Kennedy School, where he was a Harvard Public Service Fellow. He is a recipient of the 2007 Asian Law Alliance Community Impact Award and has received commendations from the California State Senate and Assembly for his human rights advocacy.