King Abdullah, since he took over in August, has repeatedly sought to send out the message that the kingdom is keen to embrace meaningful and far-reaching reforms in all areas. Abdullah has always been known as a no-nonsense leader who while remaining loyal to the country’s strong Islamic roots and traditions, would want to see Saudi Arabia more in tune with the realities of changing times. Now that he is in charge, the new leader has got that opportunity to initiate the much-needed and awaited changes.
The formation of the Human Rights Commission is clearly one such change. Although set up by a royal decree, the government has emphasised that the rights watchdog will be a completely independent body. And rightly so. If the rights agency has to play its role effectively and contribute to the protection of human rights in the kingdom, it must remain truly and completely independent. It must not end up as yet another appendage of the Establishment as has been the case with many countries in the region.
Let us face it. It’s hardly a secret that Saudi Arabia has in recent times — at times without justification —drawn unwelcome media attention on account of alleged rights violations in the country. The kingdom is routinely panned in the Western media for neglecting rights issues, especially of foreign workers like maids. Of course, often these charges are exaggerated. Nonetheless, the government cannot afford to ignore these concerns. In fact, no country today can afford to neglect these basics when popular consciousness and awareness about human rights is so widespread. Which is not to say, Saudi Arabia or for that matter any other country should pay attention to rights because the world is today more sensitive to civil liberties.Rights should be protected because it’s in the respect for fundamental rights that a society reveals its character. A just society is based on respect for the rights of all its members —men and women, rich and poor, the powerful and weak. Besides, Islam, the religion of peace and justice, which is the source of Saudi Arabia’s strength and is in fact its essential identity, firmly believes in equality of men and celebrates human rights. The setting up of Human Rights Commission is therefore a welcome step. Saudi Arabia has a long way to go, though.
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