Today at his confirmation hearing, Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of State, declined to call Saudi Arabia a human rights violator — even though global human rights groups and Trump himself have criticized the country’s record.
“When you designate someone or label someone, is that the most effective way to have progress be able to be made in Saudi Arabia or any other country?” Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, said when U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida questioned him on the matter at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, The Washington Post reports.
Perhaps there are more effective ways to encourage progress, but it’s unquestionable that Saudi Arabia has a poor record concerning the rights of LGBT people, women, and anyone who does not adhere to the ruling family’s ultraconservative interpretation of Islam.
“Saudi Arabia has no written laws concerning sexual orientation or gender identity, but judges use principles of uncodified Islamic law to sanction people suspected of committing homosexual or other ‘immoral’ acts,” Human Rights Watch notes in its 2016 report on the nation. “If such activity occurs online, judges and prosecutors utilize vague provisions of the country’s anti-cyber crime law that criminalize online activity that impinges on ‘public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy.’”
For instance, in 2014 a Saudi court sentenced a man to three years in prison for having nude photos of himself on his phone and sharing them with other men online. An appeals court upheld the sentence in 2015. Also in 2015, a Saudi school official was jailed and fined for painting rainbows on the school building because of the rainbow’s association with LGBT rights.
Judges’ discretion to enforce Islamic law, known as Sharia law, allows them to impose the death penalty for homosexuality, according to a 2015 State Department report on Saudi Arabia, although there is little information to indicate that the penalty is being used.
In his final debate with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign, Trump denounced the Clinton Foundation for accepting donations from the Saudi Arabian government.
"It's a criminal enterprise,” Trump said of the foundation run by Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton. “Saudi Arabia giving $25 million, Qatar, all of these countries. You talk about women and women’s rights? So these are people that push gays off business — off buildings. These are people that kill women and treat women horribly. And yet you take their money.”
“Of course, Trump stretched the truth and missed all nuance in his description of the Clinton Foundation and its actions,” The Advocate reported after the debate in October. The donations were made long ago, and it’s not clear that the government of either nation has imposed the death penalty on gay people. Throwing gay people, or those believed to be gay, off buildings is the work of the terrorist group ISIS, which operates in Iraq and Syria.
Still, Saudi Arabia, where Trump has done business, could do much to improve its treatment of LGBT people — and that of women, who are forbidden to drive and must have a male relative or guardian’s permission to marry, travel, obtain a passport, go to college, or exercise many other basic rights, according to Human Rights Watch. And Islam is the nation’s only recognized religion; other faiths may not hold public services, and citizens who practice a different form of Islam than the one sanctioned by the Saudi government face discrimination. So there is much reason to take issue with Tillerson’s view of the nation.