Saudi Arabia under fire at UN over women's, migrant workers rights

GENEVA (REUTERS) - Saudi Arabia's rights record came under fire at the United Nations on Monday, with critics accusing the kingdom of jailing activists without due process and abusing the basic rights of Saudi women and foreign workers.

At the UN Human Rights Council, Britain called for abolition of the Saudi system of male guardianship for women and was joined by the United States in raising cases of forced labour imposed on migrant workers.

The US delegation also voiced concern at Saudi restrictions on freedoms of religion and of association, while Germany called for a moratorium on its use of the death penalty.

"Many countries have problematic records, but Saudi Arabia stands out for its extraordinarily high levels of repression and its failure to carry out its promises to the Human Rights Council," Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement to the meeting.

Saudi Arabia, which hosts 9 million foreign workers out of a total population of 28 million, was taking all steps needed to protect their rights and provide appropriate conditions, said Bandar bin Mohammed Al-Aiban, president of the Saudi Human Rights Commission.

They included a ban on outdoor work in the heat between mid-day and 3 p.m. from June to August, when temperatures are usually higher than 40 degrees Celsius and can soar to 50 degrees.

"With regard to women's rights, the Islamic Sharia (law) guarantees fair gender equality and the state's legislative enactments do not differentiate between men and women," he said.

Saudi women were full citizens able to dispose of their property and manage their affairs without seeking permission from anyone, he said.

Britain said more women should be placed in positions of authority and the Saudi government should end the guardianship system.

The rules restrict women's legal rights in marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, property ownership and decision-making in the family, as well as choice of residency, education and jobs, UN experts have said previously.

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