Human rights abuses run rampant in many parts of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is often considered one of the strictest religious states and largest human rights abusers in the world. Despite this reputation, Saudi Arabia announced it would be sponsoring a discussion at the UN on religious tolerance starting November 12, 2008. Islam is the official religion in Saudi Arabia, with law requiring all citizens to be Muslim, and strictly prohibiting any non-Muslim worship, dress or goods which contradict Islam. Non-Muslims risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation and sometimes torture or even death for these crimes. Customs officials routinely open mail and shipments to search for contraband, which includes Bibles or non-Muslim religious materials. Women face incredible discrimination in law, with what has been called a “gender apartheid” system. By law, two women’s testimony is equal to one man’s in court. They are not allowed to drive a car, a bicycle or a motorbike, or be in a car with a non-related male. They are not allowed to vote, have separate buses, entrances, booths or areas in restaurants. They face more difficult and stringent divorce procedures, separate workplaces, and a law which permits polygyny for men. Women are to wear an abaya or headscarf or face possible arrest. Virtual slavery exists in Saudi Arabia, often South Asian “maids” lured with promises of high pay. These abuses are all in contradiction to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and are continually ignored by international governments who make no real move to sanction the government for its abuses.
Israel is another major human-rights abusing government in the Middle East. Despite having a majority self-identified secular population (51%), Israel is also a strict religious state. Civil marriage is forbidden in Israel and taxes fund religious seminaries whose students avoid military service. The Israeli army routinely blockades humanitarian aid to occupied territory, worsening an already desperate situation. Israeli authorities restrict movements of the population, including refusing to grant permission for fatally ill children and their parent(s) to enter East Jerusalem for treatments not available in the Gaza strip. They have also been accused of forcibly evicting asylum-seekers and migrants from Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia without an appeals process, sending many of these people back to torture, abuse or death. The authorities have locked down Gaza and cut it off from the outside world, even forbidding students to leave the country for educational purposes granted by international scholarships.
The list of abuses is incredibly extensive, but clouded with much propaganda. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was drafted in 1948 as a statement of objectives to be pursued by governments, and in these 60 years since signing, little progress has been made in ensuring the ratification of these basic human rights universally. Saudi Arabia was one of the abstaining countries from the signing of the UDHR, and Israel had not yet formed, but even signing states (such as Canada) have ignored aspects they find contrary to their practices. The UDHR is an important document that needs to be reviewed by the international community and should be a basis for international laws to protect the people of the world. These declarations and conventions are useless unless they have enforcement and ratification capabilities. International institutions such as the UN need to be restructured so that human rights abuses will actually be punished, and so that progress can be made towards positive peace in the world.