For many, Saudi Arabia finally went too far. Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi went missing after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul; reports suggest he may be dead. Pundits who gave Mohammed bin Salman—Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, also known as MbS—a chance to prove his reformist credentials have become critical. In the midst of all this, a commissioner of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom—(USCIRF) a government-affiliated human rights watchdog—announced…that Saudi Arabia is making great progress on protecting religious freedom? At first glance, this is confusing, but it may be an indication of the powerful role of strategic framing and policy gatekeepers in eroding international norms.
In “Bono made Jesse Helms cry,” international relations scholar (and permanent Duck of Minerva contributor) Joshua Busby discussed the dynamics through which activists can influence states’ foreign policy; his article also inspired the title for this post. Activists can intensify the appeal of their moral arguments by strategically framing their campaigns to match the cultural value of targets. And when they specifically target “policy gatekeepers,” who provide direct access to the relevant policymaking tools, their appeals can change states’ behavior.
Most assume this dynamic is a positive one, a way for activists to spread altruistic ideas and get states to adopt them. But what if it could be used by states themselves to undermine human rights norms?
It’s the weekend, so it’s time for the third edition of “Tweets of the Week.” My twitter feed was again filled with some interesting micro-blogging.
By the way, I apologize for the way last week’s home page post looked. Obviously, I’m doing something wrong with the images, though it seems to be fine once the reader clicks the link to Continue Reading. I hope readers can see the image at the top of this page. Continue reading
Daniel Howden’s piece in The Independent yesterday describes the ongoing furor over the sentencing of a gang-rape victim in Saudi Arabia to 200 lashes for speaking out about the crime. The 19-year old victim was originally sentenced to 90 lashes for being with a non-related male; the sentence was increased because she spoke out to the Saudi media during her appeal.
The fact that the Saudi government is now reviewing the case is a testament to the “boomerang effect” described in Keck and Sikkink’s classic book Activists Beyond Borders.
However, Howden writes:
“The Western world has expressed outrage – which has, in turn, provoked anger among the Saudi establishment… Prince Saud al-Faisal was forced, much to his annoyance, to answer hostile questions about her case at the Middle East peace talks in Annapolis this week. ‘What is outraging about this case is that it is being used against the Saudi government and people,’ he told reporters.”
There is a slight but important mischaracterization here: there is no one monolithic “Saudi establishment.” In fact, while elements within the Justice Ministry are engaged in a defamation campaign against the victim, the Foreign Ministry has distanced itself from the ruling. Prince al-Faisal’s remarks in Annapolis were not meant to suggest that international outrage is misplaced per se (he is also outraged, it seems), but that the West is mistakenly targeting all of Saudi law and culture, rather than (appropriately) calling out a specific failure of justice.
(Responses to Howden’s article posted on the Agonist frankly bear out Faisal’s point. Says one blogger: “I say… invade Saudi Arabia!”; another: “mysogynistic and gynophobic barbarian scum.”)
The difference Faisal speaks of may make little sense in the big picture, but it matters enormously in this particular case: how one appeals for victims of abuse can be as important as whether one does.
If the point is not simply to be right, but to be effective, citizens who wish to protect this woman should call the Saudi embassy and speak respectfully to the government’s interests and values rather than denigrating Islamic law and Saudi tradition per se. For more on how to pitch such appeals effectively, see these suggestions by Diodotus on Elected Swineherd.