The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Saudi Arabia is not a State Party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 21 of which governs the right of peaceful assembly.
The right of peaceful assembly is, though, a fundamental human right that is part of the corpus of customary international law. It is also a general principle of law.See Art. 38(1), 1945 Statute of the International Court of Justice.
At regional level, Saudi Arabia is a State Party to the 2004 Arab Charter of Human Rights. Under Article 24(6) of the Charter, every citizen has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
The 1959 Constitution of Saudi Arabia (as amended) does not explicitly guarantee the right of peaceful assembly though under its Basic Law, it is stipulated that:
The State shall protect human rights in accordance with Islamic Shari'ah.Art. 26, 2005 Constitution of Saudi Arabia.
There is no national legislation protecting the right of peaceful assembly. Indeed, the Ministry of Interior has issued a circular prohibiting assemblies altogether, and threatening to punish individuals who participate in them. Cultural and literary assemblies and other forums are also banned. Counterterrorism legislation, revised in 2017, is used to criminalise assemblies, as acts deemed to “disturb the public order.” The highest religious authority in the state, the Commission of Senior Scholars, has issued a statement declaring that assemblies are religiously prohibited as well.
Spontaneous demonstrations are not allowed. Individuals who take part in spontaneous demonstrations are subject to a range of punishments including imprisonment, flogging, and travel bans. The punishments are usually based on fatwas, or religious edicts, issued by the Commission of Senior Scholars.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the State and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and proportionate to that purpose.
According to the 2001 Law of Criminal Procedure:
A person under arrest shall not be subjected to any bodily or moral harm. Similarly, he shall not be subjected to any torture or degrading treatment.Art. 2, 2001 Law of Criminal Procedure.
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
There is no national law restricting police use of firearms during assemblies.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
Saudi Arabia is not a State Party to the ICCPR.
In the 2018 Universal Periodic Review of Saudi Arabia under the UN Human Rights Council, the right of peaceful assembly was not addressed.
Views of Civil Society
According to Freedom House's 2021 report on Saudi Arabia:
Freedom of assembly is not respected, and the government has imposed harsh punishments—including the death penalty—on those who lead or participate in public protests. Hussein al-Rabi was tried in a terrorism court for his involvement in a protest in Eastern Province, and was threatened with torture if he did not confess; al-Rabi was executed in April 2019.
According to CIVICUS:
Protests are few and far between in Saudi Arabia, where authorities have actively issued orders banning all forms of public gathering, even those aimed at promoting cultural or literary causes. These orders violate Article 24 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights (guaranteeing the freedom of peaceful assembly) to which Saudi Arabia is a [state party]. The current clampdown follows protests in 2011 by people inspired by citizen mobilisations in other parts of the Arab world at that time. Protests then were called for through social media, but were dealt with harshly by the authorities who said demonstrations violated Islamic law and the kingdom’s traditions. Small-scale protests later that year were also quickly closed down through the arrest of all participants. Notably however, some more recent protests, for instance prolonged demonstrations in the Eastern Province city of Qatif in 2014 and 2016, were not broken up by security forces. Women, whose civic freedoms are much more heavily constrained than those of men, also protested in 2011 through defiance of laws banning them from driving. The biggest protest against the driving ban took place in 2013 when 60 Saudi women protested by getting behind the wheel.