Saudi Arabia was rebuked at the UN Human Rights Council on Thursday, with 36 countries, including all 28 European Union member states, signing onto the rebuke — the first the kingdom has faced from the panel since its establishment in 2006.

“We are particularly concerned about the use of the counterterrorism law and other national security provisions against individuals peacefully exercising their rights and freedoms,” said Harald Aspelund, Iceland’s ambassador in Geneva, who read the text of the statement criticizing the kingdom’s human rights record.

The statement explicitly named individuals “detained for exercising their fundamental freedoms,” including women’s rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef, all of whom had pushed for women to have the right to drive. They were arrested in May 2018, one month before the kingdom issued its first driving licenses to women.

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet had, on Wednesday, urged the kingdom to release the activists, who were allegedly tortured.

Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor announced last week that the activists were being referred to trial, after being held for nearly a year without charges. A prosecutor’s statement did not name the women or say how many of them were being prosecuted.


Delegates attend a meeting held by the United Nations Human Rights Council on March 6 in Geneva. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

Human rights groups condemned the prosecutor’s announcement and said the activists should be released. One of the women, Hathloul, was recently asked to sign a document requesting a royal pardon, according to her sister, Alia al-Hathloul — a possible sign that the Saudi authorities intended to release some of the women, either before or after a trial.

The statement also condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post contributing columnist killed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last fall.

The initiative was led by Iceland, which came onto the council last year. Iceland was elected to the 47 member council last year, when it replaced the United States. The Trump administration pulled the United States out of the council, saying it was too hypocritical.

“Its membership includes authoritarian governments with unambiguous and abhorrent human rights records, such as China, Cuba and Venezuela. And the council’s continued and well-documented bias against Israel is unconscionable,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the time.

correction: This post has been changed to reflect that Saudi Arabia was rebuked at, not by the UN Human Rights Council.

Kareem Fahim in Istanbul contributed to this report.