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Saudi Arabia and the G20: how much progress has been made on human rights?

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When Saudi Arabia announced last year it would become the first Arab nation to assume the presidency of the G20, Riyadh touted it as a reflection of the kingdom’s “role and influence on the global stage”.

With Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reeling from the diplomatic crisis triggered by the grisly murder of veteran journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents, the G20 presidency was a chance to showcase the young royal’s radical plans to revamp the kingdom and to rehabilitate his image.

But the authorities were also aware that its hosting of this weekend’s summit would bring scrutiny on the heir apparent’s leadership, human rights record and an archaic judicial system. Since it took over the G20 presidency late last year, there have been a string of changes which have been welcomed even as activists say deeper reforms are needed.

“For Saudi authorities the G20 Summit is critical: it is a moment for them to promote their reform agenda to the world, and show their country is open for business. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s real reformers are behind bars,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for the Middle East and north Africa.

The G20 presidency “helped” create impetus for human rights reform, a senior Saudi official said, stressing that they were already part of Prince Mohammed’s plans to overhaul the kingdom. “No question, hosting the G20 has enabled us to have an anchor to push things through,” he said.

This year, Riyadh has abolished the death sentence for minors or people convicted while minors and banned public floggings. Saudi courts have also issued landmark rulings asserting women’s rights to live independently and marry without the approval of their male guardians.

In recent weeks, the government said it would end its kafala system, which has prevented foreign workers from switching jobs or leaving the kingdom without their employers’ permission. Rights groups have criticised this system as being akin to indentured labour.

Saudi Arabia was left reeling from the diplomatic crisis triggered by the grisly murder of veteran journalist Jamal Khashoggi © Ozan kose/AFP/Getty
The Saudi Ministry of Labour introduced laws stopping construction work in sun-exposed conditions © Fayez Nureldine/AFP

“Saudi Arabia’s human rights reforms are making history,” Awwad al-Awwad, president of the state’s Human Rights Commission said on Twitter last month. “Continuously growing and evolving at a pace previously unheard of.”

But activists have used the summit — which is being held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic — to intensify attention on Prince Mohammed’s autocratic rule and the detention of scores of activists, bloggers, businessmen, academics and journalists.

Waves of crackdowns have continued. Hundreds of activists remain in prison, according to human rights groups. One veteran activist died in custody this year and another writer died shortly after he was released.

An activist holds a placard in front of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Jakarta during a protest against the execution of an Indonesian migrant worker for murder © Darren Whiteside/Reuters
Women are now allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia following years of campaigning by female activists © Sean Gallup/Getty

And while the decision to end the execution of minors was welcomed, Amnesty International said Saudi authorities put 184 people to death last year, the highest number the group has recorded in a single year in the country.

“No one should believe the hype on Saudi Arabia — everyone needs to understand they’ve been cracking down hard on human rights under the crown prince’s authoritarian rule,” said Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s director.

A US-based Saudi activist also questioned the effectiveness of the reforms. “If we see reforms going while existing issues remain untouched, it means they are not effective,” the activist said. “We still hear about people being arrested and dying in prison.”

This month, Baroness Helena Kennedy, a member of Britain’s House of Lords, presented a report to the UK parliament urging leaders to boycott the G20 summit “because of the continued unlawful detention and torture of women’s rights activists”.

Leading international NGOs boycotted meetings with Riyadh in the run-up to the G20, because participating would lend legitimacy to a country “trying to whitewash its dire human rights record”.

The mayors of London, Paris, New York and Los Angeles also boycotted a G20 meeting chaired by the kingdom after pressure from human rights campaigners. And the European parliament voted to downgrade its attendance at the summit and urged the EU to do the same.

Activists have focused on the detention of prominent female activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul and Nassima Al-Sadah who have been detained for more than two years after campaigning for an end to ban on women’s driving. Underscoring the paradox of Prince Mohammed’s rule, he announced that women would be allowed to drive just weeks after the activists’ arrest as part of social reforms that have transformed the lives of many young Saudis. 

Relatives of the detainees and human rights groups dismiss allegations that they worked with foreign entities to “undermine the kingdom’s security” and have accused the authorities of torture. The government denies allegations of torture.

People briefed on the government’s plans say more change is afoot. The kingdom is considering ending the use of the death penalty for drug-related offences, they said. The public prosecutor is also reviewing death penalties issued against three men, including the nephew of a prominent Shia cleric.

But, no matter what announcements come out of Riyadh, human rights advocates remain sceptical. “Criminal justice reform is important, but Saudi Arabia also needs to begin the hard work of reforming and professionalising the entire justice system so that all Saudi citizens and residents have confidence that they will receive a fair trial,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.



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Toyota faces Thai bribery probe over tax dispute

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Toyota is under investigation in Thailand over allegations that consultants hired by the world’s largest carmaker tried to bribe local officials in a tax dispute, according to Thai authorities, court documents and a person with knowledge of the matter.

The probe followed a filing last month in which Toyota revealed that it had reported “possible anti-bribery violations” related to its Thai subsidiary to the US Department of Justice and Securities Exchange Commission.

Toyota is one of the biggest foreign investors in Thailand, where it makes a large range of cars, vans and pick-up trucks for the local market and for export. The country is Toyota’s biggest manufacturing hub in south-east Asia. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, car sales had been strong in a market, where it has a 31 per cent share.

This month, Thailand’s Court of Justice said in a statement that it would take action against any of its judges found to have taken bribes. The statement, which the court described as a move to “clarify facts” in a news report on a foreign website, directly referenced a tax dispute involving Toyota.

“If the Court of Justice has received information or explicitly found that any judge committed an act of corruption to their duty, whether it is about bribery or not, the Court of Justice will resolutely investigate and punish any action which dishonours judges, undermines the neutrality of the court, or causes society [to] lose faith in the Thai justice system,” it said.

According to the court, the case involved a tax dispute worth Bt10bn ($320m) between Toyota Motor Thailand and tax authorities over imports of parts for its Prius hybrid model. 

The affair dates back to 2015, when Toyota’s Thai subsidiary was accused by local customs authorities of understating taxes by claiming that the imported Prius vehicles were assembled from completely knocked down kits, or imported parts that were later assembled in Thailand.

CKDs would have been subject to a discounted tax rate under a Japanese-Thai free trade agreement, but if the cars were fully assembled before being imported they would have attracted a much higher rate. 

Toyota appealed against a decision by customs authorities to impose a higher duty in 2015, but lost. 

Thailand’s Court of Justice has said that it had accepted a petition to review the case, but had not yet begun hearing it.

In its regulatory filing last month, Toyota warned that the US investigations regarding its Thai subsidiary could result in civil or criminal penalties, but the company has not disclosed any detail on the allegations.

In a statement, Toyota said it was co-operating with the investigations and declined to comment on the tax dispute in Thailand. “We take any allegations of wrongdoing seriously and are committed to ensuring that our business practices comply with all applicable government regulations,” it said.

The SEC and the DOJ declined to comment.



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Boris Johnson cancels India trip after Covid cases surge in country

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UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s trip to India this month has been cancelled as the country battles a new variant and a surge in coronavirus cases that is overwhelming hospitals.

A joint statement by the British and Indian governments said the decision to scrap the visit scheduled for next week was prompted by the “current coronavirus situation”.

The trip, during which Johnson had hoped to discuss the prospects of a closer trading partnership with India, was initially planned to run for four days but had been scaled back. The two leaders will speak remotely instead, with plans to meet in person later this year.

The cancellation came as India’s capital city region has been put under lockdown and authorities have prohibited the use of oxygen except for essential services, as the country battles a surge in coronavirus cases that is overwhelming hospitals.

India continues to set single-day records of coronavirus cases, reporting more than 273,000 new infections and 1,619 deaths on Monday, with the number of new cases growing by an average of 7 per cent a day, one of the fastest rates in any big country.

The surge is believed to be linked to a new B.1.617 variant that was first discovered in the country.

British health officials are investigating whether the variant should be reclassified from a “variant under investigation” to a “variant of concern” following the discovery of 77 cases in the UK.

“To escalate it up the ranking we need to know that it’s increased transmissibility, increased severity, or vaccine-evading, and we just don’t have that yet, but we’re looking at the data on a daily basis”, Dr Susan Hopkins, a senior medical adviser at Public Health England, said on Sunday.

Officials in Delhi announced it would impose a strict lockdown for a week, following Mumbai and other cities that have already placed curbs on movement.

States are running short of beds, drugs and oxygen, leading the central government to restrict use of the gas. “The supply of oxygen for industrial purposes by manufacturers and suppliers is prohibited forthwith from 22/04/2021 till further orders,” the central government said.

Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi, said “oxygen has become an emergency” in the region because its quota had been diverted to other states. He warned there were “less than 100 ICU beds” available.

The new restrictions have been imposed even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata party have hosted huge political rallies and allowed religious festivals attended by tens of thousands of maskless people in recent weeks.

Amit Shah, India’s home minister, told the Indian Express newspaper that he was “concerned” about the variant and the “surge is mainly because of the new mutants of the virus”. But he was “confident we will win” over the disease and said there was not yet a need to impose a national lockdown.

Bed shortages in India have forced authorities to re-establish emergency coronavirus hospitals in banquet halls, train stations and hotels that had been shut down following the previous peak in September. Crematoriums in the state of Gujarat and Delhi are running 24 hours a day, while cemeteries are running out of burial spaces.

Coronavirus patients have also been struggling to access medicines. More than 800 injections of remdesivir, an antiviral drug commonly used in India as part of Covid-19 treatment, were stolen from a hospital in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, at the weekend.

India is also facing a vaccine supply crunch and has frozen international exports of jabs to meet domestic demand. New Delhi pledged on Friday to increase monthly production of Covaxin, a vaccine made by Indian manufacturer Bharat Biotech, to 100m from 10m by September. The government also said last week that it would fast-track the approval of foreign vaccines in an attempt to boost supply and cleared Russia’s Sputnik V for use in the country.

The majority of the more than 120m Indians that have been vaccinated have received the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab manufactured by Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest manufacturer. The Serum Institute has struggled to increase its monthly capacity of more than 60m doses a month due to a fire at its plant earlier in the year and equipment supply shortages from the US.

Additional reporting by John Burn-Murdoch in London





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The limits of China’s taming of tech

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The record fine handed out this month to Alibaba, the Chinese ecommerce giant, was a welcome step toward combating anti-competitive behaviour. The $2.8bn penalty put Alibaba and other tech companies on notice that creating siloed fiefdoms designed to trap customers and merchants within their ecosystems will not be tolerated.

It was addressing a longstanding problem. Many of China’s ecommerce companies operate “walled gardens” that prevent interactions with rival platforms. For example, Alibaba’s Taobao ecommerce app keeps users from paying for goods using the payment app of rival Tencent. Tencent’s social media app, WeChat, prevents clips from being shared directly from ByteDance’s video-sharing app. 

Last week China’s internet and market regulators signalled the seriousness of their intent. They gave tech companies one month to fix anti-competitive practices, telling them to conduct “comprehensive self-inspections” and “completely rectify” problems, following which they would need to publicly promise to abide by the rules. The aim is create a commercially open and competitive internet.

It is tempting to argue that regulators in the west could take a leaf out of China’s book. But to hold China up as an example of competitive best practice would be to ignore the elephant in the room. Although Beijing is giving its monopolistically-minded internet companies — which are almost all private enterprises — a rap on the knuckles, it shows no sign of applying the same standards to vast swaths of the economy that have been dominated by state-owned giants for decades. 

The market dominance of these behemoths of state capitalism is an issue that affects not only domestic competitors but also foreign multinationals that operate in China. A trenchant joint paper last week from the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, and the Rhodium Group, a consultancy, took aim at the increasingly unfair advantages that this system gives China.

While it is true that China has opened up sectors such as financial services to foreign capital in recent years and allowed foreign brands to win market share in luxury goods and pharmaceuticals, broad sectors of the economy remain fully or partially closed or to overseas investors. 

Often the barriers erected to block or stymie competition are informal. Authorities can deliberately favour domestic companies in public procurement, are more ready to grant approval for licenses, subject foreign firms to arbitrary inspections or require them to re-engineer products to meet idiosyncratic domestic standards.

Such drawbacks are not new. But they are taking on an extra urgency as Chinese companies become leaders in an increasing number of industries and the country’s technological prowess draws level with the US and Europe in a list of industries. The key problem now, says the ECFR/Rhodium report, is that Chinese multinationals are using the advantage of a protected home market to build up resources that they then deploy in competition with western counterparts abroad.

This sets the scene for friction. China should extend its anti-monopolistic scrutiny from its own privately owned internet companies to several state-dominated sectors of its economy, taking care to open to foreign multinationals as much as domestic competitors. If it decides against doing this — as is likely — it will be furnishing Europeans and Americans with ammunition to argue against extending access to Chinese corporations in their own markets.



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