Saudi Arabia’s membership of the UN’s principal human rights body is to come under new scrutiny following the publication of a legal opinion by leading human rights barristers today. The opinion condemns the arrests without explanation of 61 people in September last year. It will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council, of which Saudi Arabia is one of several controversial members, including Angola, China and Cuba. 

The report, 'Shrouded in secrecy', was commissioned by 'certain families of 61 victims' following a wave of arbitrary arrests, detentions, and disappearances. Authors Lord Macdonald (former director of public prosecutions Ken Macdonald QC) and Rodney Dixon QC of Garden Court Chambers say the detentions are 'arbitrary and unlawful' and breach binding treaty commitments as well as customary international law. 

Of the 61 people arrested, about 30 are known to be still detained, Dixon said today, the whereabouts of the rest is unknown. The chambers is not revealing its clients' names for fear of reprisals, Dixon said. 

People targeted in the arrests appear to be  human rights activists, political dissidents, clerics and others merely exercising their right to free speech, Dixon said. One such was Salman Al-Awda, arrested shortly after tweeting a message hoping that the Saudi and Qatari authorities would end their dispute. He was allowed one telephone call in October but no contact since, the report says. 

Saudi Arabia was re-elected in 2016 to the 47-member UN Human Rights Council an inter-governmental body within the UN system ’responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe’.  In theory the Kingdom's membership could be suspended after a two-thirds vote in the UN General Assembly. Dixon admitted that the 'threshold is high', but that 'the evidence is there to reach the factual threshold'. A precedent is the 2011 suspension of Libya, he said. The council is due to complete a periodic review of the kingdom's human rights record in November this year. 

Theresa May will also be under pressure to raise human rights concerns at a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman expected this month.