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Watching Human Rights

“My life is in real danger if I return to Saudi Arabia.”

Rahaf al-Qunun, a young Saudi woman seeking asylum in Thailand, has made it clear to the world that under no circumstances can she return to her country. The 18-year-old spent the first weekend of the new year barricaded in a Bangkok hotel, fleeing abuse by her male relatives for not strictly abiding by Muslim customs. After making her escape during a family visit to Kuwait and attempting to fly to Australia, she was held up in Thailand while connecting to her flight. Her pleas for support on social media and the hashtag #SaveRahaf went viral, and the case was thrown into the international spotlight.

Pressure from the public, the Internet, and the United Nations Human Rights Watch grew, and the Thai authorities pledged to review her case thoroughly, saying that they “will not send anyone to die.” Recent news of Canadian influence raises new questions about whether Thailand’s refugee policies should be beholden to Western countries with more powerful political muscles. But the fact remains that while states may have distinct ideologies and beliefs, they are also bound by responsibilities to the international community. This responsibility compelled the government of Thailand to abide by international standards of human rights and do everything in its power to ensure the safety of Rahaf al-Qunun.

 As soon as a country decides to become part of a larger collective, it must accept the laws of the collective if it is to enjoy the benefits of association. The country enters into a contract with its fellow members, agreeing to give up some modicum of its liberty in exchange for trade opportunities, military support, or political capital. It is up to the state to determine whether the benefits of joining outweigh the sacrifices. This concept of compromise holds true for any treaty or agreement between nations. For instance, in considering a peace treaty, the losing side must weigh between total annihilation or post-war concessions. In becoming a member of the United Nations in 1946, Thailand agreed to uphold its values and laws in order to have a seat at the international table.

One of these requirements is the protection of human rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As a signatory to this critical UN document, Thailand must ensure the freedoms of “life, liberty, and security of person” and “thought and religion” described in Articles 3 and 18. These are of particular interest because Rahaf faces threats to her life and her freedom due to her religious choices.

Article 14 also grants Rahaf the “right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” Part of upholding these human rights is to prevent them from being violated further. As a result, Thailand authorities cannot simply deport her to get the “problem” off their hands—they are compelled to ensure that Rahaf is not sent to a country where these infringements can occur, such as Saudi Arabia or Kuwait.

Additionally, because Canada is also a signatory to the UDHR, the pressure it exerted on Thailand was morally and legally justifiable. The case was simply one UN member acting proactively to ensure another UN member complies with international law, with the Bangkok Canadian ambassador “pressuring the Thai government officials… to persuade the Thai government not to send her back and also to persuade other members of the diplomatic community to do more.”

To be sure, it is important to critically analyze international relations and to be wary of invasive interventions. For example, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate that even “morally-intentioned” actions may be unjustified or even suspect. But in the case of Rahaf al-Qunun, the only thing that is at stake is the life and liberty of a single woman. And that is worth protecting.

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