Friday, October 23, 2020
Richard Branson, Founder, Virgin Group
Jay Walder, CEO, Virgin Hyperloop
Dear Sir Richard Branson and Mr. Jay Walder,
We write to you as a coalition of organizations dedicated to advancing human rights and ethical business practices. We are deeply troubled by the participation of the Virgin Group and Virgin Hyperloop in the Saudi Arabian government’s Future Investment Initiative on January 21, 2021. We urge you to withdraw from the Future Investment Initiative and to publicly demand that the Saudi monarchy end its human rights crimes.
Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record has been widely documented. As an absolute monarchy without any form of meaningful democratic representation, the Saudi government has a long record of silencing reformers, imprisoning human rights advocates, and shutting down the very voices that are crucial for building an open society where new ideas and innovation can thrive. Not only that, but the Saudi government has brought misery to populations across the Middle East and North Africa. The Saudi government continues to prosecute its devastating war in Yemen, and it has staged multiple interventions against democracy in Bahrain, Egypt, Sudan, and Libya. Saudi Arabia’s brutal record has only intensified since Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince in 2017.
Saudi Arabia’s government has used international convenings like the G20 “Business 20” and the Future Investment Initiative to hide its many human rights crimes behind a wall of global public relations. However, widespread revulsion at the Saudi government’s record has led to a dramatic rejection of these tactics this year:
- The UN General Assembly has just voted to reject Saudi Arabia’s candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council.
- The European Parliament has formally called on European Union leaders not to attend the Saudi-hosted G20 this year.
- Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti have all chosen to boycott or withdraw from the Saudi G20 “Urban 20” mayors’ convening.
- 45 Members of the U.S. Congress have signed a letter urging the U.S. government not to attend the Saudi G20 unless the Saudi government embraces dramatic human rights reforms.
- Amnesty International, CIVICUS, Transparency International, Human Rights Watch, and hundreds more organizations worldwide have declared that they would not attend the Saudi-hosted G20 “Civic 20” gathering of nongovernmental organizations.
- Prominent women’s rights advocates have dropped out of the Saudi G20 “Women 20” convening.
We urge you to withdraw from Saudi Arabia’s “Future Investment Initiative” and abide by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These UN principles provide that businesses should “avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities, and address such impacts when they occur” and “seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.” Saudi Arabia’s repressive government bans independent civil society and uses international convenings to falsely posture otherwise. Your business should not contribute to the Saudi government’s public relations campaigns or the human rights crimes that are whitewashed as a result.
Before Saudi Arabia’s government can be considered an appropriate host for any international convening, the Saudi government should take the following immediate steps towards reform:
End the Saudi-led War in Yemen:
Saudi Arabia has bombed, blockaded, starved, and slaughtered thousands of Yemeni civilians in its war in Yemen. Yemen’s healthcare system is now decimated, giving rise to a lethal spread of the coronavirus pandemic across the Yemeni population. Saudi Arabia must end its war in Yemen.
Tell the Truth About the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi:
Saudi Arabia has failed to provide any meaningful accountability for the murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey by Saudi government agents in October 2018. A recent trial in Saudi Arabia regarding Khashoggi’s murder was described by Amnesty International as a “whitewash.” Saudi Arabia must accept an independent international criminal investigation into his murder.
Release Human Rights Advocates from Prison:
Saudi Arabia must stop imprisoning, torturing, and killing advocates for human rights and political reform. The government must release Islamic scholar Salman Alodah, aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, the imprisoned members of the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA), and all prisoners of conscience.
Free Women’s Rights Activists and Stop Violating Women’s Rights:
Saudi Arabia must release imprisoned women’s rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi, Naseema al-Sada, Nouf Abdulaziz, and Maya al-Zahrani, as well as imprisoned men who have advocated for women’s rights. Charges must also be dropped against all women’s rights advocates.
Saudi Arabia should abolish the male guardianship system, as well as the laws that discriminate against women or give husbands absolute control over their lives. Saudi Arabia should reform its domestic violence law, including to make clear that marital rape is a crime.
Abolish the Death Penalty:
Saudi Arabia is among the countries carrying out the highest number of executions in the world. 2019 witnessed the largest number of executions in recent Saudi history, with 185 individuals executed. The Saudi authorities apply the death penalty for a wide range of non-violent offences that do not meet the international threshold of “most serious crimes,” including drug-related crimes and apostasy.
Allow Independent Media and Journalists to Report Freely:
Saudi Arabia permits no independent media and is one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists. The government regularly jails those who express critical thoughts on social media. The number of journalists and citizen-journalists in detention has tripled since the start of 2017, and 26 journalists were imprisoned by Saudi Arabia as of 2019.
Abolish the Sponsorship System of Modern-Day Slavery:
Under Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship (“kafala”) system, foreign workers face significant risks of abuse and even conditions amounting to forced labor and modern-day slavery. This system also applies to foreign spouses, who have been trapped in Saudi Arabia against their will.
Embrace Religious Freedom:
Foreigners comprise 30 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population, but Saudi Arabia does not allow public worship by non-Muslims. The Saudi government represses and discriminates against its Shia Muslim minority, and the government beheaded 37 individuals, the majority of whom were Shia, in a 2019 mass execution.
Stop Driving the Climate Crisis:
State-owned Saudi Aramco is the world’s largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions among corporate fossil fuel producers. Saudi Arabia also has an extensive record of undermining global climate negotiations. Saudi Arabia must end its climate obstruction and commit to a dramatic reduction in its fossil fuel exports.
Stop Intervening Against Democracy:
Saudi Arabia has blocked democracy movements and advanced dictatorships across the Middle East and North Africa, including in Libya, Bahrain, Sudan, and Egypt.
Businesses, organizations, and governments must demand dramatic changes to Saudi Arabia’s dismal record of human rights violations, repression, war, and environmental destruction. Businesses invited to participate in the Saudi-led G20, Future Investment Initiative, or other proceedings should withdraw from these events and commit to making human rights reforms a condition of all future dealings with Saudi Arabia’s government.
Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain
Clearinghouse on Women’s Issues
Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN)
Demand Progress Education Fund
European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights
Feminist Majority Foundation
Health Alliance International
Massachusetts Peace Action
MENA Rights Group
Raytheon Anti-war Coalition, MA
Students for Yemen
WNY Peace Center
Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation