Dubai, Aug 2 (AP/UNB) — Saudi Arabia published new laws early Friday that loosen restrictions on women by allowing any citizen to apply for a passport and travel freely, ending a long-standing guardianship policy that gave men control over women.
The changes are a potential game-changer for Saudi women's rights in the kingdom. The legal system has long been criticized because it treated women as minors throughout their adult lives, requiring they have a man's consent to obtain a passport or travel abroad. Often a woman's male guardian is her father or husband, and in some cases a woman's own son.
The changes were widely celebrated by Saudis on Twitter, including posting memes showing people dashing to the airport with luggage and others hailing the 33-year-old crown prince believed to be the force behind these moves. But the changes also drew backlash from conservatives, who posted clips of senior Saudi clerics in past years arguing in favor of guardianship laws.
Other changes issued in the decrees allow women to register a marriage, divorce or child's birth and to be issued official family documents. It also stipulates that a father or mother can be legal guardians of children.
Being able to obtain family documents could ease hurdles women faced in obtaining a national identity card and enrolling their children in school.
Still in place, however, are rules that require male consent for a woman to leave prison, exit a domestic abuse shelter or marry. Women, unlike men, still cannot pass on citizenship to their children and cannot provide consent for their children to marry.
Under the kingdom's guardianship system, women essentially relied on the "good will" and whims of male relatives to determine the course of their lives. There were cases, for example, of young Saudi women whose parents are divorced, but whose father is the legal guardian, being unable to accept scholarships to study abroad because they did not have permission to travel.
Saudi women fleeing domestic abuse and the guardianship system occasionally drew international attention to their plight, as 18-year-old Rahaf al-Qunun did before Canada granted her asylum. The stories of runaway women have created a flurry of negative headlines for the kingdom.
To leave the country, some Saudi women say they had to hack into their father's phone and change the settings on a government app to allow themselves permission to leave the country. There were calls in Washington for Google and Apple to block access to the app entirely.
In a lengthy study of Saudi male guardianship laws in 2016, Human Rights Watch criticized it as "system that was ripe for abuse."
The new rules, approved by King Salman and his Cabinet, allow any person 21 and older to travel abroad without prior consent and any citizen to apply for a Saudi passport on their own.
The decrees, issued Wednesday, were made public before dawn Friday in the kingdom's official weekly Um al-Qura gazette. It wasn't immediately clear if the new rules go into effect immediately.
A number of sweeping changes have been promoted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as he drives an ambitious economic reform plan that encourages more women to enter the workforce. He was behind lifting the ban on women driving last year, loosening rules on gender segregation and bringing concerts and movie theaters to the country.
He has also led a simultaneous crackdown on activists, including detaining the country's leading women's rights activists who had demanded an end to the very male guardianship rules now being curtailed. The women, among them Loujain al-Hathloul, are facing trial and allege they were tortured in prison.
The crown prince continues to face widespread international criticism over the killing of Washington Post columnist and critic Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year. Saudi Arabia has denied any involvement by the prince, while the kingdom's own investigation acknowledged the operation was planned by two of the prince's top aides.
As noted by the Saudi newspaper Arab News, the decrees outlining changes to travel are written in gender-neutral language removing prior restrictions specific to women, rather than outright stating that women no longer need male consent.
News of the changes had been teased in state-linked Saudi media for weeks, possibly to ready the public and to gauge reaction.
The ways in which the decrees were announced and the language used to announce the changes signal how sensitive these moves are among conservatives in the country. For years, state-backed preachers told the Saudi public that women should not travel longer than a night alone and that this was rooted in Islamic practice.
Other Muslim countries, however, do not have similar restrictions on women's travel.
Still, clerics in Saudi Arabia have supported the imposition of male guardianship based on a verse in the Quran that states men are the protectors and maintainers of women.
Other Islamic scholars argue this misinterprets fundamental Quranic concepts like equality and respect between the sexes.
Tehran, Aug 1 (AP/UNB) — Iran's president lambasted new U.S. sanctions by the Trump administration targeting the country's foreign minister, describing the move on Thursday as "childish" and a barrier to diplomacy.
Hassan Rouhani's remarks came after the Trump administration announced Wednesday it had imposed financial sanctions on Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as part of its escalating campaign of pressure against the Islamic Republic.
The highly unusual action of penalizing another nation's top diplomat followed President Donald Trump's executive order placing sanctions on Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"They have started doing childish things," Rouhani said in a speech in western Azerbaijan province.
"Every day they claim: 'We want to negotiate with Iran, without any pre-conditions'. and then they put sanctions on the country's foreign minister," he said.
These new sanctions come amid a spike in tensions between the U.S. and Iran. The U.S. has boosted its military presence in the Persian Gulf while Iran has begun openly exceeding limits on its nuclear activities set in a 2015 accord with world powers.
Trump withdrew the United States from that pact before imposing crippling sanctions on the country, targeting key industries like Iran's oil exports and sending its economy into free fall.
Zarif, a relative moderate within Iran's clerically overseen political system, was an architect of the nuclear deal, which offered Iran sanctions relief in exchange for internationally-monitored limits on its nuclear program.
U.S. sanctions targeting the foreign minister, however, do not inhibit Zarif's travels to New York for official United Nations business, in accordance with America's international obligations. They also have little impact on Zarif financially.
"It has no effect on me or my family, as I have no property or interests outside of Iran," Zarif himself tweeted about the U.S. move.
Jerusalem, Jul 31(AP/UNB) — The Israeli Cabinet unanimously approved a proposal to build over 700 housing units for Palestinians in addition to 6,000 Israeli settlement housing units in the West Bank.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government advanced the proposal late on Tuesday, according to an Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the closed-door meeting.
The approval appeared timed to coincide with a visit by President Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is also the White House's chief Mideast envoy.
Kushner kicked off a new regional tour in Jordan on Wednesday to promote the Trump administration's call for a $50 billion economic support plan for the Palestinians. The funds would accompany a Mideast peace proposal, which the administration has yet to release.
The Israeli permits are for construction in what is known as Area C — the roughly 60% of the West Bank where Israel exercises full control and where most Jewish settlements are located. Netanyahu's government has approved the construction of tens of thousands of settler homes there, but permits for Palestinian construction are extremely rare.
Israel captured the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek these areas as parts of a future state. Most of the international community considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal under international law and an impediment to a two-state solution to the conflict.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, responded to the Israeli decision by saying the Palestinians have the right to build on all territory occupied in 1967, "without needing a permit from anyone."
"We will not give any legitimacy to the construction of any settlement," he added.
The Western-backed Palestinian Authority has control of civilian affairs in Areas A and B, which include the West Bank's main Palestinian cities and towns.
Since capturing the West Bank and east Jerusalem in 1967, Israel has settled some 700,000 of its citizens in the two areas, which are considered occupied territory by most of the world.
Touring new construction in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, south of Jerusalem, Netanyahu said Wednesday that "not a single settlement or a single settler will ever be uprooted."
Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a religious nationalist in Netanyahu's government, wrote on Facebook that he backed the construction of Palestinian housing in Area C because "it prevents the establishment of a terrorist Arab state in the heart of the land" and asserts Israeli sovereignty over Area C.
Peace Now, an Israeli organization opposed to West Bank settlements, said in a statement that the approval of 700 housing units for Palestinians "is a mockery" because it "will not provide real answers to Palestinians who already live in Area C, and certainly will not help the entire West Bank to be developed as a Palestinian area."
Meanwhile, Kushner met with King Abdullah II on Wednesday in Amman, Jordan. The royal court issued a statement saying the king restated the need for the creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines, with east Jerusalem as its capital.
The Palestinians have rejected the Washington proposal out of hand and have cut off all contact with the Trump administration, saying its policies are unfairly biased toward Israel.
Trump's Mideast team is spearheaded by people with close ties to Israel's settler movement. The U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, recently told the New York Times that Israel has the "right" to annex some of the West Bank.
Both critics and supporters of the settlements say the White House's friendly attitude has encouraged a jump in settlement activity.
Tehran, Jul 31 (AP/UNB) — Officials from the United Arab Emirates and Iran met to discuss maritime security for the first time in six years amid a spike in tensions in the Persian Gulf, both countries confirmed on Wednesday.
The meeting is significant because the UAE and Iran are regional rivals. The UAE downgraded ties with Iran in 2016 and has long pushed for more hawkish U.S. policies toward Tehran, including supporting tough American sanctions.
The UAE and its close ally, Saudi Arabia, have also been at war against Iran-aligned rebels in Yemen since 2015. In recent weeks, though, the UAE has pulled out thousands of its troops from Yemen as it boosts security at home.
Recent confrontations in the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial oil shipping corridor, and fears of a wider conflict have prompted the UAE to call for de-escalation and diplomacy with Iran.
Four oil tankers were sabotaged off the UAE coast in May. The UAE has declined to join Washington in blaming Iran for the attacks, which Tehran denies. Earlier this month, Iran seized a British-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz in what some Iranian officials have suggested was retaliation for the seizure of an Iranian tanker by British authorities in Gibraltar.
An Emirati official said the meetings focused on issues related to border security and navigation in shared waters, describing the talks as "nothing new" and unrelated to current tensions. The official said there were periodic meetings scheduled between technical teams in both countries and this was the sixth one to take place.
The official was not authorized to discuss the talks with media and so spoke on condition of anonymity.
The state-run IRAN daily reported that a seven-member delegation from Abu Dhabi met with Iranian border and coastguard commanders in Tehran on Tuesday in the first such meeting since 2013.
Another daily, Etemad, described the meeting as an effort to boost maritime security cooperation between the two countries. It reported that the Emirati delegation met Iran's police border guard commander, Gen. Ghasem Rezaei.
Despite pursuing rival policies in the region, the UAE and Iran have maintained links. The UAE has kept its embassy in Iran open and Dubai remains a popular destination for Iranian tourists. Emirati citizens with Iranian heritage also maintain links with Iran, which operates a hospital, cultural club and school in Dubai.
Tensions in the region have soared since the Trump administration withdrew from Iran's nuclear deal with world powers last year and imposed crippling sanctions on the country. In recent months, the U.S. has boosted its military presence in the Persian Gulf while Iran has begun openly exceeding limits on its nuclear activities, saying it can no longer fully abide by the 2015 deal unless European signatories to the agreement provide some kind of economic relief.
On Wednesday, Iran dismissed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's offer to visit and address the Iranian people as a "hypocritical gesture."
"You don't need to come to Iran," Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on the sidelines of a Cabinet meeting in remarks directed at Pompeo. He suggested Pompeo instead grant visas for Iranian reporters to travel to the U.S. and interview him, accusing him of having rejected their requests.
On Monday, Pompeo had tweeted: "We aren't afraid of (Zarif) coming to America where he enjoys the right to speak freely."
"Are the facts of the (Khamenei) regime so bad he cannot let me do the same thing in Tehran?" Pompeo said, referring to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "What if his people heard the truth, unfiltered, unabridged?"
The Trump administration has said its policies are aimed at changing Iran's behavior in the region, not its government.
Zarif, a relative moderate within Iran's clerically-overseen political system, was an architect of the nuclear agreement. The U.S. and Iran cut off all diplomatic relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but the U.S. allows Iranian officials to visit the United Nations headquarters in New York.
United Nations, Jul 30 (AP/UNB) — More than 12,000 children were killed and injured in armed conflicts last year — a record number — with Afghanistan, the Palestinians, Syria and Yemen topping the casualty list, according to a new U.N. report.
The deaths and injuries were among more than 24,000 "grave violations" against children verified by the United Nations including the recruitment and use of youngsters by combatants, sexual violence, abductions, and attacks on schools and hospitals, it said.
According to Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres' annual report to the Security Council on Children and Armed Conflict obtained Monday by The Associated Press, violations by armed groups remained steady but there was "an alarming increase" in the number of violations by government and international forces compared to 2017.
The secretary-general's eagerly awaited blacklist of countries that committed grave violations against children during conflicts remained virtually unchanged from last year, angering several human rights groups.
Human Rights Watch and the Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, an international advocacy group, pointed to the Saudi-led coalition remaining on the list of parties that have put in place measures to protect children, citing a rise in child casualties by government and coalition forces in Yemen.
"The Saudi-led coalition since 2015 has committed appalling violations against children in Yemen without any evidence that it's trying to improve its record," said Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director at Human Rights Watch. "By including them once again in the 'not so bad' category of serious reformers, the secretary-general makes a mockery of the whole exercise."
Watchlist program director Adrianne Lapar said that praising "empty promises" by the coalition, also led by the United Arab Emirates, "undermines the deadly repercussions of war on children and ignores the facts on the ground."
She also asked why conflicts in Cameroon and Ukraine are "conspicuously missing from the report."
Guterres said he was "deeply concerned by the scale and severity of the grave violations committed against children in 2018, notably the record high number of casualties as a result of killing and maiming and the increase in the number of violations attributed to international forces."
According to the report, verified cases of deaths and injuries were the highest since the Security Council authorized monitoring and reporting in 2005.
Afghanistan topped the list with 3,062 child casualties in 2018, "and children accounted for 28 percent of all civilian casualties," the report said, while in Syria, air strikes, barrel bombs and cluster munitions killed and injured 1,854 youngsters "and in Yemen, 1,689 children bore the brunt of ground fighting and other offensives."
In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the U.N. said that in 2018 it verified the highest number of Palestinian children killed — 59 — and injured — 2,756 — since 2014. During the same period, six Israeli children were injured.
Guterres said he is "extremely concerned by the significant rise" in injuries, including by inhaling tear gas. He asked U.N. envoy Nikolay Mladenov to examine cases caused by Israeli forces "and urge Israel to immediately put in place preventive and protective measures to end the excessive use of force."
Jo Becker, children's rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, expressed concern that Israeli forces, U.S.-led international forces in Afghanistan, and the Afghan National Army were left off Guterres' "list of shame," and that the Somali National Army got "credit" for protecting children even though its violations increased.
According to the report, parties to the conflict in Somalia recruited and used 2,300 children, some as young as 8-years-old, with al-Shabab extremists significantly increasing their recruitment to 1,865 youngsters. Nigeria was in second place, with 1,947 children recruited, including some used as suicide bombers.
Somalia also had the highest verified figure for sexual violence against children, with 331 cases in 2018, followed by Congo with 277 cases though the secretary-general said cases remain significantly underreported, particularly against boys because of stigma. And Somalia had the highest number of child abductions last year — 1,609.
Guterres said thousands of children were also affected by 1,023 verified attacks on schools and hospitals last year.
In Syria, 2018 saw 225 attacks on schools and medical facilities, the highest number since the conflict began in 2011, he said, and Afghanistan also saw an increase with 254 schools and hospitals targeted.
"Increased numbers of attacks were also verified in the Central African Republic, Colombia, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, the Sudan and Yemen," Guterres said.
The secretary-general also expressed increasing concern at the increasing detention of children, reiterating that "this measure should only be used as a last resort, for the shortest period of time, and that alternatives to detention should be prioritized whenever possible."
In December 2018, Guterres said, 1,248 children, mainly under the age of 5, of 46 nationalities from areas formerly controlled by Islamic State extremists, were "deprived of their liberty" in camps in northeast Syria.
In Iraq, 902 children remained in detention on national security charges, including for associating with IS, he said.
And as of December, Guterres said, Israel was holding 203 Palestinian children over security offenses, including 114 awaiting trial or being tried, and 87 serving a sentence. He said the U.N. received affidavits from 127 Palestinian boys "who during interviews with the United Nations reported ill-treatment and breaches of due process during their arrest, transfer and detention."