BRICS and stones

Andrew Donaldson writes on the human rights records of some of the new entrants to the club


IT’S not something that normally troubles me, but this week I have been wondering what it’s like to be stoned. 

To death, that is. 

What set me off on this morbid and perhaps cynical tangent was the great wash of optimism and smug posturing that has emerged in the aftermath of the BRICS summit and the decision by the bloc to admit six new member states in January next year. 

There has been much giddiness, especially among Africa leaders, and analysts have waffled on about seismic shifts in the geopolitical landscape. Take Zambian president Hakainde Hichilema, for instance. He has welcomed Egypt and Ethiopia’s admission to the group as a strong indication of a desire to expand African involvement in Brics, and told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle:

“We see this as a rare opportunity to address the challenges we have been talking about for a long time and on many platforms. We need to reform the global order in particular to address the inequities associated with critical ingredients to development such as capital. Africa pays a higher cost of capital than any other on the globe.”

Hichilema is not alone in this, and fair enough — such rhetoric among the continent’s ruling elite is common and a great many ordinary Africans, being the hapless citizens of beggared states and thus the victims of such inequities, believe it justified. 

But what of the decision to grant membership to Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates? How did they crack the nod? 

According to City Press, “many people” have questioned the criteria for their selection after more than 50 countries applied for membership. While the newspaper was not able to give readers answers in this regard, it “understands” that China backed Iran and Saudi Arabia, while Russia rooted for the UAE.

The benefit these newbies bring to the table is however obvious. Almost 40 per cent of the world’s oil reserves now belong to Brics countries. Their membership, along with that of Argentina, Egypt and Ethiopia, will also considerably increase the bloc’s global purchasing power; according to Brazilian president Lula da Silva, this will now be greater than that of the G7 countries. Hooray for that.

In addition to its global trading power, it seems that Brics is also emerging as a world beater in hypocrisy. In a joint declaration at the summit’s close last Thursday, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa reaffirmed a commitment to mutual respect and understanding, sovereign equality, solidarity, democracy, openness, inclusiveness, strengthened collaboration and consensus. All the usual yada yada.

In particular, the Brics leaders pledge to uphold international law, including the purposes and principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations as its “indispensable cornerstone”, to ensure the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. This noble commitment is outlined thus:

“We reiterate the need for all countries to cooperate in promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms under the principles of equality and mutual respect. 

“We agree to continue to treat all human rights including the right to development in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing and with the same emphasis. We agree to strengthen cooperation on issues of common interests both within Brics and in multilateral fora including the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council, taking into account the necessity to promote, protect and fulfil human rights in a non-selective, non-politicised and constructive manner and without double standards. 

“We call for the respect of democracy and human rights. In this regard, we underline that they should be implemented on the level of global governance as well as at national level. We reaffirm our commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.”

The point has been made, here and elsewhere, about Russia and China’s respect for democracy and human rights. But what of Saudi Arabia, Iran and the UAE in this regard? 

The short answer is that, being theocracies of medieval bent, they have no respect for human rights or democracy. None whatsoever. Which means the lofty Brics “Johannesburg II Declaration” is an essentially worthless document.

Capital punishment is legal in Saudi Arabia, Iran and the UAE. Crimes in these countries which carry the death penalty include, among others, apostasy, treason, espionage, prostitution, indecent assault, child molestation, incest, fornication, prohibited sexual relations and misconduct, rape, sodomy, homosexuality, perjury which has resulted in the wrongful death of others, espionage, drug smuggling, armed robbery, murder, terrorism, blasphemy, adultery, political dissidence, sabotage, arson, rebellion, plotting to overthrow the government, extortion, counterfeiting, smuggling, recidivist consumption of alcohol, publishing pornography or using pornography to solicit sex, dabbling in sorcery or witchcraft, spreading corruption on Earth and waging war on God.

Execution methods vary. In the UAE, the more “liberal” of the three countries and the least bloodthirsty, they favour the firing squad. 

Hanging, often in public, is preferred in Iran, the country said to execute the most people per capita (almost 500 so far this year, according to one human rights group), but firing squads are sometimes used for military or “political” crimes. According to Amnesty International, Iran has also sentenced homosexuals to death by being thrown off a cliff, a rare and unusual method of despatch but permissible in terms of Islamic law.

They also hang people in Saudi Arabia, but public beheadings are common as well. In June 2003, the kingdom’s then leading executioner, or chief chopper, was interviewed at some length about his work. Muhammad Saad al-Beshi overcame his “stage fright” soon after his first execution in 1998 and was thereafter unaffected by his duties, which sometimes involved as many as ten beheadings a day, men and women. It was God’s will, after all. “There are many people who faint when they witness an execution,” the BBC quoted Beshi as saying. “I don’t know why they come and watch if they don’t have the stomach for it.”

All three countries have sentenced people to death by stoning, the default punishment for adultery. In Saudi Arabia courts may have passed the sentence but, following appeals for clemency, these have not been carried out. In 2009, for example, two Sri Lankan nationals were sentenced to stoning for adultery, but this was reduced to 700 lashes and six years in prison. So that’s okay, then.

The courts in the UAE seldom hand down stoning sentences, but it has happened. In 2007, a man convicted of having sex with his four stepdaughters was condemned to be stoned. It’s not known whether the sentence was carried out, but the girls were sentenced to 80 lashes each even though they had been forced into the relationships.

Iran has the highest rate of execution by stoning. It’s basically death through blunt force trauma. But Iran’s penal code is very particular about the application of that blunt force.

Adulterers are first wrapped in a white cloth sack with their hands bound. Then they are buried in a hole in the ground; men up to their waists but women up to their chests. (Why this is so puzzles me. Perhaps the gender difference has something to do with modesty.)

If the conviction is based on a confession from the accused, then the presiding judge gets to throw the first stone. If, however, the conviction has been secured as a result of witness testimony, then witnesses get to throw the first stones. Then the judge, and thereafter everyone else, usually other court officials and members of the security forces. Until 2000, stonings were carried out in public, and anyone could pitch in, as it were, but following an outcry, these executions then became private affairs, often at a cemetery.

Stones must be of a “medium size”: not too big, which could result in a more hasty death, and not too small, like a pebble. “In other words,” according to a 2010 report in Slate.com, “about the size of a tangerine. The whole process takes less than an hour.”

Those who manage to escape from the hole during the stoning are permitted to go free. This however only applies to those who have confessed to their “crimes” and not those who have been convicted on the basis of witness testimony. Escape is nevertheless very difficult, what with the condemned being tied up in a sack. Because they’re buried deeper, women have no chance.

It is true that the Iranian judiciary have in recent decades made noises about dropping stoning from the penal code. But in November 2019 the International Federation for Human Rights issued a statement that stoning for adultery was still “stipulated in law” in Iran, and that “several persons are still on death-row” with a sentence of stoning, and that “in 2018, two women were sentenced to stoning”.

These, though, are the sort of people Cyril Ramaphosa and his fellow Bricsniks have shamefully chosen as partners in their bloc. It may seem terribly old-fashioned and tweely conservative, but it is possible to judge a person’s character by the company they keep. Squirrel, however, believes this is a partnership that will be a catalyst for “global growth and development that responds to the need of all nations”, one that will usher in a “world without barriers between north and south, east and west, a world in which we work together underpinned by mutual respect”.

Without wishing to be too pessimistic, I rather doubt that. It would be a good thing, I suppose, if the needs of all nations were met and a world without barriers could enjoy peace and prosperity and trees were firmly planted in town and country and what have you. But such a world is probably not going to be built with Brics. (Apologies for that.) 

For the record, I remain a degenerate Westerner, irredeemably fouled by the Great Satan and all its wicked permissiveness and liberal values. But I’m happy with that.