My arrival in the United Arab Emirates comes two-thirds of the way through a ground-breaking mission to all six Member States of the Gulf Cooperation Council, but I want to take this opportunity to give you an update on progress so far. I have completed brief but very informative visits to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain, and after a series of meetings with senior government officials and members of civil society this evening and tomorrow here in Abu Dhabi, I will continue on to Oman.
Until now, no UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had ever adopted a regional approach by visiting all six countries – in fact no High Commissioner had ever visited Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE or Oman at all. We believed that the time was ripe to strengthen our relationship with the GCC states and as a result achieve closer cooperation on human rights issues as the region goes through an important period of transformation.
So far, my hopes and expectations have been more than realized. Clearly the winds of change are blowing strongly throughout the region on a number of fronts – perhaps more strongly than we had anticipated when preparing this mission, and more strongly than many people in the outside world realize.
I have been received very warmly in all the countries I have visited so far. I had long, frank and friendly meetings with the Kings of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as well as with the Emir of Kuwait and the Heir Apparent of Qatar. I have also held important meetings with various key ministers in each of the countries visited so far, with members of national human rights institutions – in those countries where they exist – and with members of civil society.
The visits have however been very short – a mere 24 hours in most cases – so please don’t expect me to give you a full and thorough examination of the human rights situation in each country. That was not the purpose of this mission. The purpose was to gain a better understanding of current dynamics in the region in relation to human rights, including seeing where progress is occurring, and can perhaps be accelerated, as well as looking into various specific areas of concern that are common, to a greater or lesser degree, to all six countries. These issues of concern – which are laid out more fully in an address I delivered on Monday at Saudi Arabia’s first mixed university, the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology in Jeddah – include women’s rights, statelessness, the situation of migrant workers and freedom of expression, association and assembly.
Firstly, however, I would like to focus on an area of human rights that is often somewhat ignored – namely social and economic rights. The GCC countries, without exception, have in just a few decades achieved an extremely high level when it comes to social benefits, such as access to health, housing, food and education. Many of those benefits are given without discrimination, with groups such as stateless people and migrant workers generally having access to certain key services. Several states are paying particular attention to the situation of disabled persons, as I saw for myself in Saudi Arabia, where I visited an impressive learning centre for disabled children as well as a state-of-the art medical and rehabilitation facility for disabled persons.
The access to full civil and political rights for some groups, however, is more uneven, although I am reassured that considerable progress is being made, or at least actively considered, in these areas too. In all cases, the Heads of State and Ministers whom I met expressed their interest to continue progress on attaining international human rights standards. I am especially heartened by the fact that, in the four countries where I’ve held talks with the governments so far, there was agreement that human rights are not inconsistent with Islam.
Women now have access to higher education in all six countries. In fact in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait, I understand that more than half the university students are now women. The next stage, which I hope will quickly gather momentum, is to ensure that all these educated young women have access to meaningful careers.
In some countries, women have broken through many barriers. For example, Kuwait has women ministers, women ambassadors and elected female members of a very vibrant parliament. They are also active in business. But, as yet, there are no women judges. As a former judge who broke a few barriers myself, I take a particular interest in whether or not countries have women judges! Nevertheless, it is clear the Kuwaiti Government is keen to have a breakthrough in this area too, and the Constitutional Court has intervened to strike out paragraphs in draft laws that would discriminate against women, for example one that would have prevented women from acquiring passports and travelling without their husbands’ consent.
Bahrain does have women judges, as well as 10 women appointed to the 40-member upper house, and one elected to the 40-member lower house. Women are active in many other areas as well. Qatar has two female ministers and took the important step of ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women last year, albeit with reservations which I have asked the Government to consider reviewing. And last year Saudi Arabia, despite considerable internal opposition, appointed its first woman minister. It is also taking concrete actions to combat domestic violence.
Different forms of male guardianship remain a problem in some countries, and distinct strands of discrimination persist in others. Nevertheless, I have been encouraged to see significant movement taking place on women’s rights in all the four countries I have visited – albeit at different speeds and different stages of development. I urged all of them to maintain, and if possible accelerate, the pace of reform in this area.
The treatment of migrant workers was a major point of discussion in all the countries, and will also be on my agenda in UAE and Oman. The GCC region is unique in that in some countries, especially UAE and Qatar, the number of migrant workers far exceeds the number of national citizens. Many problems have arisen through a lack of protection safeguards in the so-called kafala – or sponsorship – system that leaves migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation in an unequal power relationship with their employers.
All four governments I have spoken with so far are aware of the problems, and one in particular – Bahrain – has recently abolished the kafala system and adopted a new labour law and visa system that transforms the relationship between employer and migrant worker into a proper contractual one where the worker has rights, including the right to change employer, a minimum wage and stipulation that employers cannot confiscate workers’ passports. I hope this is rigorously implemented, and that this important model can be replicated in the other GCC countries. However, in Bahrain – as well as in all the other five countries – the numerous highly vulnerable domestic workers do not yet receive anything like adequate legal protection. But, again, all the governments I have spoken to so far recognize that this needs to change.
Another important development in the region is the development of National Human Rights Institutions – an internationally supported system of official state institutions that work independently from governments to protect and promote human rights at the national level. Qatar’s national institution has already acquired the top-grade “A Status” – meaning it has satisfied a rigorous set of international standards known as the Paris Principles, as laid down by the UN General Assembly. Saudi Arabia’s national institution played a very helpful role during my visit there, and clearly has the respect of the Government. I hope it can continue to develop and gain the “A Status” before long. Bahrain and Oman have also recently created national institutions, and the Bahrain Government assured me it will take the necessary actions to enable its national institution to get up and running in the near future. I have urged Kuwait, and will be urging the UAE, to create their own “A Status” national human rights institutions, as they would play a key role in helping them to promote and protect human rights.
Civil society organizations are continuing to emerge in the region, but are still relatively few and fragile by comparison with many other countries. They are essential partners to governments in promoting positive change and proposing policy options in addition to ringing alarm bells when human rights are threatened. In many ways, they act as a nation’s conscience. In those countries where I have heard allegations that either human rights defenders or journalists are being stifled, or even arrested, I have urged the governments to rectify the problem by establishing a proper legal framework that enables both civil society and the media to operate freely and contribute to healthy social and political debate.
What has given me particular encouragement, and confirms my impression that there is an important transformation taking place in this region, is the drafting of new legislation which should have a positive impact on human rights. In the four countries visited so far, I learned of at least 15 new pieces of human-rights related legislation that have recently been adopted or are in draft form. These include anti-trafficking laws in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, and laws relating to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. I had a series of extremely interesting meetings with Ministers of Justice. In Saudi Arabia, the meeting continued for two hours, as the Minister explained the government’s ambitious plans – fully supported by King Abdullah – to conduct a comprehensive overhaul of the judicial system over the next few years, introducing a new three-tier system, with an effective right to appeal.
Qatar is also undertaking a substantial legislative initiative which could have a major beneficial impact on the protection of human rights, by setting up a committee to undertake a review of all its laws with the intention of ensuring their conformity with international standards. Qatar has set up another committee to examine the possibility of ratifying the two most fundamental international human rights treaties, namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which have so far been signed on to by 165 and 160 states respectively. These include only two from the GCC -- Bahrain and Kuwait. I am urging the other GCC states to ratify both these Covenants, as well as important international conventions on statelessness and the protection of migrant workers. If all of them do so over the next few years, it will mark a major step forward towards universal ratification.
Major social changes cannot take place overnight, and I accept that the pace of change depends to some extent on sufficient popular consensus. This, however, does not forestall the possibility of making bold changes. I am convinced the political will is there, as evidenced by the words of Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Prince Saud Al Faisal, who told me: “Not only are we willing to move forward, we are planning to move forward.”
I believe it essential that, wherever possible, the current positive momentum is not just maintained but accelerated. To this end, I have offered whatever support my Office can bring in terms of technical expertise and advice, and a number of concrete proposals have been discussed. I believe, if the current trend continues, all the GCC countries may be on the cusp of some very dynamic changes that will bring major benefits to current and future generations.