2 November – On 16 October, the Council of the European Union adopted the EU Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy 2016 which reaffirms the EU’s strong commitment to promote and protect human rights and democracy around the world. However, the report finds that 2016 was a challenging year for human rights and democracy, with a shrinking space for civil society and complex humanitarian and political crises emerging in several regions of the world, including the Arabian Peninsula.
The report highlights the EU’s serious concern over the human rights situation in Bahrain and continues to closely monitor local developments such as the full implementation of the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) and the work of human rights-related institutions, including the Police Ombudsman for the Ministry of the Interior and the National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR). However, as expressed in the report, “the necessary conditions for real and lasting reconciliation have not yet been achieved and the EU repeatedly called on all Bahrainis to make use of the new institutions to make sure they can deliver concrete improvements in the human rights situation in Bahrain.”
The report states that, through the actions of the European External Action Service (EEAS), which conducted several formal and informal outreach initiatives towards the Bahraini authorities, the EU addressed concerns on the intensified human rights abuses. These include the increased suppression of freedom of expression, continued arrests of prominent political and human rights activists, the imprisonment of leaders of the main opposition political society and its dissolution, continued application of travel bans on human rights activists, the high and increasing number of cases of citizenship revocation, and death sentences in cases where the defendants filed complaints alleging torture and ill-treatment.
The report also mentions the most important actions undertaken by the EU on Bahrain in 2016. They include: the EEAS Statement of 5 July 2016 on recent developments in Bahrain; the EU Statement delivered under Item 2 on 14 September 2016 in Geneva at the 33rd session of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC), in which the EU raised its concerns over the human rights situation in Bahrain; the European Parliament Urgency Resolution of 4 February 2016 concerning the case of Mohammed Ramadan, a Bahraini sentenced to death, and the European Parliament Urgency Resolution of 7 July 2016 on Bahrain. In this latter, the European Parliament expressed its concerns regarding the intensified campaign of repression and persecution of human rights defenders and political opposition members and noted the travel bans, revocations of citizenship, the cases of Nabeel Rajab, Zainab Al-Khawaja, Mohammed Ramadan, Husain Ali Moosa, and Sheikh Ali Salman, and the suspension of Al-Wefaq. These actions preceded the first meeting of the informal EU-Bahrain human rights working group, which took place on 4 April 2016 in Manama, and the visit by European Parliamentarians to Bahrain from 17 to 19 December 2016.
The report also discussed Saudi Arabia. According to the report, in Saudi Arabia the human rights situation remains the subject of many concerns, such as the issue of the death penalty (154 executions in 2016), increased restrictions to freedom of association and expression online and offline, limits imposed by the guardianship system to the independence of women, and by the “kafala” sponsorship system for migrant workers. The EU also shares some UN human rights experts’ concerns about overly broad counter-terrorism measures which lead to abuses against human rights defenders and online political activists with no links to terrorism.
The report states that “the EU consistently engaged with the Saudi authorities on human rights concerns in the Kingdom, while encouraging reform measures.” It released public statements, including one following the mass execution of 47 inmates on 2 January and expressed concern particularly about the juveniles who were on death row even though they had been minors at the time they were arrested. The European Parliament paid several visits to the Kingdom throughout the year.
The report underlines also that the EU maintained regular contact with civil society organisations and human rights defenders and raised cases of concern with the relevant authorities on several occasions. Since 2013, the EU Delegation has received permission for diplomats to attend public trials and since then, together with EU Member States Embassies, it has observed several court hearings, including throughout 2016.
The actions of the EU in Qatar focused particularly on “freedom of expression and the development of independent media, efforts to strengthen civil society via more liberal legislation on freedom of association and civil society initiatives, support for human rights defenders and women’s rights.” However, following several reports denouncing unpaid wages, shortcomings in the areas of health and safety, inadequate housing, and unscrupulous labour agents in the workers’ countries of origin in the run-up to the FIFA World Cup 2022, the main issue of concern in Qatar remains the working and living conditions of migrant workers.
The EU welcomed the legislation passed in October 2015, which entered into force in December 2016, as an important step in replacing the “kafala” system with a full contract-based system and it will continue to monitor its implementation.
The report states that the EU is concerned about several court cases in Oman brought against people who protested or expressed views on social media. As with Qatar, another issue of concern in Oman is the discrimination in law and practice against expatriate workers and their general status and situation. The EU engaged with the Omani authorities on the situation of foreign workers and on human trafficking, and raised the cases of human rights defenders Ismaeel al-Meqbali, Helal al-Alawi and Saeed Jadad, online activists Hassan al-Basham and Abdullah Habib, writer Hammood al-Shukaily, and journalists Yousef al-Haj and Ibrahim al-Maamari with the Omani authorities when possible.
The main issues the EU raised with authorities in Kuwait include the situation of the Bidoons (stateless residents), the death penalty, freedom of expression and the situation of foreign labourers and domestic workers. The EU also closely monitored the implementation of recently adopted legislation under which domestic workers’ rights and obligations are now clearly defined, thus helping to reduce the scope for possible abuse. The EU also expressed concern about a number of arrests of human rights activists for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, association and assembly and, following the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the UN HRC, it is encouraging the Kuwaiti authorities to implement the UPR recommendations.
In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the authorities continued to impose strict limitations on freedom of expression and association, especially in cases where the UAE government had been criticised and activists called for democratic reforms. Of particular concern is the 2012 UAE Cybercrime Law which states that “any form of misuse of a computer/smart device or an electronic network/system could lead to up to a life sentence and/or a fine of between AED 50 000 and AED 3 million” and has often been used to charge activists and human rights defenders.
During the sixth meeting of the informal EU-UAE working group on human rights on 25-26 May 2016 held in Abu Dhabi, the full range of EU concerns were addressed, including freedom of expression, children’s rights, women’s and youth empowerment, labour rights, access to justice, and conditions of detention. In addition, according to the report, the UAE has made efforts in trying to limit abuses with regard to the recruitment of migrant workers, particularly through a decree regulating labour relations that was announced on 29 September 2015 and entered into force on 1 January 2016. These provisions intend “to prevent the substitution of the original proposal by a different final labour contract which is less favourable for the worker, as well as to allow migrants to change employer in the UAE without being obliged to go back to their country of origin.”
ECDHR welcomes the actions undertaken by the EU in the Gulf through the broad range of policies, tools, and instruments at the Union’s disposal, and praises the EU’s commitment at bilateral and multilateral levels to the universal promotion and protection of human rights. However, we reiterate our deep concern about the general human rights situation in the Gulf and we condemn in the strongest terms the further restrictions of fundamental freedoms and democratic space imposed across the Arabian Peninsula throughout the last year. We look forward to the Union’s continued engagement in addressing these persistent issues of concern, and hope for an increasing commitment to human rights in future EU-GCC relations.