27 June 2018 – Last Thursday, MEPs took the opportunity of an exchange of views between the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET) and Qatar’s Deputy Prime Minister and MFA to raise pressing human rights issues in the Emirate. The same day also saw the establishment of an EU-Qatar informal Human Rights Dialogue, following his meeting with EU High Representative Federica Mogherini.
On Thursday 21st, the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET) held an exchange of views with Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the State of Qatar. Later in the day, Sheikh al-Thani’s meeting with EU High Representative Federica Mogherini was followed by the announcement that an EU-Qatar informal dialogue on human rights would be established. Following Bahrain and the UAE, Qatar will be the 3rd Gulf country to establish this platform – which will hopefully serve as a channel to openly address human rights violations in the country and advance necessary reforms.
While he was invited to present Qatar’s views on the Gulf crisis and bilateral cooperation with the EU, and extensively discussed the country’s economic record, the Qatari Minister also addressed some important human rights issues in the Emirate – with some degree of indulgence, however. In his presentation before AFET, the Foreign Affairs Minister highlighted that Qatar had “progressed a lot in the recent years” when it comes to upholding human rights. Despite rightly noting that the country had made significant commitments and passed encouraging reforms in 2017 amid ongoing Gulf crisis, notably concerning migrant workers’ rights, his fragmentary analysis of Qatar’s human rights record shows he still needs a little reality check – so did his follow citizen, Dr. al-Marri, Chair of Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee (NHRC), when he addressed before the DROI committee in April.
On women’s rights, first, he claimed that the government had made “women empowerment” “one of the priorities of Qatar’s domestic policy”, citing the country’s high employment and education enrolment rates for women. In May this year, Qatar requested accession to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) but decided to retain major reservations concerning gender equality provisions in marriage, divorce, and child custody, citing conflict with Sharia law – a clear sign that the government is still not substantially committed to gender equality. Among other issues, Qatari women continue to be subjected to male guardianship, which is enshrined in national laws. The penal code does not criminalize domestic violence nor marital rape neither. Besides, women are still denied equal rights with men regarding their ability to transfer nationality to their citizenship. While enabling children of a Qatari woman married to a non-national to obtain the citizenship under narrow conditions, the draft law on Permanent Residency approved by the Cabinet in August 2017 maintains the gender bias, and the government hasn’t announced steps to reform the inherent discriminatory elements of Qatar’s nationality law. A noteworthy point is that, during his exchange of views with the DROI subcommittee, Dr al-Marri declared that the NHRI had already “informed the government of the necessity to give Qatari women ability to pass nationality”.
Without elaborating further on religious freedom, Al-Thani praised Qatar’s “culture of coexistence and coherence” and the government’s efforts to provide “a platform for an interfaith dialogue”. While the Qatari Constitution guarantees freedom of worship, the government continues notably to censor online and printed religious contents deemed “objectionable” and journalists and publishers reportedly practice self-censorship regarding material the government might consider contrary to Islam.
Al-Thani further highlighted the government’s efforts to “provide a platform for freedom of expression”, “freedom of access to information” and to “set the standards for the free media”. However, Qatar’s legal framework, with several overly broad provisions of the Penal Code and the 2014 Cybercrime Law criminalizing the spreading of “false news” online, or publishing information that “violates social values or principles.”, does not appear to be conducive to free expression nor freedom of the press. The Penal Code also provides for up to five-years in jail for criticism of the emir. Besides, Qatari media continue to be influenced by ruling families and subject to censorship, while authorities have often restricted access to some media outlets (such as Doha News, in 2016) or telecommunication tools (including Skype, in October 2017).
Regarding migrant workers’ rights, Sheikh al-Thani was questioned about the implementation of the government’s recent promises by MEP Barbara Lochbihler (Greens/EFA) who, despite welcoming the adoption of “very progressive laws on labour protection”, noted that Qatar had “only pledged” to abolish the kafala system in the past. Reform promises made by Qatar in the recent years have, indeed, left intact the most exploitative elements of this system, including the obligation for workers obligation to obtain an exit permit from their employer. To what the Minister replied that Qatar had striven to improve inspection powers and ensure companies’ compliance, outlining that the kafala system was “over already” and that a “Wage Protection System” was already in place – this system does not, however, tackles wage differentials based on nationality nor extends to domestic workers. This is precisely the point made by MEP Wajid Khan (S&D) as he recalled that domestic workers, who fall outside the scope of Qatar’s 2014 Labour Law, were still denied equal rights with any other workers. While Law No. 15 adopted in August 2017 introduces labour protection for domestic workers for the first time, they are still granted fewer rights than other migrant workers, hereby contravening with the International Labour Organization (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention. Moreover, as for the ICCPR, the authorities’ recent decision to accede to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) has been tarnished by the adoption of reservations to provisions relating to trade unions. These latter reiterate that only Qatari nationals can form associations and trade unions, as laid out in Article 116 of Qatar’s Labour Law. By barring migrant workers from collective bargaining, the government contradicts any commitment to migrant workers’ rights.
While the European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights notes the Minister’s efforts to address some of the key human rights issues in the country, we regret that his presentation didn’t comprehensively, impartially reflected the reality of Qatar’s human rights situation nor the discrepancies between the government’s commitments and prevalence of multiple forms of discrimination in its national laws. If the government is true to the commitments made by the MFA, it should take steps to repeal all provisions contained in its national laws that maintain discriminatory practices against women, non-Muslim sects or that may be used to restrict freedom of expression.