27 April 2018 – This Thursday, the Chair of Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) gave a watered-down version of the human rights situation of Qatar before the European Parliament’s Human Rights Subcommittee (DROI). On that occasion, a number of MEPs raised concerns over ongoing abuses against migrant workers, women, and freedom of expression seekers.
On Thursday 26th April, the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI) welcomed Dr. Ali bin Samikh Al Marri, Chair of Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee (NHRC), to hold an exchange of views on the human rights situation of Qatar. On this occasion, Dr. al-Marri gave a presentation on what he identified as the two main human rights challenges faced by Qatar, namely migrant workers’ rights and the Gulf crisis – followed by a Q&A session with MEPs, which gave room to address other, still ongoing abuses. But despite acknowledging, to some extent, those two major human rights challenges, al-Marri failed to comprehensively assess other serious violations.
A focus on the abuses resulting from the Gulf crisis
Stating that, in 2017, the NHRC had received 6000 related complaints for human rights abuses, Dr al-Marri deplored that the isolation of Qatar as a result of its neighbours’ sanctions had precipitated infringements on the right to free expression, on access to medical care and family reunification. While this is source of concerns, his analysis of the consequences of the Gulf crisis regrettably eclipsed other major human rights issues in the country – with the exception of migrant workers’ rights.
Rights of migrant workers: despite acknowledgement of abuses, persistent leniency on the Kafala system
Noting that abuses against migrant workers’ rights, still rampant under Qatar’s severe Kafala (sponsorship) system, remained one of the main human rights challenges in Qatar, Dr. al-Marri welcomed the government’s reforming efforts. While reckoning that the response was “being insufficient”, he noted that the Qatar had made “tremendous strides” to reform the Kafala system as a result of both international and domestic pressure, including through the 2015 and 2016 complaints issued by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the NHRC’s recommendations.
In 2017, indeed, the Qatari government announced a number of reforms to the existing Labour Law. In August, it passed a new law (Law No. 13) establishing judiciary Labour Dispute Resolution Committees for migrant workers and ratified Law No. 15 setting guarantees for domestic workers for the first time, including, inter alia, maximum work hours, a weekly rest day, and healthcare benefits. In October, it agreed with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) on the introduction of a minimum wage and the end of passport confiscations, and committed to a set of reforms through its new Technical Cooperation Project with the ILO. But this is not the first time Qatar prides itself on abolishing the Kafala system – with little success.
In 2015, authorities had already announced the end of the Kafala system as a new sponsorship law (Law no. 21 of 2015) was due to enter into force in December 2016. While Dr al-Marri asserted that this law had “stopped the Kafala system that had been used until that point” by moving to a contractual system in place, Law no. 21 have, in reality, failed to lift the major exploitive characteristics of the sponsorship system, despite minor improvements. In particular, workers were still required to obtain employer’s permission to change jobs during the contract period and unable to leave the country without an exit permit.
In addition, domestic workers are still granted fewer rights than other workers under Qatar’s legislation as they still fall outside the scope of Qatar’s 2014 Labour Law and are unable to access the recently-created Dispute Committees. While being a positive stride and a first in Qatar’s history, Law No. 15 doesn’t fully conform with the ILO’s recommendations; in particular, it does not set any minimum wage or enforcement mechanism to sanction abusive employers’ practice.
In light of the above, Dr. al-Marri’s assertion that Qatar has already “taken leave of the old [Kafala] system” since 2015 does not meet the test of reality. However, reforms announced in 2017 offer fresh hopes and their implementation will be critical to determine Qatar is actually moving towards a genuine, definitive abolition the Kafala system. It is therefore essential that Qatar NHRC presses the authorities on the swift implementation of their commitments instead of praising partial past efforts. A few weeks ago, Qatar’s Prime Minister assured DROI Chair Panzeri of Qatar’s commitment to implement those reforms on the ground during Panzeri’s visit to Qatar, highlighted al-Marri. When asked by MEP Klaus Buchner (Greens/EFA) about the implementation of sanctions against abusive employers, he assured that employers found guilty of passport confiscations will be, and that some have been already, sanctioned. But Qatari officials and internal human rights bodies must now move beyond simple reform promises and ensure the swift, accountable follow-up of their commitments.
Restrictions on freedom of expression omitted
While al-Marri’s presentation strictly focused on the rights of migrant workers and the challenges faced by Qatar in the context of the Gulf crisis, his omission of other critical human rights issues, including restrictions on freedom of expression and women’s rights did not go unnoticed.
As MEP Buchner noted, Qatar’s legislation still contains very vague provisions which can be used to restrict freedom of expression and prevent human rights activists to carry on their mission freely. In particular, provisions of the Penal Code and the 2014 cybercrime law criminalize the spreading of “false news” online or information that “violates social values or principles”, and provide for up to five-years in jail for criticism of the Emir. In 2016, a – now released – poet was sentenced to 15 years in prison as one of his poems was deemed to be insulting the ruling family. In February 2017, Qatari authorities imposed a travel ban on human rights lawyer Najeeb Al-Nuaimi, whom MEP Wajid Kahn (S&D) evoked the case when asking clarifications about freedom of expression in Qatar.
Dr. al-Marri stressed that the NHRC had been issuing recommendations asking the government to adopt laws guaranteeing freedom of expression and opinion and will continue to do so. He added that, while many challenges remain, the situation was “still better” than in other countries.
“There’s equality between men and women in Qatar”. Really?
Not a word was said about women’s rights neither, noted MEP Buchner. Along with MEP Soraya Post (S&D), both MEPs raised concerns over the existing nationality law that prevents Qatari women from passing on citizenship. As the UN Committee on the Right of the Child pointed out in its 2017 report, Qatar’s Nationality Act “does not confer citizenship to children of Qatari women and non-Qatari fathers, as it does where the father is Qatari”. Dr al-Marri declared that, as the transmission of nationality for Qatari women remained an important challenge, they had informed the government of the necessity to pass legislation to give Qatari women the ability to transfer nationality, adding that there was “equality between men and women in Qatar”.
However, male guardianship continues to prevail in Qatar and is even enshrined in law. Neither does the penal code criminalise domestic violence or marital rape. As MEP Khan deplored, Qatar hasn’t adopted any comprehensive protection system for women, despite widespread gender-based discrimination. While MEP Buchner enquired about any progress in that regard, MEP Post asked whether Qatar intended to introduce a protection system for victims and to criminalise gender-violence. Al-Marri answered that the NHRC had submitted recommendations on that matter to the government and that, while “many laws” had been passed to “give women more rights in Qatar”, it would continue to call “for more rights”.
Regrettably, Post’s question on LGBTIs and Kahn’s enquiry on torture of detainees remained unanswered.
While ECDHR welcomes Dr al-Marri’s willingness to recognize abuses against migrant workers as a major challenge for Qatar and the efforts of the NHRC to advocate for broader human rights reforms, we regret his leniency in assessing the government’s broken promises to abolish the Kafala system and his omission of some other serious issues.
Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee is a government-appointed body which is commissioned for the protection and promotion of human rights at the domestic and international level. Towards this end, it oversees legislation, investigates violations and issues recommendations to Qatari authorities, though it is not a governmental body. The NHRC has been accredited with an A status from the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights (ICC), which indicates it operates respectfully of essential independence, autonomy and accuracy thresholds.