Muscat (13 September 2014) - I would like to thank the Government of the Sultanate of Oman for inviting me to visit the country in order to observe the situation of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. Oman is the first country in the Middle East to extend an invitation to my mandate since its establishment by the Human Rights Council in October 2010. I view this as testimony of its willingness to have a frank, constructive and open dialogue on the situation of human rights.
As a Special Rapporteur, I am an independent expert appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council in my personal capacity and I work on a voluntary basis in fulfilment of my mandate.
My team and I have been deeply touched by the hospitality, generosity and welcoming nature of the Omani people.
Let me also thank the Government for its cooperation before and during the conduct of this mission. I am most grateful to all my interlocutors. I have had constructive talks with members of the executive, legislative and judicial branches. I also met with representatives of the National Human Rights Commission and I had the opportunity to meet the Dhofar governorate representative during my two-day trip to Salalah.
Unfortunately, I was not permitted to meet with the Mr Al-Mamari, a member of the Shura Council who is currently serving a prison sentence after being convicted of convening an illegal gathering.
In addition, I have met courageous human rights activists, both men and women, including young lawyers, bloggers and researchers. I am gravely concerned about reported reprisals, before and during my visit, following their attempts to contact or meet with me. I urge the Government to ensure the safety of all these individuals and that they will not be subjected to any form of reprisals – including threats, harassment, punishment or judicial proceedings, as required by Human Rights Council Resolutions 24/24 and 12/2 and in the Terms of Reference for country visits by Special Procedures of the Council.
Oman has come a long way in the last 40 years, with remarkable achievements, especially in infrastructure, education, water, electricity, health and the economy. Clearly the “modernization” policies have had a positive impact that should be recognized and celebrated.
Moreover, Oman’s stability and peace cannot be gainsaid in a region that is better known for turbulence, tensions and conflicts.
Forty years hence, this is the time for Oman to build on these achievements by adopting a human rights and people-centred approach that can lead to the full enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms, including rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. I am confident that just as Oman has successfully modernized and is a strong state, it can and should embrace further openness.
In my meetings with the Government, I observed a consistent focus on maintaining peace, order and stability in Oman, often used as the rationale for limiting assembly and association rights. Stability is certainly important. But it is crucial to emphasize that the enjoyment of civil and political rights on one hand, and stability on the other, are not mutually exclusive. In fact, human rights are the foundation for true and sustainable stability. Stability flows organically through involvement and consensus, through a social contract in which everyone freely participates. The rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, in particular, foster Government accountability, ethnic equity, cultural diversity, tolerance, participation and good governance, which in turn promote stability.
From my meetings with civil society, victims and activists, I got the distinct impression of a pervasive culture of silence and fear affecting anyone who wants to speak and work for reforms in Oman. They are afraid to speak their minds, afraid to speak on the telephone, afraid to meet. Ubiquitous communications technologies that the rest of the world takes for granted, such as Skype, are unavailable in Oman, something that my team and I bear witness to.
Many people we spoke to reported being arrested or detained without due process – some repeatedly – and subjected to intimidation and psychological torture simply for trying to assert their rights. I would like to underline, that all the people I spoke to who have been subjected to this harassment, stress that what they want is peaceful reform, not revolution.
The issue of corruption was repeatedly raised by both the Government and civil society, with everyone expressing the need to combat the vice. This is a point of convergence, which Government officials should welcome, as ending corruption needs the voice of those outside Government to hold Government officials accountable. In meetings with the Government, several officials emphasized that Omani society values a culture of consensus. Consensus requires dialogue between all stakeholders and should not mean silencing dissenting or critical voices. An independent, free and robust civil society is a valuable partner in the drawing up and implementation of policies for combating corruption and promoting further growth.
It is important that the Government urgently ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as recommended in its Universal Periodic Review.
Oman’s creation of a national human rights institution is commendable. However, for the National Human Rights Commission to be more than a public relations gimmick, it must have credibility in the eyes of human rights activists. The Omani Human Rights Commission suffers from a deficit of credibility. It is incumbent upon it to do more in the protection of, and advocacy for, human rights activists who are peacefully engaging in their work.
With these broader concerns in mind, and in a spirit of cooperation and constructive engagement, I wish to make some more preliminary observations and recommendations.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
Omani’s Basic law guarantees the right to peaceful assembly, with the caveat that this right must be “within the limits of the Law.” Unfortunately, based on the information I have gathered, these “limits of the law” are quite restrictive, to the point where they often annul the essence of the right.
Gatherings of more than nine people, for example, require a de facto approval of the authorities. It also seems that this permission procedure is purely administrative and cannot be contested before a court of law. The Directorate of General Operations is not obliged to provide the reasons for its decision and has an unrestricted scope for the interpretation of what constitutes a limitation to the freedom of assembly, including on the basis of “public order”.
Under international law, the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly should not be subject to authorization by the authorities. At most, a prior notification procedure is sufficient, in order to take measures to protect public safety and order and the rights and freedoms of others. Moreover, spontaneous assemblies should be recognized in law and exempted from prior notification.
There is also reason for concern regarding the response of public authorities to protests. During my visit, I heard numerous reports of excessive force and arbitrary arrests in response to peaceful assemblies, particularly, during the wave of social-reform protests in 2011 and 2012, when hundreds were reportedly arrested. Many of the individuals arrested further reported torture at the hands of the authorities, including extended periods in solitary confinement and the blaring of loud music around the clock.
I believe that the events of 2011-12 have had a profound effect on the psyche of many Omanis to this day. While a sense of fear prevails, the protests also sparked an irreversible process towards demands for further freedoms. I believe it is time to deepen the dialogue between the authorities and the various stakeholders in society in order to defuse feelings of anger, distrust and resentment.
I believe strongly that peaceful assemblies should not be perceived as a threat. Rather they should be encouraged—as a sort of a safety valve--for there is value in expressing disagreement and varying points of views peacefully and publicly. Indeed, there is no better gauge of what people think than peaceful protests.
Freedom of Association
The Basic Law of Oman also establishes the right to form associations, but based on my observations this right is virtually non-existent in practice.
The 1972 law on associations and its amendments are deeply flawed and contrary to international law. Among other things it limits the type of associations that may be formed, makes registration mandatory and gives unbridled discretion to the Ministry of Social Development to approve or deny registration applications for “any … reason the Minister deems relevant”. The same law requires associations to obtain Government approval before they work with, or receive funding from foreign organizations. Associations must also notify the Government of any planned meeting at least 15 days in advance and provide a copy of the meetings’ minutes. Moreover, the law prescribes that a representative of the Government attends such meetings. Lastly, political parties are banned.
An example of the excessive control of the Government is the case of a group of concerned citizens who wanted to start an association to protect forestland in Dhofar, three years ago. Their application was refused solely because the Government felt their activities would duplicate those of another environmental association in Muscat. But why should one association be given a monopoly? The Government would not deny a hotel, for example, a license to operate simply because another hotel operates in the same neighbourhood.
I would like to note that the Government pledged to amend the Law on Associations during its Universal Periodic Review in January 2011. I was also repeatedly reassured by Government officials that the Law on Associations will be amended and is currently under review. I am pleased to hear this, but given the deep and fundamental flaws in the current law, I would recommend that the Government consider a new law altogether that is in line with the relevant provisions of international human rights law instruments. As I mentioned in my meetings with Government officials, I remain at their disposal should they require technical guidance on such a law, as mandated by Human Rights Council resolution 15/21.
I also believe other laws which have a detrimental impact on the exercise of peaceful assembly and association rights, should be urgently repealed or amended. For instance I am deeply concerned about the newly enacted Law on Nationality, which states that Omani nationals may lose their citizenship if they engage in an organization deemed to be working against the country’s interest There is apprehension that this law can be used to threaten or punish civil society activists who dare to peacefully dissent. I share these concerns.
Likewise, I am concerned by the inability of activists to freely associate online. As I noted earlier, access to some Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and instant messaging services is limited and a number of bloggers and writers have been imprisoned allegedly for expressing dissenting views online. The UN Human Rights Council recently recognized the importance of new communications technologies “in enabling and facilitating the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association” (A/HRC/RES/21/16). I echo this sentiment and further argue that information technology is integral to the exercise of assembly and association rights. These technologies are not only a means to facilitate these rights in the real world; they are a virtual space where the rights themselves are actively exercised. The rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association exist as much online as they do offline.
Experiences has proven that a strong civil society enhances the Government’s legitimacy and image domestically and internationally. And this, I believe, strengthens and promotes stability. Again, I wish to commend the people and Government of Oman for their tremendous achievements to date. I reiterate that I remain at the Government of Oman’s disposal for further cooperation in its efforts to enhance the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
I thank you for your attention.