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Human Rights and The Gulf Region: Statement by Ms. Navanethem Pillay United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

19 April 2010

Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great privilege to address you today.  I would like to thank you for your kind hospitality, and for the warm and positive reception that I have received here. I first came to this region to open the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ documentation centre in Qatar.  This time, my visit covers the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council and affords me the opportunity to gather a more comprehensive view, thanks to my discussions with Governments and civil society.  I am here to seek ways to strengthen cooperation for the protection of human rights and to improve the lives of people in the region and  elsewhere on the basis of respect for the worth and dignity of all human beings.

The protection of human rights is first and foremost a State’s responsibility, but it is also increasingly a cooperative global effort in the face of today’s daunting challenges, such as conflict, discrimination, poverty, racism, impunity, democratic deficits, and exclusion. Every country has the responsibility to overcome adverse human rights conditions that affect their own communities, as well as help others to surmount barriers they face in the achievement of all human rights for all.

As the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, my mandate is to protect and promote human rights everywhere, support States’ efforts to this effect, and foster collaborative action at the national, regional and international levels.   This mandate rests on the independence and expertise of my Office, which is part of the United Nations Secretariat. 

At a different level, the intergovernmental level, the preeminent United Nations institution for States’ cooperation is the United Nations Human Rights Council.  Created in 2005, this body is about to undergo its first review to evaluate this initial operative phase and ameliorate the Council’s future work.   All States, members of the Human Rights Council or not, have both a stake and a responsibility to make this UN body more responsive, authoritative and effective. 

To this end, it is essential that States give effect to the deliberations of the Council by implementing its resolutions and recommendations.  These recommendations stem from a process known as the Universal Periodic Review, that is, the periodic assessment of the human rights record of all UN Member States by their peers.   The underlying rationale of the UPR is that no State has a pristine human rights record and that all States can benefit from the suggestions and scrutiny of both their peers and other stakeholders.

This visit occurs at a crucial time for human rights advancement, particularly in this region, and I am pleased to note the active and constructive engagement of GCC states and civil society in the UPR.  Bahrain was the first country to undergo the UPR. Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have also gone through this process.  Kuwait will follow suit next month, and Oman is on the list for 2011.

I have read with great interest the reports and proceedings of these reviews. Thus far, the UPR recommendations highlighted some common denominators among various countries regarding human rights issues in the region.  Even considering individual States’ specific backgrounds and approaches, I note an encouraging level of governmental activity to improve human rights, especially in the area of economic and social rights, children’s rights and the battle against human trafficking. At the same time, it is fair to say that a number of recommendations have focused on four concerns, namely, women’s rights, migration, statelessness, and freedom of expression, association and assembly. These will also be among the issues that I will continue to raise in the course of my mission with government officials and civil society.   Allow me to share some thoughts on these topics.

Today I am addressing you at the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology, an institution which is itself a testament to His Majesty’s commitment not only to promote progress in fostering education, but also to improve the enjoyment of women’s rights.  I was heartened to learn that women students now outnumber their male colleagues in Saudi Arabia.  Education, including higher studies, is available to an ever-increasing number of women in the region.  Investing in education, including education for women, is not only fair, but it is also smart policy which is proven to yield high returns for the wellbeing and prosperity of communities, and ultimately entire countries.

Progress has also been achieved in other areas.  Some Members States of the Organization of the Islamic Conference have modified their laws with respect to women’s rights, including marriage, divorce and public participation.  This approach was due to dynamic interpretations of Islamic traditions on the part of Governments and jurists who, I am informed, demonstrated that far from being innovations, such legislation was compatible with Islamic jurisprudence and, indeed, stemmed from it.
 
Ongoing efforts to remove male guardianship, guarantee women the right to vote and access to public office are laudable and must continue.  I am encouraged to see that more States have adopted or are enacting laws to combat human trafficking, a scourge that affects mostly women.  In this regard, I note the Arab Plan to Combat Human Trafficking which was launched in Doha, Qatar last March.

Yet, I am sure you will agree that women in the region are still unable to fully enjoy their human rights.  Discriminatory barriers continue to hamper women’s right to shape their own lives and choices, and fully participate in public life and be part of public debates that influence the direction of a nation.  These barriers must be removed.  It is also time to put to rest the concept of male guardianship.  More needs to be done, particularly regarding issues pertaining to nationality of children, and domestic violence.  Positive developments for women’s civil and political rights are still patchy and uneven in the region.

An important step would be to reconsider the reservations that countries in the region have lodged to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.  Some of these reservations, at times explained by reference to Islamic law, are considered by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the treaty body which oversees implementation of the Convention, as incompatible with the Convention’s object and purpose, and as such as an obstacle to its full implementation.  I am heartened by the progress that has been made in respect of reservations to the Convention, and urge States in this region to work together to address those which remain. 

Turning now to the issue of migrant workers, let me note that societies in this region, which are counted among the most prosperous and dynamic in the world, are supported thoroughly and function smoothly largely through the hard work and resourcefulness of migrants. These workers are also fostering economic growth by sending remittances back home, easing the economic hardship of their families and communities and building contacts and exchanges across borders.

Unfortunately, all too often many migrants to this and other regions experience discrimination, abuse, exploitation and other human rights violations.

Reports concerning this region consistently cite ongoing practices of unlawful confiscation of passports, withholding of wages and exploitation by unscrupulous recruitment agencies and employers. The situation of migrant domestic workers is of particular concern because their isolation in private homes makes them even more vulnerable to physical, psychological and sexual violence.  They may also experience inadequate living and working conditions and violations of the right to health. Some are held in prolonged detention after they escape abusive employers, and may be unable to obtain access to judicial recourse and effective remedies for their plight.

It is my belief that the protection of migrants is one of today’s most urgent human rights challenges.  Thus, it is of the utmost importance that in crafting and applying migration policies, Governments maintain a human rights approach to migration at the front and centre of their action. 

I understand that several States are indeed addressing these problems. New or amended labour laws are being drafted, and the work of inspectors is being enhanced.  Some countries are reconsidering the sponsorship (or Kafala) system that rigidly binds migrants to their employers, enabling the latter to commit abuses, while preventing workers from changing jobs or leaving the country.  I wholeheartedly support those efforts and call on other States to replace the Kafala system with updated labour laws that can better balance rights and duties.  I also urge them to regulate recruitment agencies and include penalties for employers and agents who abuse workers’ rights.  Crucially, all countries must ensure that their laws and policies on migration comply fully with international human rights norms and standards.

Absorbing pertinent human rights standards into domestic law is of central importance. While the human rights of migrants are protected under all the core international human rights treaties, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families offers the most comprehensive framework for such protection. In this regard, I consistently urge authorities throughout the world to accede to and ratify this important Convention.  

This Convention still suffers from a low level of ratification with only 42 States parties. No country in the Gulf region has as yet signed or acceded to the Convention, but I hope that this will soon change. On December 18, 2010, we will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Migrant Workers Convention. I invite you to join my Office’s efforts to make the most of this opportunity and make it a springboard towards the goal of the Convention’s universal acceptance.

The third point of my discussion pertains to the issues of stateless persons, including the Bidoon.  Statelessness is not a problem unique to this region.  Indeed the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, estimates that around 12 million people all over the world do not have a legal identity. But the Gulf region is confronted with the issue of long-term statelessness of the Bidoon who number in the hundreds of thousands across the region.

As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, everyone has a right to a nationality and to a legal personality, without which a person in fact does not exist before the law.  The Bidoon have neither.  Without documentation and citizenship, they often endure marginalization, prejudice and exclusion.  Trapped in a vicious cycle, the difficulties they face in earning a decent living push them even further to the margins of society.  When this happens, women in particular, become easier targets of violence and exploitation.  Owning and running a business is, at the very least, difficult for them.  Opening a bank account without proof of a legal identity is not possible, and they cannot move freely or openly across borders.  It is difficult to find housing, and the right to property ownership is restricted. Prospects for the stateless and their children are severely curtailed because access to education is not a given.  Health services are often out of their reach.

The United Nations Secretary General has urged States to ensure that safeguards be put in place in order not to deny nationality to any person with relevant links to that State. I urge pertinent Governments in the region to heed this call.  International human rights standards can assist in this task.  I refer, in particular, to the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and the Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons.  I appeal to all States in the region to accept these important instruments.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I mentioned earlier that the protection of human rights is first and foremost the responsibility of individual States. Governments can best fulfil this responsibility when there is a vibrant press and committed civil society able to operate freely and alert the State to issues and problems as they arise.  Well-educated new generations need space and opportunity in order to contribute to progress in their own countries and elsewhere.

This is why it is crucial for States to ensure the enjoyment of freedom of association, assembly and expression. These rights underpin the very existence of civil society and the press everywhere.  They include freedom of the press and the right of human rights defenders to document, report and present legal cases on behalf of victims of human rights violations and to engage freely with UN Human Rights mechanisms and independent experts.

Yet, in many countries in the region and elsewhere a worrisome trend is emerging or re-emerging.  I refer in particular to laws that aim at curtailing civil society’s scope of action.    This legislation often carries direct or indirect limitations that effectively render moot the right to freedom of association and expression.  Human rights defenders and the press are frequently targeted when such restrictions are imposed. 

Much of this legislation is incompatible with human rights standards and with international norms such as the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights, known as the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. The work of human rights defenders is often described as “speaking truth to power,” and this truth should be welcome to those in a position of authority to help them identify and correct mistakes that stifle political, social and economic growth.

Removing restrictions that hamper or even discourage the work and critical analyses of scholars and experts is also crucial to the cultural and scientific progress of societies.  Public debate needs an open and free media governed only by professional ethics and human rights standards in order to prosper.  This is particularly important for this region as it is home to both print and visual media outlets whose influence spans the Middle East and beyond.  I am pleased to note the increasing incorporation of human rights concepts and language in the daily reporting of regional and global satellite stations and print media.  However, the periodic closure of press offices and confiscation of particular issues of newspapers remains of concern.

States in the region and elsewhere often argue that restrictions on freedoms stems from the need to counter political threats, particularly the terrorism menace.  Experience shows, however, that it is the protection and promotion of human rights, including participation and inclusion, together with open and frank debates, that permit identification and prevention of those societal tensions which lie at the roots of violent strife.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The advancement of the human rights agenda requires building solid and expanded partnerships, but the effort must start at home, with institutional protection of human rights put in law and in practice.  To this effect, the establishment of national human rights institutions is of vital assistance. 

For those who are not yet familiar with the world of NHRIs, let me clarify that these are official institutions that work independently from Governments to protect and promote human rights at the national level.  The main normative source for these bodies, are the “Paris Principles,” approved by the UN General Assembly in 1993, which establish the minimum standards that NHRIs should comply with to function effectively.  These include independence and pluralism.  These institutions facilitate a better understanding and a more expeditious absorption of international law into domestic legislation.  They typically help spot weak links in the national protection system and help devise appropriate institutional and legal measures and reforms.

I note with satisfaction the growing effectiveness of the national human rights institutions of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the State of Qatar which were the first in the Gulf region.  I also congratulate the Kingdom of Bahrain and the Sultanate of Oman for their recent creation of such Institutions and urge other countries to emulate these initiatives.  My Office continues to be eager to cooperate with NHRIs in order to strengthen institutional protection of human rights in every country.

Indeed, today’s challenges require the support of a thick grid of partnerships and solidarity.  These challenges appear daunting at times. Even as we deal with chronic situations, we constantly face rapidly unfolding emergencies, including the recent food shortages, global recession, epidemics and natural calamities.  Let me take this opportunity to commend countries in the region for providing badly needed resources in times of dire emergency, and to reassure you that this assistance does not go unnoticed.  Your support gives meaning to the concept of the “duty to assist” those in need.  This duty stands at the very foundation of international cooperation and fosters a culture of mutual support and respect.  It is a pillar of Islamic societies that also finds an echo in international law, particularly in article 2 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

From my part, rest assured that in confronting human rights conditions of all kinds, my Office stands ready to support the Governments and peoples of the region.  We are strengthening the capacity of our Regional Office for the Middle East in Beirut, moving ahead on the UN Human Rights Documentation and Training Centre in Doha, and of course the resources and capacities of our various specialized units in Geneva are also at your disposal.  I look forward to continued cooperation with you in ensuring that everyone here and everywhere enjoys to the fullest the dignity afforded by universal human rights.

Thank you.