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UN human rights chief notes changes under way in Gulf region, highlights key concerns

JEDDAH (19 April 2010) – The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Monday she believes there is an “encouraging level of governmental activity to improve human rights” in the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States, especially in the area of economic and social rights, children’s rights and human trafficking, while also noting an array of continuing concerns about women’s rights, migration, statelessness, and freedom of expression, association and assembly.

The High Commissioner’s wide-ranging commentary on the state of human rights in the region, was delivered in the form of a keynote speech* at the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, at the start of a ten-day six-country mission which is intended to improve cooperation between the UN human rights system and the GCC states.

The High Commissioner noted that her visit was coming at “a crucial time for human rights advancement” in the region, and said she was pleased to note “the active and constructive engagement” of GCC states and civil society in the new Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, under which all 192 UN Member States have their human rights record assessed once every four years by the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have already been through the process, with the review of Kuwait taking place next month, followed by Oman in 2011.

Pillay noted that, during the UPR sessions, GCC states had received recommendations focusing on four concerns in particular: women’s rights, migration, statelessness, and freedom of expression, association and assembly.

The High Commissioner, in her address to students and faculty at the King Abdullah University (a new coeducational university in Saudi Arabia) said “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.”

Progress has also been achieved in other areas, she said, noting that “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.”

Pillay praised the fact that women now have the right to vote and have access to public office in several GCC countries. However, she pointed out that women are still not able to fully enjoy their human rights all across the region. “Discriminatory barriers continue to hamper women’s right to shape their own lives and choices, and fully participate in public life,” she said. “…These barriers must be removed. It is also time to put to rest the concept of male guardianship… Positive developments for women’s civil and political rights are still patchy and uneven in the region.” However, the High Commissioner said she was encouraged to see that more States in the region have adopted, or are enacting, laws to combat human trafficking.

Pointing to the important role migrant workers play in making society function, Pillay also expressed concern about their treatment, which she said reflected problems facing migrants elsewhere in the world. Reports “consistently cite ongoing practices of unlawful confiscation of passports, withholding of wages and exploitation by unscrupulous recruitment agencies and employers,” she said. “The situation of migrant domestic workers is of particular concern...” She drew attention to their often inadequate living and working conditions and to the fact that they are sometimes “unable to obtain access to judicial recourse and effective remedies for their plight.”

She noted the positive trend that has led to some GCC countries abolishing or reconsidering the sponsorship system – known as Kafala – that “rigidly binds migrants to their employers, enabling the latter to commit abuses, while preventing workers from changing jobs or leaving the country.” She urged those States that had not yet done so to replace the Kafala system “with updated labour laws that can better balance rights and duties.”

In her speech, Pillay also dwelt on the issue of stateless persons, including the Bidoon, who number in the hundreds of thousands across the region, and called on all states to ratify the two statelessness Conventions, in addition to the Convention on migrant workers. “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,” she said, adding that “without documentation and citizenship, they often endure marginalization, prejudice and exclusion.”

The High Commissioner also stressed the importance of “a vibrant press and committed civil society able to operate freely and alert the State to issues and problems as they arise.”

“It is crucial for States to ensure the enjoyment of freedom of association, assembly and expression,” she said. “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.” In many countries “a worrisome trend is emerging or re-emerging,” she said, referring to laws that aim at curtailing civil society’s scope of action, and restrictions on some media organizations.

Pillay spoke of the importance of national human rights institutions (NHRIs) – an internationally supported system of official institutions that work independently from governments to protect and promote human rights at the national level. She pointed to the “growing effectiveness” of the NHRIs in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which were the first to be created in the Gulf region (in 2002 and 2005 respectively), congratulated Bahrain and Oman for their recent establishment of NHRIs, and called on the remaining countries to follow suit.

The High Commissioner thanked the countries in the region for providing substantial amounts of humanitarian aid through the United Nations in times of emergency, for example at the height of the recent food crisis, as well as in response to epidemics and natural disasters.

She emphasized the full support of OHCHR’s Regional Office in Beirut, the recently established UN Human Rights Documentation and Training Centre in Doha, and the resources and capacities of OHCHR’s various specialized units at its Geneva HQ, to help governments, NHRIs and civil society maintain the momentum already under way to enhance human rights in the region.

(*) To see the full text of this speech in English and Arabic, as well as the High Commissioner’s itinerary and other information about her 17-27 April visit to the Gulf region, go to www.ohchr.org