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Preliminary findings of the United Nations Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity, Mr. Obiora C. Okafor, at the end of his visit to Qatar

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Visit to Qatar

Doha (10 September 2019) – At the end of his mission to Qatar, during which the Independent Expert held meetings in Doha, Mr. Obiora C. Okafor delivered the following statement:

“I would like to express my sincere appreciation to the Government of Qatar for inviting me to the country to conduct my third official visit as Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity, and for their cooperation before and during my time here. 

I should start by commending Qatar for being the first State in the region to issue a standing invitation to the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council, and for its very active engagement with international and regional organizations, and their hosting of various UN bodies, which is an indication of Qatar’s significant contribution to solidarity with other Member States and peoples. The hosting of several relevant international conferences must also be appreciated. I also commend Qatar’s regular voluntary contributions to UN funds and entities, including to the UNHCR, UNRWA, OCHA, UNDP and UNICEF, and to the international Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, which contribute significantly to human rights-based international solidarity. 

I welcome Qatar’s accession –despite some reservations, in 2018, to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). 

During the visit, I had the opportunity to hold meetings with a number of senior Government officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Human Rights Department, Department of International Organizations, Department of International Cooperation), the Ministry of Interior (Human Rights Department, the Search and Follow Up Department), the Ministry of Justice (Department of Agreements and Cooperation), the Ministry of Municipalities and the Environment (Climate Change Department), the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (including the Qatari National Committee for Education, Culture and Science), the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, the Planning and Statistics Authority and the Regulatory Authority for Charitable Activity. 

I also had the opportunity to meet with relevant senior leaders of Qatar Petroleum, the Qatar Fund for Development, Silatech (a youth empowering initiative of Her Highness Sheikha Moza), representatives of the Arab Network for Human Rights Institutions, the National Human Rights Committee, the Doha Institute for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies and academics. 

I also met with various United Nations entities including the ILO, UNESCO, the UN Secretary-General’s Humanitarian Envoy and the OHCHR Doha Center for Training and Documentation. Last but not least, I met with representatives of migrant communities who shared their experiences of working and living in Qatar. 

I would like to thank all the persons and institutions that I met with for their warm hospitality and the wealth of information that they shared.

My objectives during my visit were primarily to learn and gain a first-hand understanding of the issues related to the experience and practice of human rights-based international solidarity within and outside the State of Qatar, including efforts that have been made in that direction, and remaining challenges. I was especially interested in learning more about how Qatar incorporates human rights in its international solidarity thought and action, as well as how its efforts contribute to the promotion of a human rights approach to addressing many of the global challenges that the world is currently facing, including – but not limited to – development, climate change and migration.

The following are a few preliminary observations. I will further develop my assessment in a written report, which I will present to the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2020.

Development and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals

Good practices/developments 

In 2018, Qatar launched its second National Development Strategy (2018-2022) in line with the Qatar National Vision 2030.

Despite its small size, Qatar regularly supports States across the world in the wake of natural or man-made disasters through both direct bilateral assistance or through the United Nations, including in the fields of health, education and development – a form of reactive solidarity recognized under the Draft declaration on the right to international solidarity. As an example, since 2008, the Silatech initiative has contributed to the creation of more than 1.4 million jobs across Africa and Asia. 

In recent years, Qatar created and strengthened the infrastructure needed to promote and effectively deliver its international solidarity agenda. Numerous initiatives, such as the Qatar Fund for Development, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy’s Generation Amazing Program, and Silatech are good examples of international solidarity in the development field. The country’s wide network of public and private partnerships that contribute to those in need is laudable. 

Significant investments in education at home and abroad (through international organisations such as UNICEF, and through regional organizations) are welcomed, with examples including the Qatar Fund for Development’s nascent “education in emergencies” program, and His Highness Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani’s initiative to provide quality education to 1 million girls worldwide by 2021. 

Efforts to empower youth worldwide including through Her Highness Sheikha Moza’s Silatech initiative are a clear example of human rights-based international solidarity and must be acknowledged and commended. Sheikha Moza, Founder and Chairperson of the Education Above All Foundation, is a noted advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals and was appointed as such by the UN’s Secretary General. 

I also learned of recent efforts to introduce human rights education at different levels of the national curriculum. These efforts must be encouraged.

Areas for improvement 

More attention should be paid to climate change in development thinking and practice.

Climate Change 

Good practices/developments

Qatar hosted the 2012 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP18) where State Parties agreed to extend the Kyoto Protocol, and has participated in the Conference each year since. In 2016, Qatar signed the Paris Agreement. Qatar remains engaged regarding the challenge of climate change through cooperation with international agencies, including the UNFCCC and the IPCC. 

I was informed of some local efforts to cut the emission of greenhouse gases such as through the creation of the Qatar Rail, and through initiatives of Qatar Petroleum. Additionally, Qatar has invested in the extension of a water desalination plant using technology that will improve its production efficiency while reducing the use of gas in production systems in a show of its commitment to the environment. 

Qatar also co-founded the Global Green Growth Institute and funds its operations in developing countries.

Areas for improvement 

While Qatar’s efforts must be welcomed, Qatar could conduct more research to increase the efficiency, and therefore, the use of solar energy technology. Recycling remains minimal and should be encouraged and used more systematically. Technology transfer from developed countries will help Qatar reduce emissions. This reduction in emissions will have positive implications on human rights (including the right to health) not just in Qatar, but around the world as well.

Migration

Good practices/developments

Internationally, Qatar has been funding assistance to several refugee crises, directly or through support to UNHCR and IOM in countries in situations of conflict, and in countries of refuge in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. 

Locally, over 85% of Qatar’s population and over 92% of its labour force are migrant workers. The Government has committed to improvements and the 2018-2022 technical cooperation agreement with the ILO is an example of this engagement. Several new laws have been enacted in recent years that have increased the compatibility of Qatar’s legal framework with international human rights standards. 

The most notable new laws are the following:

  • Law no. 15 of 2017 on domestic workers
  • Law no. 11 of 2018 regulating asylum
  • Law no. 13 of 2018 on the entry and exit of expatriates
  • Law 21 of 2019 on the elections of representatives of workers

Whereas the kafala (sponsorship) system persists, the removal of the exit visa requirement for some categories of migrant workers is an improvement, though domestic workers remain excluded, among others. Similarly, I call on the authorities to remove the Non-Objection Certificate (NOC) requirement requiring the approval of employers to change jobs – a requirement affecting a large portion of the migrant workforce. 

The new temporary national minimum wage is a step in the right direction while steps are taken to instate a higher and non-discriminatory permanent minimum wage. I was informed that a Red Crescent-managed shelter for abused workers will soon start operating. Migrant worker representatives now sit in bi-annual forums with the Ministry of Labour and see this as significant step in the right direction and a forum where their voices can be heard. Such initiatives are crucial and must be encouraged, and their frequency increased. 

Additional improvements include the creation of “Dispute Settlement Committees” composed of a Judge and two labour representatives and the launching of “Workers Committees” - as a way to ensure that workers voices are heard. A “Workers Fund” designed to compensate unpaid workers while their claims are processed is in its pilot phase.
Despite Qatar’s progress in these areas, serious concerns remain.

Areas for improvement

Protections for (usually female) migrant domestic workers continue to lag behind those for other foreign workers. Domestic workers remain excluded from some of the recent labour law changes, including the ability to change jobs and leave the country at will. In practice, many domestic workers still do not enjoy the days off work prescribed by law, and the law is not clear as to whether they have to stay indoors during their days off. Furthermore, changing jobs to a different or higher-paying occupation remains too difficult in practice for most domestic workers. Many domestic workers continue to work 16 hours daily with few realistic avenues to protest, despite this being prohibited by law. Many are denied mobile phones by their employers, hindering their access to the outside world. 

While the Non-Objection Certificate (NOC) is free by law, some companies illegally charge employees a fee for its issuance. 

The recently announced temporary minimum wage of 750 Qatari Ryal (around USD 200) per month is low, and I hope that the permanent minimum wage will be significantly higher, non-discriminatory and apply to all sectors of the economy. 

In order to completely abolish the Kafala system in law as well as in practice, substantial further actions are required, including allowing all migrant workers to change jobs at any time, and the removal of the exit visa requirement for all migrant workers. 

Access to justice in cases where their rights have been violated continues to be a serious challenge for many migrant workers including domestic workers for different reasons including the lack of legal aid (only available in criminal cases), language barriers during encounters with the police, or while attempting to file a complaint at the Ministry of Labour, for instance. Migrant workers must be able to enjoy fuller access to justice no matter who their employer is. 

Sensitizing employers about the rights of workers is much needed and increased capacity for labour inspectors is necessary. An “anonymous hotline” to report grievances that has been put in place for workers building Qatar’s World Cup stadiums is a practice that could be replicated across the workforce. 

Migrant workers are often not aware of where exactly to go for justice. Some reported a lack of adequate protection for workers who file complaints against employers. Too many migrant workers are still scared to file complaints as many who have filed complaints have been deported at the instance of their employers or cannot work in the meantime. 

More private shelters are needed, including shelters for men who file complaints against employers.

A central database for all complaints filed at the Ministry of Labour that the deportation courts and the police can access would substantially improve the situation of those migrant workers who file complaints. 

Although the Wage Protection System (WPS) is a positive measure instated by the Government, it still has some blind spots, and there are reports that some companies have delayed some migrant workers’ salaries without the WPS detecting these delays, and such delays can have serious adverse consequences on the lives of migrants and their families. The WPS should therefore be improved.

The Gulf Crisis 

The 2017 diplomatic crisis facing Qatar since 2017 has caused hardship and inconvenience to many of its citizens, but also to residents, including migrant workers, who have suffered an increase in the cost of some commodities in Qatar as a result of the crisis. While Qatar has exercised restraint in its response, Qatari students in countries involved in the crisis were affected, access for Qataris to places of faith was hindered, and some Qatari families with relatives in the other Gulf countries were separated from their kith and kin for different periods of time.

My visit to Qatar has been a productive and fruitful mission. The above comments are preliminary in nature and are not comprehensive in scope. I will present my full and detailed report of the visit with recommendations to the Government and other stakeholders to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2020.