UN rights chief encouraged by positive changes in Persian Gulf countries

24 April 2010

A top United Nations official today urged Member States of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to continue the current trend of reforms intended to improve human rights, saying authorities in the region had facilitated several positive social changes.

“I believe it essential that, wherever possible, the current positive momentum is not just maintained but accelerated,” said Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who is on a 10-day visit of GCC countries. She has visited Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain and Abu Dhabi from where she will travel to Oman.

“I believe, if the current trend continues, all the GCC countries may be on the cusp of some very dynamic changes that will bring major benefits to current and future generations,” Ms. Pillay told a news conference in Abu Dhabi.

Ms. Pillay noted that women in all six GCC countries had access to higher education, pointing out that she had learned that more than half the university students in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait are women.

“The next stage, which I hope will quickly gather momentum, is to ensure that all these educated young women have access to meaningful careers,” she said.

Different forms of male guardianship for women, however, remained a problem in some countries, and distinct strands of discrimination persisted in others, Ms. Pillay said. It was, nevertheless, encouraging to see significant progress on women's rights in all the four countries she has visited so far, albeit at different speeds and different stages of development, she said.

The GCC countries had achieved a high level of success in access to social benefits, including health, housing, food and education, Ms. Pillay said, noting that many of those benefits were given without discrimination, with groups such as stateless people and migrant workers generally having access to certain key services.

The access to full civil and political rights for some groups, however, remained uneven, although she had been reassured that progress was being made.

“In all cases, the Heads of State and ministers whom I met expressed their interest to continue progress on attaining international human rights standards. I am especially heartened by the fact that, in the four countries where I've held talks with the Governments so far, there was agreement that human rights are not inconsistent with Islam,” Ms. Pillay said.

She said the treatment of migrant workers was a major point of discussion in all the countries where problems arise from lack of protection safeguards in the so-called kafala – or sponsorship – system which leaves migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation in an unequal power relationship with their employers.

She said Governments were aware of the problem, noting that Bahrain recently abolished the sponsorship system and adopted a new labour law and visa system that has transformed the relationship between employers and migrant workers into proper contracts.

“However, in Bahrain – as well as in all the other five countries – the numerous highly vulnerable domestic workers do not yet receive anything like adequate legal protection. But, again, all the Governments I have spoken to so far recognize that this needs to change,” said Ms. Pillay.

She said she was encouraged by the emerging national human rights institutions in the region, noting that Qatar's national institution has already acquired the top-grade “A Status” – meaning it had satisfied a rigorous set of international standards as laid down by the UN General Assembly.

Civil society organizations also continue to emerge in the region, but are still relatively few and fragile by comparison with many other countries, Ms. Pillay said.

“In those countries where I have heard allegations that either human rights defenders or journalists are being stifled, or even arrested, I have urged the Governments to rectify the problem by establishing a proper legal framework that enables both civil society and the media to operate freely and contribute to healthy social and political debate,” she added.

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‘Encouraging’ changes under way in Persian Gulf countries, says UN rights chief

A top United Nations official today pointed to “encouraging” efforts to improve human rights by the six nations that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council, while also noting ongoing concerns in areas such as women’s rights and freedom of expression, association and assembly.