UN High Commissioner lauds GCC for seeking to improve human rights, but insists much more needs to be done

April 19, 2010

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Monday said that she believed there was an “encouraging level of governmental activity to improve human rights” in the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States, mainly in the areas of economic and social rights, children’s rights and human trafficking.

However, there was also “an array of continuing concerns about women’s rights, migration, statelessness, and freedom of expression, association and assembly,” Navanethem Pillay said in a speech at the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, at the start of a ten-day six-country mission intended to improve cooperation between the GCC states and the UN human rights system.

The High Commissioner said 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.

Four GCC countries, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have already been through the process, with Kuwait’s review scheduled for next month and Oman’s in 2011.

The GCC states had received, during the UPR sessions, recommendations focusing on four concerns in particular: women’s rights, migration, statelessness, and freedom of expression, association and assembly, Pillay 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,” the High Commissioner told students and faculty at the King Abdullah University, a new coeducational university in Saudi Arabia.

Progress has also been achieved in other areas, she said

“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 hailed the fact that women now have the right to vote and have access to public office in several GCC countries.

However, she said that women were still unable 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.”

Pillay 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 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. The situation of migrant domestic workers is of particular concern.”

The High Commissioner 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.”

But Pillay highlighted the positive trend that has led some GCC countries to abolish or reconsider the sponsorship (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.”

She urged the GCC countries 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. 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.”

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.



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About the author

Born August 3, 1960 in Monastir, Tunisia
Media career:
  • ABC News (Tunisia)
  • Bahrain Tribune
  • Gulf News
  • Bahrain Television News
Teaching career:
  • Monastir (Tunisia)
  • University of Bahrain
  • MA  Mass Communications, University of Leicester
  • BA  in English & US literature and studies, University of Tunis

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