Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 April - 5 May 2010
Issue No. 996
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Outreach to GCC

The UN high commissioner for human rights just ended a tour of Gulf Council states, reports Dina Ezzat

From 16 to 27 April the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay visited the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Oman. This was the first visit for such a high level UN human rights official to this group of states.

In every Gulf capital Pillay met with top executive officials including Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz and some of his senior aides. She also met with members of the national human rights institutions.

"This mission marks an unprecedented effort by the office of the high commissioner for human rights to engage more actively and effectively with the governments, national institutions and civil society in the region," Pillay said in Qatar, the second leg of her tour.

According to the UN envoy, a key objective for her was to access "first-hand understanding of current dynamics in the GCC region in relation to human rights, including reported progress in some areas as well as specific issues of particular concern". She also said that she hoped that her tour would have a positive impact in "encouraging the level of governmental activity to improve human rights" in the region, especially in the area of economic and social rights, children's rights and human trafficking.

Tactfully but clearly Pillay made her subtle references, in every stop, to the controversial issues of women's rights, migration, statelessness, and freedom of expression, association and assembly.

While in Saudi Arabia, Pillay insisted that the fact that some member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference have modified their personal status laws "with respect to women's rights, including marriage, divorce and public participation" is an indication that the "dynamic interpretations of Islamic traditions... and Islamic jurisprudence" were far from incompatible with women rights. She alluded that much more could be done in this respect.

Indeed, 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.

Also during her Saudi Arabia stop Pillay expressed concern about the quality of treatment of migrant workers as "a particular concern". "Reports consistently cite ongoing practices of unlawful confiscation of passports, withholding of wages and exploitation by unscrupulous recruitment agencies and employers," she said.

Still, the UN high commissioner for human rights 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 statements and talks, especially in Kuwait, 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 statelessness Convention.

According to one of her accompanying aides the remarks were "well-received". "She made sure to offend nobody but she tried to get her message across," the aide told Al-Ahram Weekly from the United Arab Emirates on condition of anonymity. "It was clear that Pillay was reaching out and not confronting, especially that there are some signs -- even if limited -- of improving the observation of human rights," she added.

Indeed, Pillay herself said that she was keen during her tour to examine possible channels and modes of cooperation between the office of the high commissioner and the respective capitals that she visited. She particularly stressed the keenness of the high commissioner office to cooperate with national human rights institutions, provided they act independently from their governments, "due to their unique mandate, which can include advising a government on its international obligations, reviewing legislation and administrative practices, monitoring the national human rights situation, and responding to human rights violations".

The national human rights institutions, Pillay added, act as important bridges within society as well as with regional and international forums," and are capable of bringing "tangible benefits" as they monitor human rights processes and cooperate with their governments as well as with the concerned international bodies to improve these conditions.

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