Qatar’s government must introduce sweeping reforms to protect migrant workers and tackle domestic violence in order to meet international standards, said Amnesty International, ahead of the country’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva today.
The Gulf state has come under increasing international pressure to prove its commitment to human rights since it won its bid to host the 2022 World Cup. It has been widely criticized for its treatment of migrant workers and for the lengthy imprisonment of a Qatari poet.
“Despite repeated assurances that change is afoot, Qatar continues to fall short with severe restrictions on freedom of expression, incidents of torture in detention and laws that enable the exploitation of migrant workers and fail victims of domestic violence,” said Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
“The government has acknowledged that reform is needed to bring the country in line with international standards yet efforts to introduce concrete measures have been sluggish at best.
“The 2022 World Cup has thrown the spotlight on migrant workers’ rights. The review of its human rights record provides the perfect opportunity for Qatar to make good on the promises it has already made to improve the situation for migrant workers and prove that it is serious about advancing rights across the board.”
Migrant workers’ rights
Amnesty International has documented a range of abuses faced by migrant workers in Qatar in two detailed reports examining the situation for construction workers and domestic workers. Many are deceived about the terms of their employment, forced to work excessive hours with few or no days off and in some cases their treatment amounts to forced labour. Under Qatar’s repressive Sponsorship Law all foreign workers must obtain their employer’s permission to leave the country (the “exit permit”) or change jobs. More than 60,000 people from 119 countries have signed an Amnesty International petition to the Qatari government calling for urgent reforms to prevent the abuse of migrant workers.
“The Qatari authorities have admitted that the Sponsorship Law needs to be overhauled and have said that they are reviewing it, but now they must match words with action,” said Philip Luther.
The government said on 1 May that it had received the results of an investigation by the international law firm, DLA Piper, which it had commissioned to examine the situation of migrant workers. Its widely anticipated response is due soon.
“Qatar must respond robustly to the DLA Piper report with concrete proposals for action; first and foremost, it should abolish the exit permit - a particularly blatant violation of migrants’ rights,” said Philip Luther.
Amnesty International’s latest report published in April 2014 highlighted the plight of women migrant domestic workers. They are not covered by the country’s labour laws and are often left even more exposed to exploitation.
“The government has stated for several years that it will pass a law to secure the rights of domestic workers, yet there is still no timeframe for this or information about the content of such a law. Now is the time to put that right,” said Philip Luther.
Domestic violence and discrimination against women
Women also continue to face widespread discrimination under Qatar’s family law. Around 28 per cent of Qatari women experience violence in the home according to a 2008 government study, but there is no law specifically criminalizing domestic violence.
“The state’s continued failure to provide adequate protection to female victims of domestic violence is inexcusable. It is a stain on Qatar’s reputation and undermines Qatar’s claims to be at the forefront of protecting women’s rights in the region. All laws that discriminate against women and girls or that could facilitate violence against them must be abolished,” said Philip Luther.
In particular, Qatar must also decriminalize sex outside of marriage. Women who report rape or sexual violence in Qatar are at risk of being charged with “illicit relations” and face prison sentences if convicted.
Freedom of expression
So far, there has been no move to lift strict restrictions on freedom of expression. Instead the government is seeking to tighten its controls through new legislation. In a case that clearly illustrates these shortfalls the Qatari poet Mohammed al-Ajami, whom Amnesty International considers a prisoner of conscience, is currently serving a 15-year prison term for poetry which was said to be critical of the ruling family.
Amnesty International is calling on the government of Qatar to remove legal provisions criminalizing the peaceful expression of the right to freedom of expression, and ensure that the 2012 draft Media Law and 2013 draft Cyber-Crimes Law adhere to international standards prior to enactment.