Human Rights Developments
The Emir of Kuwait dissolved the National Assembly on July 3, 1986, during the Iran-Iraq war, citing concerns that national security was being compromised by open debate. Although the war ended in July 1988, the Kuwaiti government continued in 1990 to resist calls to restore parliamentary rule and to relax the severe restrictions imposed on freedom of expression and assembly. It continued to rule by decree, to tolerate torture, and to permit secret trial of security cases by special tribunals whose decisions were not subject to appeal. Although the August 2 Iraqi invasion eliminated the Kuwaiti government's power to continue many of these practices, it did not lead to any willingness on the part of the Emir and his government-in-exile to give firm commitments of reform should Kuwait be liberated.
The beginning of 1990 witnessed intensified calls for the restoration of the National Assembly. When the Emir had dissolved the Assembly, he had also suspended some key provisions of the 1962 Kuwaiti Constitution, including Article 107, which stipulates that when the Assembly is dissolved, elections for a new legislature must be held within two months. Otherwise, the article mandates, "the dissolved Assembly shall be restored to its full constitutional authority and shall meet immediately as if the dissolution had not taken place. The Assembly shall then continue functioning until the new Assembly is elected." Free of Article 107's constraints, the government took full advantage of Article 71, which allows the government to rule by decree "if the National Assembly is not in session or is dissolved," provided that decrees are not contrary to the Constitution. Opposition members maintained that suspension of Article 107 was unconstitutional, as were government decrees banning or severely restricting free speech and assembly.
A major source of discontent were restrictions on press freedom guaranteed by Article 37 of the Constitution. Since radio and television were owned by the state and usually reflected only government views, Kuwaiti newspapers and the foreign media were the only sources of independent information. Kuwaiti newspapers were privately owned and enjoyed more freedom than in any of the surrounding countries. Once the National Assembly was dissolved, the government enacted a law giving itself the authority to close a newspaper for up to two years or to revoke its license. It also subjected newspapers to a system of strict prior censorship, with prison penalties of up to three years and fines of up to five thousand Kuwaiti dinars ($17,150) for violators.
Such censorship continued in 1990, with a Ministry of Information official placed in every newspaper office to review articles. Censorship also extended to foreign publications. Two Jordanian newspapers, al-Ra'y and al-Dustur, were banned in January for reporting on the campaign in Kuwait to restore the National Assembly. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)33 agreements ratified by Kuwait after the National Assembly was dissolved added more restrictions on the Kuwaiti press by banning from all GCC countries publications critical of any member state.
Although Article 44 of the Constitution gives individuals "the right to assemble without permit or prior notification," Law 31 of 1970 subjects to fines and imprisonment "anyone who participates in a mass gathering of at least five people in a public place with the intention of disturbing public safety and who remains assembled after an order by public authorities to disperse is issued." Through a liberal interpretation of the law, the government banned all public assembly, and on January 9, 1990, banned any meeting that discusses "concrete national issues," including in diwaniyyas, the traditional Kuwaiti semi-public living rooms. It threatened legal action against violators.
Despite the government practice of forcibly dispersing them, peaceful meetings calling for restoration of parliamentary rule continued to be held in 1990. On January 8, two thousand people peacefully assembled in al-Jahra to hear speeches by former members of the National Assembly; they were disrupted by security forces who beat some, including Ahmed al-Shrai'an, a 70-year-old former Assembly member. On January 22, another peaceful assembly was forcibly dispersed by the police and ten were arrested; they were released two weeks later without charges having been filed.
Calls to restore democracy continued, and on April 22, the government announced plans to form a 75-member National Council: 25 to be appointed by the Emir and 50 to be chosen in an election to be held in June. The powers of the National Council as outlined in the royal decree were limited in comparison to the constitutionally mandated powers of the dissolved National Assembly. One of the Council's purposes, according to Crown Prince and Prime Minister Shaikh Saad, was to propose "limitations of freedom," since "an excess of freedom turns into anarchy." Despite promises by the government that the new National Council would not replace the dissolved National Assembly, a May 13 decree by the Emir designated the National Assembly Building as the venue for the new Council, giving credence to opposition fears.
On May 5, twenty-six former members of the National Assembly announced that they would boycott the elections as unconstitutional. On May 7, Ahmed al-Baqer, a former member of the Assembly, and a companion were arrested for distributing leaflets critical of the proposed National Council. The following day, security forces forcibly dispersed a diwaniyya meeting assembled to hear Dr. Ahmed al-Khatib, another former member of the Assembly. Eight people were arrested, including Dr. al-Khatib and other former members of the Assembly who were in attendance. Other former members were arrested when security forces dispersed further peaceful meetings on May 14 and 16. They were all released on bail and received a royal pardon without being charged or convicted.
National Council elections took place without incident on June 10. Under the Kuwaiti system of limited male franchise, only 62,123 were eligible to vote -- equivalent to eight percent of all citizens, or three percent of the total population of two million. Sixty-two percent of this small electorate -- 38,683 men -- took part in the election. Some members won with as few as 150 votes. No political parties were permitted, although voters were able to choose from among 348 candidates competing for the 50 elected seats.
A campaign by the Kuwaiti government against Shi'a community activists, started in September 1989, continued in 1990. Following bomb attacks that left one man dead during the annual Muslim pilgrimage in July 1989, Saudi Arabia arrested hundreds of Shi'a pilgrims, including many Kuwaitis. Sixteen Kuwaiti nationals were later executed in Saudi Arabia, on September 21. In protest, Kuwaiti Shi'as demonstrated in Kuwait demanding the return of the bodies of those killed and family visits for those still in detention. The Kuwaiti government responded by arresting more than 20 Shi'a leaders in September and November. Seyed Muhammed Baqer al-Musawi, a religious leader, was arrested, charged with planning terrorist acts and held incommunicado for most of his time in jail from September 23, 1989 until he was acquitted -- with three other defendants -- by a court on June 18, 1990. There were credible reports that the four were subjected to torture and ill-treatment by the State Security Intelligence Service.
Thirteen more Shi'a leaders were arrested on February 14 and 18, and released on bail on March 3, without being formally charged with any crime. Detainees included relatives of the sixteen Kuwaitis executed in Saudi Arabia and two members of the dissolved National Assembly: Hassan Habib al-Salman and Abdel Muhsen Jamal.
In September 1989, the government dissolved the board of directors of the Social and Cultural Association -- the only officially sanctioned philanthropic Shi'a society in Kuwait. Its deputy director, Khalil Musa al-Musa, was later arrested, on November 13, 1989, and detained for a month without charge, then rearrested in February 1990 and released in March on bail, again without ever being charged with a crime.
In 1990, the government continued to use the State Security Court for state security offenses. The Court is staffed by part-time judges who almost always meet in secret and whose decisions are not open to appeal.
It has been argued by some in Kuwait, including privately by government officials, that certain restrictions on freedom of the press, parliamentary debate and Shi'a activity were imposed partly in deference to the Iraqi government. It was contended that Iraq, recently at a war with Iran and engaged in severe repression of its own Shi'a, Kurdish and secular dissidents, would not tolerate free discussion, whether at home or within earshot of its citizens. Others put the blame on pressure from conservative Saudi Arabia.
Following the August 2 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Kuwaiti government-in-exile continued to come under critical scrutiny by the exiled Kuwaiti opposition, providing one measure of how the ruling al-Sabah family still fell short of democratic norms. Taking the lead in these criticisms were the Constitutional Movement, which includes 32 former members of the National Assembly, and the Committee of Forty-Five, a group of Kuwaiti business leaders, intellectuals, professors and former members of the National Assembly. These groups challenged restrictions on basic freedoms and the failure to reinstate the National Assembly.
In response to these criticisms, and to demonstrate national unity, the Kuwaiti government-in-exile called for a popular conference to be held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, between October 13 and 16. It was attended by 1,200 Kuwaitis from all walks of life. When the opposition finally agreed to take part in the conference, one of its leaders said that, while liberation of Kuwait was the primary and most urgent national task, the opposition did not see any reason why political reform could not start before liberation. He called for restoration of the 1962 Constitution and the 1986 National Assembly. Since the Emir had not called for new National Assembly elections within two months of the Assembly's dissolution, he argued, the dissolved Assembly should be re-convened in an open, emergency session. He also called for an expanded national-unity coalition government -- accountable to the reconvened National Assembly -- to formulate an effective policy to liberate Kuwait and to help Kuwaiti refugees.
The opposition program enjoyed wide support, even among religious groups and senior government officials, but the government as a whole was apparently not prepared to accede to the principal opposition demands. In his speech on the first day of the conference, the Crown Prince said that, after liberation, "guided by the Constitution of 1962, Kuwait will take the necessary measures to consolidate democracy and allow for more extensive participation on the part of the masses." This was one of the few concessions that the government made to the opposition, although its phraseology was weaker than the opposition wanted. In the same speech, the Crown Prince went on to argue that the critical situation in Kuwait precluded open debate and democratic reform, making clear that these would have to await liberation. Even then, he indicated, there would have to be restrictions on freedom of expression to preserve "national unity."
While no opposition member was allowed to address the conference, a moderate figure was permitted to take the podium -- Abdel Aziz al-Saqer, chairman of the Kuwait Chamber of Commerce and a former speaker of the National Assembly. While confirming that the al-Sabahs were guaranteed by the Constitution to be the royal family of Kuwait, he said that popular participation based on freedom of dialogue and majority rule was fundamental for the remaking of Kuwait. Popular participation, he noted, was clearly enshrined in the Constitution, which also separates the three branches of government and limits their powers. He also declared that "a free Kuwaiti press is a prerequisite for dialogue, to play the important role of a true medium between the people and the government, to oversee the execution of policy and to express the message of a free Kuwait to the world." And he pointed out that, in the final analysis, the Iraqi invasion itself was a disastrous result of the authoritarianism of the Iraqi regime. In a symbolic gesture, the government accepted that al-Saqer's speech would be considered an official document of the conference.
In closed sessions, according to participants, the opposition complained about the royal family's monopoly on government power, the government's haphazard information policy, and the failure to include qualified citizens more directly in the running of embassies and refugee-welfare programs. The opposition argued that, because of the absence of parliamentary oversight, defense policy was chaotic, public-finance decisions were not subject to scrutiny, and information policy under the Minister of Information -- a member of the royal family -- reflected only the family's views while alienating traditional allies of Kuwait. In response, the government promised to consult with the opposition and others in a systematic way, to improve its information policy, and to make room at the embassies for Kuwaiti professionals.
In the final communiqué, the conference affirmed the political leadership of the al-Sabah family. In its only reference to the Constitution, it also said that Kuwaiti society, after liberation, would be based on "our national unity and legitimate system that we have chosen and accepted, strengthened by consultation, democracy and popular participation and guided by our 1962 Constitution."
After the conference, some in the opposition accepted the government's position that issues of political reform would have to await liberation, while others flatly rejected this position or decided to wait and see whether the government would fulfill some of its promises. While following the conference some opposition figures were hesitant about voicing their disagreements, others were not. They continued to complain that the government -- the royal family in particular -- wielded all the real power, and that there was no mechanism for allowing popular oversight of government policy or holding government officials accountable for their actions. They also complained that the publicly funded media -- even after the replacement of the Minister of Information on November 25 -- reflected only the thinking of the government, especially the royal family, and not the views of the Kuwaiti people as a whole.
Contrary to some oblique references made by the government during the conference to the effect that it would marginalize or even dissolve the National Council, the government decided to keep the Council intact, even though its formation during the summer of 1990 had created a political crisis in Kuwait. However, following the conference, the Council was featured less prominently in the government-sponsored media. A government spokesman said that since the Constitution does not restrict the Emir's power to form, by election or appointment, any council or committee that he sees fit to create, the Council could continue in existence but would not be a substitute for the National Assembly.
On November 21, the Crown Prince announced the formation of a new body, the Supreme Advisory Council, containing 35 appointed members. It is headed by the Crown Prince himself and includes four other members of the royal family, four members of the opposition, a former speaker of the National Assembly, the president of the National Council, five members of the cabinet, other senior government officials, and several pro-government notables. The Advisory Council's mandate is "to help the Crown Prince/Prime Minister by offering advice on all the issues he consults it on, especially as they relate to the liberation of Kuwait." Many in the opposition criticized the Advisory Council as an empty gesture, since it does not have any power to challenge government decisions.
The United States maintained close relations with Kuwait during and after the Iran-Iraq war. In 1987, the US provided naval escorts to protect Kuwaiti shipping against attacks by Iran. Apart from its heavy financial cost, the operation took the lives of 37 Americans, according to the US Navy, when the USS Stark was accidentally hit by an Iraqi missile. The US was also one of the main suppliers of arms to the Kuwaiti military, the second largest customer for civilian imports, and the fourth largest customer for Kuwaiti exports.
Perhaps because of these close relations, the State Department chose to comment publicly on Kuwaiti human rights issues only once in 1990 before the invasion, and then only in weak terms. On April 24, after the Kuwaiti government had announced plans to form the National Council, a State Department spokesman said that the United States supported reforms that increased popular political participation but that it remained "up to the government and people of Kuwait to decide on the specific types of reform without outside interference."
Even following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Bush administration took care not to criticize the lack of Kuwaiti democracy. In a televised interview with David Frost taped on December 16, President Bush was asked about US support for democratic reform in Kuwait once the nation was liberated. The President responded by noting US support for democracy generally, but carefully avoided any critical reference to Kuwait. He then dismissed the issue, observing that none of the countries in the region was a democracy, and stating that the real issue was Iraqi aggression.
The Work of Middle East Watch
Middle East Watch monitored developments in Kuwait throughout the year. It was in close contact with some of the key figures in the movement to restore parliamentary life, who where either founding or current board members of the Arab Organization of Human Rights, one of the important regional organizations with which Middle East Watch closely cooperates. Given restrictions on speech and assembly in Kuwait, forces involved in the move to revive the National Assembly expressed their need for contact with Middle East Watch.
On May 10, Middle East Watch protested in a letter to the Emir the arrest of members of the dissolved National Assembly and others for peacefully voicing their criticism of the government. It deplored the arrests as contrary to promises made by the government to allow public participation in political life. The same day, Middle East Watch issued a newsletter, "Widespread Arrests in Kuwait."
Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Middle East Watch, in addition to monitoring Iraqi abuses in Kuwait (see chapter on Iraq and Occupied Kuwait, supra), kept in touch with the Kuwaiti government-in-exile, members of the Kuwaiti opposition and representatives of Kuwaiti humanitarian and professional groups. When the Kuwaiti government called for the Popular Conference in Jeddah, Middle East Watch sent a representative. Members of the opposition were especially keen on the presence of neutral observers. In the final communiqué, the conference called upon Human Rights Watch, among other groups, to monitor human rights conditions in occupied Kuwait and to try to prevail on the Iraqi government to allow human rights observers to enter the country.