Human Rights Watch called on Kuwait to revoke laws that discriminate against women and long-term non-citizens of Kuwait. In a report issued before the opening of the Kuwaiti National Assembly on October 28, Human Rights Watch also called on Kuwait to amend its Penal Code and Printing and Publications Law to protect freedom of expression.
The 38-page report, "Promises Betrayed: Denial of Rights of Bidun, Women, and Freedom of Expression," details Kuwaiti laws and practices which systematically discriminate against women and stateless Bidun, and laws which criminalize free expression by journalists, academics, and writers. These laws contravene Kuwait's international treaty obligations, including the six human rights treaties that Kuwait has signed since 1968.
"Kuwait's commitments to these treaties are just empty promises," said Hanny Megally, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "They are not worth the paper they are written on," he said.
Human Rights Watch said that Kuwaiti women face severe discrimination in both public and private life. Under Kuwaiti penal law, men who kill female relatives in so-called "honor crimes" serve a maximum three-year sentence and are not prosecuted for murder. Women are banned from voting and standing for election, cannot contract their own marriage or divorce without the agreement of a male guardian or judge, and are barred in practice from many public positions, including serving as judges. The National Assembly voted against women's suffrage in November 1999, and is expected to vote on new legislation, including legislation granting women the right to vote but not stand for election, in the new session.
Human Rights Watch also criticized Kuwait's treatment of its 120,000 Bidun residents, many of whom have lived in Kuwait for decades or generations and who should be eligible for naturalization but have not been granted it. Since the mid-1980s, they have faced widespread and systematic discrimination, including violations of their right to enter and leave Kuwait, to marry and found a family, and to work. Their children's right to education, to be registered immediately after birth, to acquire a nationality are also violated.
In 1999 Kuwait promised social benefits and five-year residency permits to Bidun who renounced their claim to Kuwaiti nationality. After the National Assembly passed legislation in May 2000 making less than a third of the Bidun eligible to apply for naturalization, the Ministry of Interior said it would prosecute and deport Bidun who had not been naturalized or obtained a foreign nationality.
"Bidun parents are being pressured into relinquishing their legitimate claims to Kuwaiti nationality under government programs that promise them access to education and health care for their children," said Megally. "But what will happen to them and their children five years from now?," he added.
Human Rights Watch also urged amendments to Kuwait's laws on free expression. The Printing and Publications Law and Penal Code mandates criminal punishments for journalistic expression deemed to insult the Amir of Kuwait, Islam or Islamic morality, and non-journalistic expression perceived to challenge a conservative interpretation of Islamic orthodoxy and morality.