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Kuwait: Abuses against Marginalized Groups

Annual Rights Review Recommends Attention to Status of Domestic Workers, Stateless, and Women

(Kuwait City) - Kuwait improved its human rights record over the past year, but systemic abuses continued against marginalized populations, including migrant domestic workers and stateless Bidun, Human Rights Watch said today in issuing its World Report 2010. Women still lack equal civil and political rights, and the rights to free expression and privacy continued to come under government attack.

The National Assembly passed a new labor law with tougher penalties, including imprisonment, for private companies that abuse their workers. However, the new law does not cover the country's 600,000 migrant domestic workers who remain excluded from standard labor protections for other workers such as a limit to hours of work and access to a clear mechanism for resolving labor disputes.

"Kuwaiti lawmakers have taken important steps to address gaps in the rights of its migrant workforce," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Omitting domestic workers, who need the most protection, signals to employers that the door remains open for abuse and exploitation."

Kuwait is among the 15 countries in the Middle East and North Africa - and more than 90 countries worldwide - whose records in 2009 are evaluated in the 612-page World Report, Human Rights Watch's 20th annual review of human rights practices.

Migrant domestic workers in Kuwait are particularly vulnerable to abuse because no law and no government agency protects them when employers fail to pay their full salaries on time, make them work long hours without a day off, lock them in the home, confiscate their passports, or deprive them of food.

The isolated nature of domestic work also increases the workers' risk of physical and sexual abuse, and makes prosecutions of abusers more difficult. The availability and accessibility of shelters for those fleeing abuse is inadequate.

Another vulnerable group is Kuwait's 120,000 Bidun, longtime residents whom the government does not recognize as Kuwaiti nationals and who are stateless. They continue to suffer discriminatory access to health care, education, and violations of their right to marry and have a family. The National Assembly resumed discussion earlier this month of a draft law that would grant Bidun greater civil rights, including the right to official birth and marriage certificates, but these issues have been under discussion for many years without being adopted into law.

Kuwait has a measure of press freedom, but the arrest in November of a prominent Kuwaiti journalist and government critic, Muhammad Abd al-Qadir al-Jasim, on charges of libel and slander against the prime minister revealed the limits of that freedom. The public prosecutor based these charges on a personal complaint the prime minister made against al-Jasim for allegedly criticizing him at a private gathering.

The government also impinges on freedom of expression and the right to privacy through a 2007 law that criminalizes "imitating the appearance of the opposite sex." This vague standard leaves individuals vulnerable to arbitrary arrest and detention, and threatens subjecting personal freedoms to "morality" laws. The police arrest individuals based on subjective evaluations of their dress or behavior, and in some cases, have abused them while detaining them.  

In October 2009, Kuwait's constitutional court granted women the right to apply for passports even without the explicit consent of their husbands. However, broad discrimination against women continues in the areas of the right to Kuwaiti nationality, property rights, and family law.

"As Kuwait moves into the new decade, the government needs to match its economic progress by honoring its human rights commitments," Stork said. "Kuwait's laws should protect the rights of all, including the more vulnerable members of society."

Human Rights Watch recommended that Kuwaiti authorities take the following steps in 2010:

  • Extend labor protections to domestic workers and remove legal and practical obstacles to freely changing employers.
  • Investigate and prosecute abuses against domestic workers more vigorously and offer abused workers adequate access to shelter.
  • Take urgent steps to end discrimination against the Bidun - in particular, amend provisions in the Nationality Law that deny their civil, economic, and social rights, including the right to citizenship.
  • Cease criminal prosecution for libel and slander and repeal the laws that criminalize defamation.
  • Stop arresting individuals based on their dress, gender identity, or presentation, and repeal the 2007 Penal Code amendments that permit this arbitrary detention.
  • End discrimination against women in rights to Kuwaiti nationality, residency, and family law, and in their property rights.

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