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(Beirut) – Vague provisions of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) joint security agreement raise concerns. Member countries could use the agreement to suppress free expression and undermine privacy rights of citizens and residents.

Five of the six GCC countries – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman – have ratified the November 2012 agreement. The Kuwaiti parliament is debating its ratification, though some members have expressed strong objections. Kuwait should not ratify the agreement in its current form, Human Rights Watch said.

“The security agreement gives gulf governments another legal pretext to stamp out dissent,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Citizens and residents of the gulf should note that their governments have agreed to share personal information at the whim of an interior minister.”

The agreement’s 20 provisions include a vaguely worded article that would suppress “interference in the domestic affairs” of other GCC countries, which could be used to criminalize criticism of gulf countries or rulers. Another provision provides for sharing citizens’ and residents’ personal data at the discretion of Interior Ministry officials.

The agreement is divided into several sections that detail security cooperation, regulation of borders, cooperation in rescue operations, and extradition obligations. Some provisions appear to allow authorities to infringe on free expression, Human Rights Watch said. For example, article 3 stipulates: “Each state party should take legal measures on any act considered a crime under its existing legislation when its citizens or residents interfere in the domestic affairs of any other state parties.”

The agreement does not define further what behavior may constitute “interfering in domestic affairs of other state parties.” Since 2011, gulf countries have investigated and prosecuted their citizens for criticizing other GCC states or their rulers. A Kuwaiti appeals court, for example, on October 28, 2013 upheld a 10-year prison sentence against a local blogger for comments on Twitter that the court determined insulted individuals including the kings of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s terrorism court on June 24, 2013 convicted seven government critics and sentenced them to prison for allegedly inciting protests and harming public order after they posted commentary on Facebook, and four of the seven faced the additional charge of “supporting those who are called ‘revolutionaries of Bahrain’ and calling for solidarity with them and challenging the [GCC] Peninsula Shield forces stationed there.”

The agreement calls on GCC countries to “extradite persons in their territory who have been charged or convicted by competent authorities in any state party.” Each of the GCC countries has prosecuted people solely for exercising their rights to free expression, association, and peaceful assembly. This agreement could extend the reach of those countries into the other member countries.

Following the agreement’s adoption during the GCC Summit in Manama in December 2012, the GCC secretary-general, Abdullatif Al-Zayani, confirmed that the agreement is intended to curb domestic dissent. He said: “The security pact will empower each GCC country to take legal action, based on its own legislation, against citizens or residents or organized groups that are linked to crime, terrorism, or dissension…”

Other articles stipulate that governments must share private information about citizens and residents. Article 4, for instance, states, “Each state party shall cooperate by providing other parties on demand with information and personal data about citizens or residents of the requesting state, in the realm of the remit of interior ministries.” The articles make no reference to whether a country must show evidence of criminal activity or provide a legal basis for sharing citizens’ or residents’ personal information. The agreement does not indicate that a legal process or court order would be required, nor does it impose any meaningful safeguards to protect the right to privacy or avoid abuses of power, apparently leaving implementation solely to the discretion of the interior ministers of GCC countries.

Under article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), “[n]o one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.” ICCPR General Comment 16 further defines privacy rights, stating that “competent public authorities should only be able to call for such information relating to an individual’s private life the knowledge of which is essential in the interests of society as understood under the Covenant. Accordingly, the Committee recommends that States should indicate in their reports the laws and regulations that govern authorized interferences with private life.”

The UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression has stated further that article 17 requires any interference with privacy, including government access to personal data, to be necessary for a legitimate aim, proportionate, and prescribed by law, meeting a standard of clarity and precision so that individuals can foresee the article’s application.

Among GCC countries, only Kuwait and Bahrain have ratified the ICCPR, but its provisions constitute an authoritative source and guideline reflecting international best practice. The security pact’s obligation for GCC countries to share private information about private citizens and residents without stating a legal basis, without a defined legal process to safeguard the right to privacy, and under the unchecked discretion of interior ministers appears to constitute “arbitrary interference” by authorities into the privacy rights or gulf citizens and residents, Human Rights Watch said.

Article 21 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which all GCC countries have ratified, stipulates that, “[n]o one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with regard to his privacy, family, home or correspondence.” Article 32 guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and to impart news to others by any means.

The agreement also contains a provision that provides for “support or aid on request to any state party … to counter security unrest and disasters” (article 10). The article appears to sanction intervention such as the 2011 Peninsula Shield operation in Bahrain, during which GCC troops bolstered Bahraini forces in suppressing peaceful pro-reform protests.

According to its ratification stipulation, the agreement went into force on December 27, 2013, 30 days after the fourth country, Bahrain, ratified the agreement. By January 14, 2014, five of the six GCC states had ratified the agreement. On April 3, the Kuwaiti parliament’s foreign affairs committee rejected the agreement, as three of the five members contended that it violates Kuwait’s constitution. Kuwaiti authorities, however, are pushing parliament to ratify the agreement later this year.

“Kuwait’s government should heed the concerns of the members of parliament, drop efforts to ratify the security agreement in its current form, and insist that any future GCC agreement clearly safeguard the constitutional and human rights of GCC residents,” Stork said.

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