H.R.H. Shaikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani
Emir of Qatar
We write to you in connection with Qatar’s candidacy for membership in the UN Human Rights Council as one of five states contending for four seats in the Asia group. In accordance with General Assembly resolution 60/251, which established the Human Rights Council, when electing members to the council, member states should take into account (1) the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights and (2) their voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto. Additionally, members elected to the council should uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights and fully cooperate with the council.
We welcome in this regard that Qatar has extended a standing invitation to Special Procedures of the Council since 2010. At the same time, we urge the Government of Qatar to address critical issues relating to migrant workers’ rights, freedom of expression, and ratification of human rights treaties, in order to fulfil the standards set by the UN General Assembly for membership in the Human Rights Council.
Migrant Workers’ Rights
Nearly 90% of Qatar’s population of 2 million are foreigners, and a significant proportion of these are low-paid migrant workers. These workers typically pay exorbitant recruitment fees and employers regularly take control of their passports when they arrive in Qatar, contributing to conditions of forced labor in the country. Many migrant workers complain that their employers fail to pay their wages on time, if at all. Qatari law prohibits migrant workers from unionizing and prevents them from engaging in strikes, although they make up 99 percent of the private sector workforce. Many migrant workers live in cramped, unsanitary conditions, especially those working without documentation.
The kafala (sponsorship) system ties a migrant worker’s legal residence to his or her employer, or sponsor, and in practice makes it difficult if not impossible for workers to freely change their jobs or employers. In Qatar it is codified into law under the terms of Law No. 4 of 2009, which regulates the sponsorship, employment, and residence of expatriate workers. The law provides for the transfer of workers to other sponsors under certain conditions, but in practice workers are rarely able to secure the “No Objection Certificates” that they require from their existing sponsor to transfer their employment legally to another sponsor. It also requires that foreign workers obtain exit permits from their sponsors when they wish to leave Qatar; in practice, this enables employers to arbitrarily prevent their employees from leaving Qatar and returning to their home country. Workers can become undocumented when employers report them to the authorities as having absconded, or when they fail to pay to renew workers’ annual ID cards. A lack of proper documentation leaves workers at risk of arrest and detention or deportation. It also leaves them at risk of further labor exploitation.
Qatari authorities announced labor reforms in May 2014 in response to widespread condemnation of human rights abuses of construction workers as the country builds stadia and other facilities to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Yet, the announced reforms, for which there is no timetable nor draft legislation, will not adequately protect migrant workers from human trafficking, forced labor, and other rights violations, and it is unclear whether they will provide protection for migrant domestic workers, mostly women, who are especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
In May 2014, Qatari authorities announced that “the current kafala system will be replaced by a system based on employment contracts” but the details it provided indicated that workers would still be bound to their employers. The statement announced that workers would be able to secure “No Objection Certificates,” but only after five years of employment with one employer, and that an automated e-government system would issue exit visas after a 72-hour grace period prior to a foreign worker’s departure. The statement gave no details on how or when the government would implement the reforms. On June 5, the Minister of Labor announced that the model contract his ministry is developing will determine whether or not workers will require an exit visa to leave Qatar and whether or not they will receive a ‘No Objection Certificate’ at the end of their contract.
In addition to the problems the general migrant worker population faces, numerous reports have documented the manner in which many domestic workers suffer verbal, physical, and in some cases, sexual abuse at their places of work. These reports include cases of employers who do not allow the domestic worker they employ to speak to strangers, or lock them into the homes in which they are employed. Employers require many domestic workers to work without receiving a day off. Qatari labor law affords no protection to migrant domestic workers, and does not require employers to allow them rest days or rest periods when at work, or to limit their working hours. A regional unified contract for domestic workers, expected to be approved in 2014 and then utilized in Qatar and some other GCC states, falls short of the minimum standards outlined in the recently adopted International Labour Organization’s Domestic Workers’ Convention.
In recognition of Qatar’s pending candidacy to the Human Rights Council, we call on the Qatari government to:
- Immediately abolish the exit visa system.
- Enforce the prohibition of passport confiscation; require employers to reimburse workers for any recruiting fees they are found to have paid to recruiting agents in Qatar or abroad.
- Enforce domestic labor law legislation, investigate violations of law and abuses by employers, including employers of domestic workers, and prosecute abusive employers.
- Reform the kafala (sponsorship) system to enable workers to change employers at will before the completion of their contract.
- Ratify the ILO Domestic Workers Convention and codify its provisions into law.
- Provide domestic workers with the same labor rights as other migrant workers.
Freedom of Expression
In February, Qatar’s cabinet approved the Critical Infrastructure Information Protection Law, details of which remained uncertain at this writing as the authorities had not made the law public. The authorities did not consult the state-funded Doha Center for Media, whose role is to promote media freedom in Qatar, when preparing the draft law.
Authorities have yet to enact a problematic draft media law of 2012 that would expose journalists in Qatar to prohibitive financial sanctions if they publish information that “damages relations with other Arab states.”
Qatar’s penal code also contains provisions that are inconsistent with free speech standards under international law. Article 134, for example, prescribes a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment for anyone who is convicted of criticizing the emir or vice-emir.
In August 2014, authorities detained two British citizens who were in Qatar to research and document living and working conditions for migrant workers, and held them in incommunicado detention for more than 10 days before releasing them without charge.
In February, an appeal court reduced to 15 years the life imprisonment sentence imposed on poet Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, a Qatari national, in November 2012, by a court in Doha. The court convicted him of incitement to overthrow the regime after he recited poems critical of Qatar’s then-emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.
We call on the Qatari government to:
- Repeal provisions of the penal code and the new cybercrime law that violate the right to freedom of expression, including provisions that criminalize purported “insults” to government officials.
- Immediately release Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami and expunge his conviction.
The upcoming election to the Human Rights Council provides an important opportunity for Qatar to demonstrate an enhanced commitment to addressing urgent domestic human rights concerns. We thank you for your attention to these matters, and welcome any comments or questions you may have.
Ratify and Implement Key Human Rights Instruments
Given the obligation of Human Rights Council members to uphold the highest standards of human rights, we also call on the government of Qatar to:
- Ratify without delay the core human rights treaties to which it is not yet a party, namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICRMW), the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (CPED).
- Ratify International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions No. 87 ad 98 on Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining, respectively.
Sarah Leah Whitson
Middle East and North Africa Division