(Beirut) – Kuwaiti authorities should immediately revoke a decree that effectively closed down the Kuwait chapter of Transparency International. The decree is the latest evidence of a government clampdown on peaceful criticism and free speech.
The Social Affairs and Labor Ministry issued a decree on May 7, 2015, that dissolved the board of the independent Kuwaiti Transparency Society (KTS) and put its management under five government appointees. The appointees then terminated staff contracts and began disposing of the organization’s assets, a source close to the group told Human Rights Watch. The government’s action came weeks after members of Kuwait’s national assembly accused the group of exaggerating the level of corruption in Kuwait and pursuing a political agenda, accusations that the group has roundly denied.
“Kuwait has put in question both its willingness to tolerate criticism and its commitment to combat corruption,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “This looks like a classic case of shooting the messenger as a substitute for tackling the real problem.”
The KTS is the Kuwait national chapter of Transparency International, the international anti-corruption group. The Kuwait chapter has existed since 2006, when it was accredited by ministerial decree, with the stated purpose of opposing corruption by promoting transparency and reform. Its bylaws prohibit it from “intervening in politics.”
On February 9, Youssef al-Zalzala, a member of Kuwait’s National Assembly, accused the group in media interviews of pursuing a political agenda. He gave the interviews the day after he and other National Assembly members, including the speaker, Marzouq al-Ghanim, attended a meeting with Mario Marcel, the World Bank’s senior director of governance global practice, and the bank’s country manager for Kuwait. At the meeting, World Bank officials expressed concern about Kuwait’s relatively low ranking in Transparency International’s global Corruption Perception Index, media reported. Al-Zalzala accused the KTS of following a political agenda by filing false reports to lower Kuwait’s ranking and vowed to use all means available to the national assembly to investigate the Kuwait organization.
The group responded at a news conference on March 2 at which Salah al-Gazali, one of its board members, denied that the organization had a political agenda or that it could influence the Transparency International Corruption Index, and said that the group’s information was based on publicly available sources. Afterward, al-Gazali and Salma al-Eissa, another board member, sent tweets accusing National Assembly members of lying during their meeting with World Bank officials and of falsely accusing the Kuwait group of damaging the country’s image.
On March 11, Nabeel al-Fadel, another National Assembly member, accused the Kuwait group of breaching its mandate, which he asserted limited its role to labor issues, by commenting on political issues and insulting the government and the National Assembly and its members.
Five days later, the National Assembly speaker, supported by a group of other members, formally requested a Social Affairs and Labor Ministry investigation of alleged “irregularities” within the Kuwait group. In a speech to the National Assembly on March 25, al-Fadel described the Kuwait group as a “dirty tool in the hands of the Muslim brotherhood” over a media statement in response to a June 2014 leak of documents implicating government officials in large-scale corruption. The statement called for action by “the judicial branch, council of ministers and civil society to do what is necessary to save Kuwait from the increased indicators of corruption.”
The ministry said it issued its May 7, 2015 decree under article 6 of the 1962 Law of Nonprofit Organizations, which bars nongovernmental groups from actions deemed “to intervene in politics or religious conflicts, or provoke fanaticism and sectarianism and racism.” The decree required the board members to step down and hand over the organizations’ property, documents, and finances within three days, and named five government appointees as replacement board members. Hind Subaih al-Subaih, the social affairs and labor minister, said that the government had taken action because the board members had sent tweets insulting National Assembly members and because of its “affiliation with international organizations.”
A source close to the Kuwait group told Human Rights Watch that the government-appointed board members had promptly terminated staff contracts and sold off the group’s assets, although two of the dismissed board members had appealed the May 7 decree to Kuwait’s Council of Ministers. On June 11, Transparency International suspended the membership of the Kuwait group, saying it did not recognize the government-appointed board.
Kuwait ratified the United Nations Convention Against Corruption on February 16, 2007. Under article 13, each state party is obliged to promote and strengthen active participation of individuals and groups outside the public sector. This includes “respecting, promoting and protecting the freedom to seek, receive, publish and disseminate information concerning corruption.” The convention allows restrictions of these rights only if provided by law and necessary to protect the rights and reputations of others, national security, public order, public health or morals. The scope of the convention encompasses all forms of corruption in the private as well as public sectors.
Kuwait is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Arab Charter on Human Rights, both of which require it to protect freedom of association. The UN special rapporteur on the right to freedom of assembly and of association has stated:
The right to freedom of association applies for the entire life of the association. The suspension and the involuntarily dissolution of an association are the severest types of restrictions on freedom of association. As a result, it should only be possible when there is a clear and imminent danger resulting in a flagrant violation of national law, in compliance with international human rights law. It should be strictly proportional to the legitimate aim pursued and used only when softer measures would be insufficient.
“The government should promptly rescind its recent decree and allow the KTS to reactivate its work if it really is interested in tackling the curse of corruption,” Stork said.