(Amman) – Jordan should build on the momentum of recent parliamentary elections by enacting human rights reforms, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki. The new government should halt efforts to restrict independent groups, ensure media freedom, ensure protection for vulnerable refugees, and end discrimination against women.
“Jordan’s peaceful election of a new parliament should be accompanied by important human rights reforms that protect the ability of citizens to express their views and advocate change,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Moves to restrict the activities of independent groups and limit the ability of the news media to do their job overshadow the progress Jordan has made on issues such as expanding access to education for Syrian refugee children.”
On September 20, 2016, Jordan elected a lower house of parliament under a new list-based system meant to encourage the formation of coalitions and shared platforms. Women won 20 seats out of 130, including 5 outside of the 15 required under a women’s minimum. Jordan’s largest opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front, participated for the first time since 2007, winning 15 seats along with its coalition partners.
On September 25, King Abdullah reappointed al-Mulki, who has served as prime minister since May, and he assembled a new cabinet. In his instructions to al-Mulki, King Abdullah said he should address issues that include the need to improve the country’s economy, increase cooperation with the judiciary, and strengthen the rule of law. The instructions also call on the new cabinet to fulfill commitments under the Comprehensive National Plan on Human Rights issued in March and to create partnerships with nongovernmental organizations.
Human Rights Watch urged al-Mulki to scrap proposed far-reaching changes to the country’s 2008 associations law that would severely hamper the ability of nongovernmental organizations to form and operate. The proposed amendments would place onerous restrictions on the formation of independent groups, grant the government legal authority to dissolve groups on vague grounds, or bar them from accepting foreign funding without government authorization, and appear to violate international human rights law protections on the right to free association.
Human Rights Watch also called attention to developments that threaten the ability of journalists to report on pertinent public issues and events and are likely to lead to greater self-censorship. Jordan has increasingly relied on media gag orders during 2016, to prevent public reporting on sensitive issues. Topics covered by gag orders have included: a complaint by orphans and children without parents against the Social Development Ministry; an assault on an Egyptian worker in Jordan; a security operation in the northern town of Irbid in March in which seven militants and one policeman were killed; an attack on a General Intelligence Directorate (GID) office north of Amman that led to four deaths; and the cases of Amjad Qourshah and Nahed Hattar, both of whom faced charges for peacefully expressing their views. Hattar was later murdered by a lone gunman on September 25, as he entered an Amman court.
Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about the increasing obstacles since August 2015 facing Palestinians from the Gaza Strip seeking to transit through Jordan to reach third countries for employment, medical care, educational opportunities, or family unification.
Al-Mulki should work to end discrimination against women by proposing changes to the country’s nationality law that would allow Jordanian women to pass nationality to their children, Human Rights Watch said. As an interim measure, al-Mulki should fully implement promised “privileges” for non-citizen children of Jordanian women announced in late 2014. These privileges include free education and access to health services in government institutions at lower prices, as well as special ID cards and drivers’ licenses. They also allow non-citizen children to own property and obtain professional employment in sectors reserved only for Jordanian citizens if no Jordanian applies for the position.
Human Rights Watch commended Jordanian efforts to improve the livelihoods of Syrian refugees by granting new legal work opportunities as well as to promote economic growth in Jordan. Human Rights Watch also commended the steps taken to improve access to education for Syrian refugees such as relaxing documentation requirements, doubling the number of schools operating “double shifts” to create spaces for up to 50,000 more Syrian students, and establishing a “catch-up” program to reach another 25,000 children ages 8 to 12, who have been out of school for three or more years.
Despite these efforts, challenges remain. About 70,000 Syrians are trapped at remote locations along an earthen mound or berm along Jordan’s northeastern border with Syria. On June 21, when a suicide car bomb attack on a Jordanian military base near Rukban killed seven Jordanian soldiers and security officers, authorities declared the Jordan-Syria border a closed military zone and halted aid other than water to the Syrians at the berm for five months. Aid resumed at a new distribution point on November 22, but Jordan should ensure that this aid reaches the most vulnerable refugees stranded along the border, Human Rights Watch said. But, more fundamentally, Jordan should respect the principle of nonrefoulement and not expose asylum seekers to the threat of serious harm by rejecting them at its border.
“Jordan’s new government has a green light to pursue necessary reforms over the coming years, and it should not let this excellent opportunity go to waste,” Whitson said.