(Beirut) – Kuwait’s emir directed parliament during 2016 to revise a law for mandatory DNA testing that infringes on people’s privacy, but parliament has yet to act, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2017. Kuwait strengthened some protections for migrant domestic workers but retained limitations on free speech.

Foreign workers take a break during lunch at a building site in Kuwait City, October 21,2013. 

© 2013 Stephanie McGehee/Reuters

In 2015, Kuwait became the only country in the world to require nationwide compulsory DNA testing for its 1.3 million citizens and 2.9 million foreign residents, with a penalty for refusal of one year in prison and up to $33,000 in fines. In July 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that the law imposed “unnecessary and disproportionate restrictions on the right to privacy.” After criticism of the law increased, Kuwait’s emir directed the parliament speaker to revise the law.

“Kuwaiti officials’ apparent willingness to amend the draconian DNA law shows they can be responsive to rights concerns,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “But the law should never have been passed, and parliament should amend it to comply with international standards to ensure people’s privacy.”

In the 687-page World Report, its 27th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that a new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights as an impediment to the majority will. For those who feel left behind by the global economy and increasingly fear violent crime, civil society groups, the media, and the public have key roles to play in reaffirming the values on which rights-respecting democracy has been built.

Kuwait took steps to improve migrant worker rights during 2016. It eased rules for transferring to a new employer for some migrant workers. It also passed implementing regulations for Law No. 68, of 2015, which gave domestic workers enforceable rights for the first time, and enacted a minimum wage for domestic workers. But protections for domestic workers are still weaker than for workers covered by the general labor law, and the domestic workers law and implementing regulations fail to set out clear enforcement mechanisms. The kafala (visa-sponsorship) system, which prohibits domestic workers from transferring jobs without their employer's consent, remains a major obstacle to domestic workers’ rights.

Dozens of people were prosecuted during 2016 for violating rules against protected speech, including many cases initiated by private parties, Kuwaiti officials and activists reported. Rather than amending broadly written or overly vague laws to ensure adequate protections for speech and expression, Kuwait amended its election law to bar anyone convicted for “insulting” God, the prophets, or the emir from running for office or voting in elections.
Kuwait remained a member of the Saudi-led coalition that has been attacking Houthi and allied forces in Yemen since March 2015. Since the current conflict started, Human Rights Watch has documented 61 unlawful coalition airstrikes in Yemen, some of which may amount to war crimes, that killed nearly 900 civilians and repeatedly hit markets, schools, and hospitals. Kuwait hosted peace talks between Yemeni parties to the conflict, but the talks broke down in August.

The government made no advances in addressing the citizenship claims of at least 105,702 Bidun residents, born in the country but not considered entitled to citizenship. Instead, a Comoros Island official told Gulf News that his government was open to Kuwaiti officials’ suggestions that Kuwait may pay the Comoros Islands to grant the Bidun a form of economic citizenship, potentially leaving them liable to legal deportation from Kuwait.

“Hosting peace talks for the Yemeni warring parties signaled Kuwait’s willingness to engage more substantively on the Yemen conflict,” Whitson said. “Kuwait should go further and clarify whether it played a role in any coalition violations and press its coalition partners to do the same.”