People look at a model of Al Thumama stadium during an unveiling ceremony at Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar, August 24, 2017. 

© 2017 REUTERS/Naseem Zeitoon

(Beirut) – Qatar announced a range of significant human rights reforms during 2017 that if carried out would usher in some of the most progressive human rights standards in the gulf region, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2018.

The reforms include legislation that can dramatically improve labor standards for migrant workers, including a domestic workers law, and a draft law approved by Cabinet to grant permanent residency to children born to Qatari mothers and foreign fathers and to some foreign residents living in the country.

“Qatar could have retrenched into authoritarianism in the face of a political crisis but instead has responded to a breakdown in neighborly relations by raising the bar on human rights standards in the Gulf,” said Belkis Wille, senior Qatar researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Implementing its commitments to respecting the rights of Qatari women, millions of migrant workers, and vulnerable refugees in the country will be the real measure of its success in 2018.”

In the 643-page World Report, its 28th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that political leaders willing to stand up for human rights principles showed that it is possible to limit authoritarian populist agendas. When combined with mobilized publics and effective multilateral actors, these leaders demonstrated that the rise of anti-rights governments is not inevitable.

On June 5, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates cut diplomatic relations with Qatar citing political grievances and demands. The crisis precipitated a range of human rights violations against people living in Qatar, infringing on their right to free expression, separating families, and interrupting medical care and education.

On August 3, the Qatari cabinet moved to protect the legal status of foreign nationals in Qatar, approving a draft law that would allow permanent residence for children of Qatari women married to non-Qataris, as well as expatriates who “provide outstanding services to Qatar.” While the law falls short of granting women the same rights as Qatari men to pass citizenship to their children, it would help children of Qatari women secure resident status in Qatar even if they do not have valid passports from another country. The law could also help Emirati, Egyptian, Bahraini, and Saudi nationals who otherwise have no rights to legal residence in the country but who remain there for family or work reasons or because they fear persecution in their home countries.

The government’s most significant reform commitments came in protections for the nearly 2 million migrant workers in the country who make up 95 percent of the country’s workforce but are barred from unionizing or collective action. The government passed a new law to protect migrant domestic workers and pledged to end the sponsorship system of labor employment and to implement a minimum wage.

On August 22, the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, ratified Law No.15 on service workers in the home. The law grants labor protections for the first time to Qatar’s 173,742 domestic workers. The new law guarantees domestic workers a maximum 10-hour workday, a weekly rest day, three weeks of annual leave, an end-of-service payment, and healthcare benefits. However, the new law is still weaker than the country’s general Labor Law and does not fully conform to the International Labour Organization (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention, the global treaty on domestic workers’ rights.

On October 26, Qatar committed to extensive reforms of its kafala (sponsorship) system, which ties workers to individual sponsors for their visa and employment, replacing it with a system of government-sponsored employment. It also promised to institute a nondiscriminatory minimum wage, improve the payment of wages, end passport confiscation, enhance labor inspections and occupational safety and health, including with a heat mitigation strategy, and improve labor recruitment procedures.

On November 30, 2016, Qatari authorities ordered Qatar’s two internet service providers, Vodafone and Ooredoo, to block local access to the Doha News website, the country’s only independent news website. On December 3, 2017, an individual in Qatar shared with Human Rights Watch screenshots confirming that he could access the site. However, on February 2, 2018, Doha News told Human Rights Watch via email that the government in fact had not lifted the block; individuals in Qatar also sent Human Rights Watch screenshots showing “access denied.” In a news release on January 17, Doha News said that it had “received a response from the Government Communication Office to our request for unblocking the website,” and that the government had provided it with further paperwork to complete and said it hoped that completing such formalities would “get the website unblocked.”