A picture taken on December 4, 2018, shows workers at the Al-Bayt Stadium in Al-Khor, a city in northeastern Qatar. 

© 2018 David Harding/AFP

(Beirut) – Qatar made some important progress on human rights in 2018 but failed to deliver on several key promised reforms, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019. Among the promises not yet kept is the full repeal of the exploitative kafala (sponsorship) system, which gives employers excessive power over migrant workers.

“While Qatar has taken some important steps to protect human rights, there is still a long way to go before migrant workers are protected from abuse and exploitation,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “With the World Cup 2022 fast approaching, and as Qatar races to complete planned construction projects in time, now is the time to put in place durable labor rights reforms.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

In May, Qatar joined the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, but did so with a range of formal reservations depriving women and migrant workers of some of the treaties’ protections.

In September, Qatar’s emir signed into law the Gulf region’s first refugee asylum law. The law demonstrates Qatar’s commitment to refugee rights but falls short of its international obligations, particularly with regard to its restrictions on refugees’ freedom of movement and expression.

Also in September, Qatar passed a law on permanent residency that would be available for the first time to children of Qatari women married to non-Qatari men. With permanent residency, they can receive government health and educational services, and can invest in the economy and own real estate. However, the law falls short of granting women equal rights with men to confer nationality on their children and spouses.

On April 30, the ILO inaugurated its first project office in Qatar for a three-year cooperation program to help Qatar achieve its commitments on migrant rights. Its work will include replacing the kafala system with a new contractual system, setting a nondiscriminatory minimum wage, improving a system to ensure that wages are paid, and barring employers from confiscating workers’ passports. In September, Qatar also passed a law allowing most migrant workers to leave the country without an exit permit. But it excludes workers not covered by the labor law, such as domestic workers, and allows employers to apply to exclude some other workers.

“If Qatar truly wants to stand out in the Gulf region as a forward thinking and rights-respecting state, it should start by delivering fully and transparently on all its promised reforms,” Fakih said.