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Events of 2023

Kuwait University students rally to protest a decision to impose gender segregation in courses, outside the institution's campus in Kuwait City on September 18, 2023.

© 2023 Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP via Getty Images

On June 6, Kuwait held its third general elections in three years.

Kuwaiti authorities used provisions in the penal code and national security and cybercrime laws to restrict free speech and prosecute Kuwaitis and non-nationals, particularly for comments made on social media. On July 23, authorities executed five people convicted of drug-related offenses and murder. This is the second time Kuwait has carried out multiple executions in the past two years, which had not previously occurred since 2017.

Authorities did not make progress in protecting the rights of the Bidun, a community of stateless people who claim Kuwaiti nationality, whose status remains in legal limbo while the government suppresses and penalizes their peaceful activism.

Freedoms of Expression and Assembly

Several penal code provisions, as well as the cybercrime law, criminalize speech deemed insulting to religion, the emir, or foreign leaders.

According to the Gulf Center for Human Rights, on May 15, 2023, the Criminal Court in Kuwait convicted Salman Al-Khalidi to a five-year prison sentence with hard labor on charges that included “intentionally spreading false and malicious rumors abroad about the country’s internal conditions, publishing what would harm relations of Kuwait with other countries,” through his account on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter. Al-Khalidi had previously been sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, but he was pardoned by the authorities.

On August 23, al-Qabas paper reported that the Ministry of Information had finished preparing a new draft law to regulate the media. According to the outlet, the draft law includes fines of at least 10,000 Kuwaiti dinars (about US$3,200), imprisonment of up to three years for insulting the emir, and a ban on publishing his statements without permission, and it extends the same prohibitions to the crown prince. The draft law also includes prohibitions on criticizing religion or Kuwait’s constitution, “violating public morals,” and “revealing information about confidential official communications” without regard for the public interest.

Article 12 of the 1979 Public Gatherings Law bars non-Kuwaitis from participating in public gatherings. Authorities continued to prosecute and target outspoken members of the Bidun community. In January, authorities denied entry to Mona Kareem, an academic from the Bidun community, who resides in the United States and was traveling to visit her family.

Women’s Rights

Kuwait’s personal status laws discriminate against women in matters of marriage, divorce, and child custody, including by requiring women to have male guardian permission to marry. Women can only apply to the courts for divorce on limited grounds, while men can divorce without any restrictions. Kuwaiti women married to non-Kuwaitis cannot pass Kuwaiti citizenship to their children or spouses on an equal basis with Kuwaiti men.

Article 153 of the penal code allows men who kill their wives, daughters, sisters, or mothers upon finding them in the act of extramarital sex to receive a reduced sentence of a maximum of three years in prison or a fine. Article 182 allows an abductor who uses force, threats, or deception with the intention to kill, harm, rape, prostitute, or extort the victim to avoid punishment if he marries the victim with the permission of her guardian.

Women do not require guardian permission to travel abroad alone, but a woman may lose her right to spousal maintenance if her travel abroad is deemed by a court to be disobedient to her husband.

In recent years, legislative and policy initiatives have targeted women’s rights and gender equality. In September 2023, a few days before the start of classes at Kuwait University, the College of Law canceled mixed-gender classes for the academic year.

On September 17, the National Assembly passed the implementation law for the 2020 domestic violence law. The 2020 law includes some penalties to combat domestic violence and provides some assistance for survivors, but due to a lack of implementation, shelters remained closed.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The penal code criminalizes adultery with up to five years in prison and a fine, and article 193 punishes consensual same-sex relations between men by up to seven years in prison. In a positive step, in February 2022, the Constitutional Court ruled unconstitutional a 2007 penal code provision, article 198, which prohibited “imitating the opposite sex.” However, transgender people continue to face threats and harassment. In December 2022, the Kuwait Times reported that local security forces deported around 3,000 gay and transgender people during “extensive security campaigns” over the past 11 months.

Stateless People and Migrants’ Rights

Authorities have discriminated against the Bidun, a group of about 100,000 stateless people who claim Kuwaiti nationality, since Kuwait’s independence in 1961. The government rejects their claims and refers to them as “illegal residents.” The government has failed to create a transparent process to determine their citizenship claims or provide them with a path to nationality while creating obstacles for Bidun to obtain civil documentation, receive social services, and access their rights to health, education, and work.

The Central System for the Remedy of Situations of Illegal Residents, the administrative body in charge of Bidun affairs, has been issuing temporary ID cards that often state the cardholder possesses Iraqi, Saudi, Iranian, or other citizenship. It is unclear how the agency determined this, and no due process procedures appear to be available for Bidun to challenge the determinations

Unless their fathers or grandfathers occupy certain public sector jobs, such as in the military or the Ministries of Health or Education, or their mothers have Kuwaiti nationality, Bidun children are barred from free public schools. On September 12, Kuwaiti media reported that the Minister of Education and Higher Education and Scientific Research Adel Al-Mana announced Bidun students with expired ID cards are allowed to register in public and private school for the coming academic year. It is unclear how this will be implemented.

Two-thirds of Kuwait’s population are migrant workers, who remain vulnerable to abuse, largely due to the kafala (sponsorship) system, which ties migrants’ visas to their employers and requires that migrants get their employers’ consent to leave employment or change jobs. Over the last year, no additional legal reforms were introduced to end the abusive kafala system.

Migrant domestic workers face additional forms of abuse, including being forcibly confined in their employers’ homes and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. While government shelters and complaint procedures exist for victims, there are serious barriers to accessing them, particularly for abuses like wage theft.

Climate Change Policies and Impacts

As one of the world’s hottest and most water-stressed countries, Kuwait is acutely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. As the world’s seventh largest exporter of crude oil, the country has the sixth highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita globally.

The increasing frequency and intensity of heat waves, decreasing precipitation, and rising sea levels pose risks to the rights to health, life, water, and housing, especially of low-income migrant workers and the Bidun who are already marginalized.

Kuwait implements a summer midday ban that prohibits outdoor work during pre-defined times and months despite strong evidence of its ineffectiveness. Certain outdoor workers like bike delivery riders and street vendors continue to work under unbearable conditions. According to a study published in 2023, there is a need for stronger risk-based heat standards to effectively protect outdoor workers.