Confirming human rights at the centre of EU-GCC relations.

Press release

On the eve of the ministerial meeting of the EU-GCC Joint Co-operation Council to be held on the 28th of April 2009, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) calls upon the EU and GCC ministers to put human rights at the centre of their relations in all fields.

FIDH particularly urges both sides to give specific attention and answers to the following priorities:

Including a Human rights clause in the negotiated Free Trade Agreements;

Adopting concrete tools to assess the impact of Free Trade Agreements on human rights;

Taking effective measures aiming at improving the enjoyment of the freedom of association and the situation of Human Rights Defenders in GCC countries;

Committing to improve the general situation of human rights in GCC countries.

Inclusion of a human rights clause in the negotiated EU-GCC Free Trade Agreement

FIDH takes note of the recent public declarations by GCC Governments on the resuming of EU-GCC talks on a free-trade agreement (FTA). In this context, FIDH calls both parties to guarantee that these negotiations will reinforce, and not diminish, their international obligations and joint commitments to promote and protect human rights by finally agreeing on the essential inclusion of a human rights clause in the negotiated Free Trade Agreement.

FIDH strongly regrets that the legitimate inclusion of a human rights clause in the negotiated Free Trade Agreement was one of the reason justifying the suspension of the talks by GCC member States in December 2008 and reminds that this inclusion is absolutely essential since the 1989 EU-GCC Cooperation agreement does not contain a human rights clause.

Furthermore, at the end of the last EU-GCC Joint Co-operation Council held in May 2008 in Brussels, both parties released a joint communiqué where they "reaffirmed that they share the universal values of respect for human rights and democratic principles, which form an essential element of their relations.(...) [and] reiterated their continued commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms"1. On the 16th of April 2008, External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner publicly assured that human rights would seriously be taken into account during the ongoing free trade agreement negotiations.

Therefore, FIDH urges both parties to comply with their previous commitments and adopt a human rights clause that should be implemented at all stages of the EU-GCC political dialogue. As a first step, the parties should set up a common strategy for the practical implementation of their joint commitments in this field.

Taking into account that the human rights situation differs significantly from a GCC country to another, FIDH recommends that the EU establishes concrete tools for monitoring the human rights situation and its evolution within the EU-GCC political dialogue and in particular,

Systematically puts human rights concerns on the agenda of bilateral political dialogues at all levels;

Systematically assesses the situation of human rights on the basis of UN special procedures and human rights NGOs reports;

Establishes concrete benchmarks in order to regularly monitor the implementation of commitments and efforts undertaken by both parties;

Holds systematic consultations with EU and GCC independent human rights NGOs ahead of official meetings in order to take into account their assessment of the human rights’ situation in situ and thus update the monitoring process.

Impact of Free Trade Agreements, Labour and Migrants rights

FIDH calls upon the EU to guarantee that FTAs will not have negative impact on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. According to the specificity of the labour force in the GCC countries, FIDH would like to draw the attention of the EU on the possible impact, among others, on the situation of migrant workers whose work conditions stand below ILO and UN standards.

Indeed, the GCC States remain an important magnet for migrant workers and these categories continue to suffer from specific discrimination. Over the past months, measures have been taken in Bahrain and Qatar towards a better legal protection of migrants workers and in the struggle against human trafficking. However, FIDH is concerned at the challenges faced by expatriate workers in the GCC countries, such as substitution of employment contracts, premature termination of services, excessive working hours, poor work conditions, and so on. They also face trafficking and forced labour, and sometimes visa trafficking. The right to organize and join trade unions and other associations is generally not recognized to migrants. Furthermore, despite several announcements in particular in Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia2, there is generally no legislation protecting the rights of migrant domestic workers, although domestic work is one of the most important categories of employment for migrants.

FIDH calls upon the GCC to better protect labour rights for all by amending labour laws and making them consistent with international human rights standards, to adopt a legislation on domestic workers, in accordance with international standards and to reform the sponsorship system. In this regard, FIDH urges the EU to encourage GCC States to ratify and implement the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families.

Recommendations on freedom of association and Human Rights Defenders in GCC countries.

The role of an independent civil society in assessing and monitoring the human rights situation at the national level is essential. Restrictions on the right to freedom of association constitute a major obstacle to an independent civil society and put civil society representatives at risk of repression and arbitrary measures. In the GCC countries, freedom of association often remains limited and sometimes, such as in Saudi Arabia, forbidden.
While some GCC countries like Bahrain and Kuwait have started processes of legislative reform regarding the freedom of association, FIDH in a report recently published3, concludes that the respective governments’ policies are largely restrictive and reflect a severely controlling environment4.

Promoting the right to freedom of association and ensuring the compatibility of national laws and practice with international human rights and labour standards should be a key issue of the EU-GCC political dialogue.

Human rights defenders (HRDs) are the key actors for an independent monitoring the human rights situation. Repressive measures against them are widespread in several GCC countries. EU must increase its support to Human Rights Defenders in GCC countries, in accordance with the operational chapter of the Council Guidelines on HRDs.

General situation and violations of civil and political rights

In addition to these specific concerns, FIDH remains worried about the general pattern of human rights violations. The non-ratification by four of the six GCC member States5 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and a generally weak cooperation with the United Nations mechanisms do not show a strong commitment towards the protection and respect of human rights. FIDH considers that the ratification of the international human rights instruments should be an essential element of the human rights clause of the EU-GCC agreement.
As the human rights situation highly varies from a GCC member State to another, FIDH insists on the imperative need to systematically assess on the situation of human rights and put human rights concerns on the agenda of bilateral political dialogues at all levels.

During the monitoring and assessment process, a specific attention should be given to the following isues of concern, notably in application of EU human rights guidelines: death penalty as all GCC countries retain death penalty for several crimes6; the alleged use of torture and ill-treatments in interrogation and detention centers that is regularly denounced in several GCC States; discrimination and violence against women, practised in all GCC countries7; freedom of expression which is strictly limited by restrictive legislation in most of the GCC countries; the non-compliance of counter- terrorism measures with human rights provisions, despite both sides acknowledged « the importance of combating terrorism in full respect of international law, in particular human rights, international human rights, (...)»8.

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  • Co-signatories

    1. Joint communiqué of May 8, 2007 (ref: CE-GOLFE 3503/07 (Press 100)).

    2. Domestic workers are currently not under the protection of labour law in the GCC countries. Several States announced over the past years that they are working in order to give more protection to the domestic workers in adopting a separate law or amending the labour law accordingly. As of today, none of such laws have been adopted.

    3. FIDH- AIHR report « Freedom of association in the Arabian Gulf », March 2009,

    4. The report examines three specific categories of associations - independent human rights organizations, workers’ trade unions and political parties. It analyses the compatibility of national laws and practice with international human rights and labour standards and assesses current trends and policies related to freedom of association in Bahrain and Kuwait. op.cit.

    5. As of today, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are not State parties to these Covenants.

    6. Nevertheless, in 2008, Bahrain and Oman abstained from voting the Resolution of the United Nations General Assembly on death penalty moratorium whereas they voted against in 2007.

    7. With the exception of Qatar, all GCC countries have ratified the CEDAW. The remaining five countries have entered reservations to key provisions of CEDAW that reflect these discriminatory and restrictive legislative frameworks and undermine the object and the purpose of the Convention, in many cases emptying ratification of meaning. Qatar recently announced that CEDAW will be ratified soon. However, the relevant authorities are working on the reservations to be made when Qatar will ratify.

    8. Domestic laws and practices often contradict this statement in practice, prolonged police custody and preventive detention and sometimes isolation measures are regularly denounced.

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