International Human Rights Day: December 10, 2019

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According to the United Nations,

“Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of their race, sex, nationality, place of residence, ethnicity, colour, language, religion, or any other status. We are all entitled to these rights equally and without discrimination. These rights are all connected, interdependent and inseparable.”

In Oman, human rights activists face huge challenges and difficulties. Liberties are shrinking and the human rights situation is getting worse.
On International Human Rights Day, the Omani Centre for Human Rights would like to tell you about some of the worst problems they face. These are the issues behind the dwindling of freedom and the deteriorating human rights situation in Oman:

  1. Violations of housemaids’ rights remain a major problem in Oman, both for society and for the government.  The image of the country they present is just the opposite of what the government wants the world to see.
  • Housemaids may be forced to work in more than one home owned by the same family, or by relatives of the family, without any extra pay or even prior agreement.
  • Many domestic workers are hired at an agreed fixed rate of pay and benefits, but then find themselves in practice being paid less than the agreed amount, and without any benefits at all.
  • Many housemaids are denied a single day or even a few hours off each week. 
  • Their movements are restricted, and they are prevented from leaving the house unless accompanied by a member of the family, and only for a limited time.
  • Some housemaids are forced to sleep in the kitchen, as their sponsors fail to provide them with suitable accommodation within the house where they are working.
  • Several housemaids have testified that they suffered sexual harassment from at least one family member in the house where they were working.  Their sponsors would mostly not do anything to prevent this harassment, and in some cases the sponsor himself would be party to it.
  • Women in Oman still face many more restrictions than men, since the country’s laws, based on Sharia law, give men a higher status and more rights than women:
  • Article 17 of Oman’s Basic Statute (constitution) prohibits gender-based discrimination, but there are parts of laws like the Personal Status Law and the Omani Penal Code that violate women’s rights.
  • Although Article 7 of the Personal Status Law sets the minimum age for marriage at 18, Article 10 of the same law allows judges to authorise the marriage of underage girls if this is deemed to be in their best interests.
  • Women, incidentally, are not allowed to work as judges.
  • Since women have a duty to obey their husbands’ wishes there is no statutory punishment for, or even legal definition of, marital rape in Oman.
  • At boarding schools for girls the students’ movements are restricted.  Girls are not allowed in or out without permission from a legal guardian – and according to the Personal Status Law.
  • Girls and young women have no protection from domestic violence in Oman.
  • Article 44 of the Omani Penal Code even states that an act of violence toward an underage child “shall not be deemed a crime” so long as it is “committed in good faith”.
  • Although Oman signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2006, it maintains reservations to a number of its provisions.
  • Men have the right to divorce their wives at any time without needing to give a reason, while women have to provide some justification for wanting a divorce, such as the husband being absent for a specified period of time.
  •  Freedom to publish and carry out independent journalism:
    There has been a real crisis in this area, with the closing down of newspapers and magazines, the withdrawal or banning of books, the withdrawal of accreditation from an international journalist, and the arrests of several writers, journalists and Twitter commentators.
    The Omani Press and Publications Law, together with Article 135 of the Omani Penal Code, make any free and independent journalism that is not affiliated with the state, or persons loyal to the state, a highly risky undertaking.
    The Press and Publications Law requires newspapers, magazines and other publications to obtain an official licence to publish, with a capital requirement of at least OR250,000 ($650,000) for magazines and OR500,000 ($1.3 million) for newspapers.


4-  Freedom of religion and belief:
The freedom to practise, or not to practise, a religion is being sorely tested at present, and several writers have been arrested for openly publishing their atheistic views and criticising certain Islamic practices.
Many clauses in the new Omani Penal Code have taken on a religious colouring, raising concerns for religious, sectarian and intellectual freedoms in the future.
Article 269 makes atheistic activity, and other similar activities, crimes for which the activist can be punished with a prison sentence of between three and ten years; and according to Article 277 the punishment for openly not fasting during Ramadan is imprisonment for between ten days and three months.


5-  The rights of workers and migrant labourers:
There has been widespread criticism of workers’ rights in Oman, especially in the private sector, where employees of major companies can be arbitrarily dismissed, and the government fails to protect their rights because it has not formulated or passed the necessary laws.
There have been calls for special “employment tribunals” to be set up to look into cases involving private sector employees of large companies, and for parts of the Omani Labour Law to be rewritten.
Human Rights Watch has published two reports on the conditions and mistreatment of female domestic workers in Oman, who are forced to work long hours without financial compensation.


6-  Freedom of opinion and expression:
According to Article 97 of the revised Omani Penal Code, anyone arrested for holding opposition views faces a prison term of between three and seven years. The crime of criticising any foreign head of state in Oman is punishable, under Article 102, by imprisonment for between three months and three years.
Peaceful demonstrations are banned in Oman and considered a crime. The punishment for anyone taking part in a peaceful protest is a monetary fine and jail term and a fine under Article 121, which provides for participants to be arrested.
It is also a crime in Oman to form parties or associations to carry out political or human rights work. According to Article 116 of the revised Omani Penal Code, this is punishable by up to ten years in jail.


7-  Freedom of sexual orientation:
Homosexuality is treated as a crime in Oman, and anyone openly exercising the freedom to express their homosexuality, even on social media, can be arrested.
Article 261 of the new Penal Code allows any homosexual person to be imprisoned for between one and three years.


8-  Withdrawal or loss of citizenship:
Omani nationality can be withdrawn. There have been several cases where passports and other personal documents have been withdrawn, limiting the movements of affected activists and in some cases causing them to lose their jobs. Royal Decree 38/2014 gave the Ministry of Interior full powers to decide whether to withdraw or cancel someone’s nationality, without giving the courts the right to intervene.


9-  Enforced disappearances and arbitrary arrests:
Arbitrary arrest is something commonly experienced by activists, bloggers and journalists. Many are still being forcibly abducted from public places and smuggled away to unknown locations, in some cases for several weeks.
Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlaws such measures, in Article 9 (1), Oman’s security forces will arbitrarily arrest any individual simply for expressing an opinion.
Oman has not signed or ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

Oman has not signed any of the major international conventions and treaties on human rights, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

What do you think are the answers to improving the human rights situation in Oman?