Oman and the UN Human Rights Council: 24 Years of Little Progress (part 2)

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    James Tarik Marriott (@jtamarriott)— a freelance writer who previously studied Middle East Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, Canterbury. 

    The Sharpening of Human Rights, 2011-2020

    While human rights had been a concern for many Omanis before the 2011 protests, the protests sharpened the lack of progress made on certain fronts. From the 17th of January to the 1st of August Omanis protested in various cities for economic, social, and political reform. The demands stemmed from large unemployment, government corruption, and a desire for the protection of civil and human rights. Some demands directly impacted the work of the UN treaty bodies such as those in the February 23rd petition submitted to the Sultan. Calls to end discrimination against women, protecting freedom of expression, and rights related to free association. As a result, the cabinet experienced a reshuffling, largely cosmetic, and the Basic Law was amended on the 19th of October, 2011. Despite an initial reluctance to use force to break up the protest, the end of March saw police and army forces crackdown on protestors clearing them by force, and in the case of April 1st protests in Sohar the shooting and killing of a protester[1]. The regime also illegally detained and tortured individual activists critical of the regime and the official reporting on the government’s response to the protests. Oman’s repressive approach to the protests was further evidenced by the dramatic increase in arms purchases made in 2011 and 2012. Figure 1 shows the largest increase in military expenditure recorded by arms experts on record. This corresponds to a dramatic increase in export licenses for weapons used by police and security services (pistols, rifles, shotguns, assault rifles, etc.) from 208 in 2010 to 14,280 in 2011.[2] This repressive approach was to be matched by silencing human rights activists and adopting an official silence and evasion when dealing with the UN treaty bodies.

    Figure 1: Oman’s military expenditure as a percentage of government spending.[3]

    After the protests in Oman, in September 2011 the Special Rapporteur on the rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and association requested to visit Oman. After no response for two years, a visit was organized and a report[4] released in 2015. The criticisms in relations to the freedom of assembly were similar to criticism made previously through other conventions. There existed no clear definition to the ‘legal limits’ imposed on the right of peaceful assembly in the Basic Law. Crimes of offence and disturbing the peace were so broad as to ‘allow virtually unlimited interpretations of what could be an offence’. To enforce this broad interpretation of offences the tactic most often used against human rights defenders, bloggers, or anyone deemed subversive was intimidation. Arbitrary detention would be used as a tool to scare critics into submission, deterrence being more effective than punishment. It was also noted that civil society was completely dominated by the state and the internet equally so. The arbitrary detention of Habiba al-Hinai, Yaqoob al-Kharushi, and Ismael al-Mikbaly was mentioned along with other cases stemming from the 2011 protests.[5] But repression and silencing was not only visited upon those who spoke out on political issues. The case of Habiba al-Hinai is also indicative of Oman’s record with discrimination against women in the post-2011 period.

    As has been noted before, Oman in speaking with the committee on the Rights of the Child Convention had promised in 2006 to conduct a national study on the prevalence of FGM. No study was ever published or submitted to the human rights treaty bodies, so Habiba al-Hinai decided to conduct research herself. In 2014 she published her study on FGM[6] in Oman based on a survey completed by 100 women and 100 men in Muscat. The findings showed that 78% of women surveyed had been circumcised reflecting the opinion polls referenced earlier. In publishing her findings, and doing the work the Omani government promised to do, she was forced out of the country to live in Europe, like many of the human rights defenders of the post-2011 era.

    During this time the work done through CEDAW on eliminating discrimination against women went through its second cycle beginning with the submission of Oman’s second report[7]. It noted some improvements, such as the retraction of a reservation regarding the rights of women’s freedom of movement, and the general dissemination of information about discrimination against women. However, these small gains were eclipsed by the fundamental problems still existing, both de facto and de jure. Armed with reports from legal and human rights experts Musawah[8] and Human Rights Watch[9] the committee conducted a cross-examination of the Omani representatives in November of 2017. Of fundamental concern in the first meeting[10] was the necessity to move beyond ‘social and economic development measures mentioned’ as they ‘make for only very gradual progress towards greater participation of women in society’. What was needed was proactive policy changes to redress the wrongs years of repression had created. Though laws around nationality and FGM were both amended with corresponding laws in 2014 each lacked the proper protection of human rights required of them. Women’s right to pass on nationality to their children were still not on par with that of a father, and children still received no explicit protection against FGM in the law. The concluding observations[11] of 2017 reiterated many of the persistent problems: a lack of anti-discrimination legislation; an oppressed civil society environment; the prevalence of stereotypical views of women; and the lack of documentation and persistence of gender-based violence. The last exchange[12] on the convention to date was in March of this year, in which Oman, responding to some concerns raised in the concluding observations, extensively listed meetings and seminars that had occurred. It showed, in essence, a lack of substantive change on the major issues, with intransigence on the most controversial points. As immovable as Oman was on the issues of discrimination against women, it managed to progress on the Rights of the Child. In part this was because the example the UN convention had proved to people in Oman.

    The observations and provisions of the CRC by 2011 were making their way into general discussion within Omani society. In 2011 a landmark research paper[13] referencing the Convention on the Rights of the Child was published in the Sultan Qaboos University Medical Journal which looked at six cases of child abuse. The cases each shed light on different failures of the child protection mechanisms in place. Children were sent back home with abusive parents because of cultural restrictions of foster care rules, parents administered harmful traditional medicine and refused doctors’ advice, if not avoiding investigations of any sort. In short, many of the most salient promises of Oman to the UN committee were not being implemented, and health care professionals were speaking up about it. The paper concludes by saying experts were still ‘waiting for the different government authorities to develop an efficient and effective system for child protection’. In an introduction[14] to the topic under the title ‘Child Rights: What can we do in Oman?’ the need for data collection was stressed from the beginning. ‘There are no statistics to indicate the frequency of such treatment’ and the six cases mentioned in the paper are ‘likely, just the tip of the iceberg and the scope of the problem is likely to be much greater’. This mood was captured by a published reply[15] to this article which showed the persistent insecurity children faced without national monitoring institutions and effective legislation. Reiterating the recommendations of the CRC convention the author states ‘little attention is being paid to the broad range of circumstances and experiences that constitute vulnerabilities and risks for children’.

    By the time of the CRC committee’s concluding observations[16] in January 2016, Oman had made several tangible changes. A host of new legislation and ministerial decrees brought about changes to various areas of children’s rights and nearly all the reservations it held to the convention were retracted. The only area which Oman would not cede ground was the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion under article 14. Other areas of concern were the cultural attachment to corporal punishment of children, and the lack of explicit legislation to outlaw it, and the absence of an effective juvenile justice system. Child abuse, though addressed by the creation of the Family Protection Department and abuse reporting hotlines, was still subject to the culture of severe punishment for behaviour deemed immoral. Regardless of persistent problems, Oman’s work on the CRC remains its most responsive and effective of all UN conventions to date. This, unfortunately, cannot be said of its work on racial discrimination under CERD.

    If the work done on CRC was Oman’s most productive, the work done on CERD was its most evasive. CERD became particularly important in 2015 with the beginning of the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). This did not translate to any acceptance on the part of Oman of its own history and diaspora population. In its second report[17] to the UN committee in 2014 began with an oxymoronic claim that to produce data with the classifications of ethnicity would constitute racial discrimination. This, it must be remembered, is done despite not having any legal definition of racial discrimination in Omani law. In refusing to even acknowledge the validity of the premise of ethnic differences the second report made impossible any progress on matters of identifying and redressing racial discrimination. In their concluding observations[18] of June 2016 the committee began by identifying the contradiction at the heart of Oman’s approach:

    The Committee notes the discrepancy between the State party’s position that it does not collect population data disaggregated by ethnic origin as its population is not classified by ethnic group and the delegation’s statement that Omani society is ethnically diverse

    They added also that ‘the absence of [racial discrimination] cases does not mean that there is no racial discrimination, but may rather reveal the existence of lacunae in the justice system’. Unable to make any concrete recommendations without the appropriate evidence and acceptance from Oman about ethnic diversity, the committee focused its attention on migrant workers. The committee called for the abolition of the de facto kafala (sponsorship) system, the further investigation of abuse suffered by migrant workers, and a bolstering of the complaints mechanism system. This issue was taken up by Oman in its follow-up[19] in October 2017 which details the Ministry of Manpower’s attempts to develop an effective inspecting system to deal with labour complaints and abuse. The reply[20] given by the committee, though thankful, called on Oman to show how the system has properly punished or deterred the individual employees and sponsorship agencies who are found to have abused workers. It listed types of data that should be brought to the committee at the next reporting cycle on resources available to abused migrant workers and the prevalence of offences such as non-payment of their wages.

    The Future of Human Rights in Oman

    Oman’s relationship with the UN human rights treaty bodies, and the various conventions on human rights, has been hindered at every point by a combination of factors. The first is its acceptance of only economic freedoms at the cost of social and political development. This meant that work on the Rights of the Child could be productive—especially between 1996 to 2011—as its main goals were the lifting of children from malnutrition and poverty. However, as soon as issues of political or social rights are in question, rights that question the absolute sovereignty of the state and authority of religion, progress was impossible.

    Evasion on issues of this sort has been the consistent practice of Oman’s representations to the UN treaty bodies. When the realities on the ground are questioned, representatives would point to legislation as proof of social harmony. When the lack of legislation was brought up, Oman’s delegates would point to a supposed reality on the ground as proof of social harmony. A combination of contortionist reasoning and lack of information blocked UN committees at many turns. It was not until after 2011, in matters of family law, civil and political rights, that NGOs contributed the information Oman was so careful to omit. With a new grasp of the facts probing questions could be asked about the equality of rights between men and women, of the dependent relationship of the kafala system, and about political repression of peaceful activists. Wherever there was more information there could be more progress. And if there is one central impediment to the proper flourishing of human rights in Oman it is the lack of information. Oman’s future human rights record may depend on this fact, whether the information is provided to international organisations like the UN Human Rights Committee, or the Omani people themselves who can write, research, and devise the best course of action. This was proved in the case of the Rights of the Child and the Sultan Qaboos University medical professionals, and it could have been proved in the case of FGM and Habiba al-Hinai, or countless other civil society activists detained from 2011 onwards. But so long as problems are avoided, and information concealed, human rights will suffer from a general lack of progress, as it has since 1996.


    [1] Worall, J. (2012) ‘Oman: The “Forgotten” Corner of the Arab Spring’, Middle East Policy Council, 19(3). Available from: https://mepc.org/oman-forgotten-corner-arab-spring.

    [2] Data taken from UK Strategic Export Controls Annual Reports. Available from: https://www.sipri.org/databases/national-reports/United%20Kingdom.  Total weapons licensed for trade: 181 (2008), 208 (2009), 144 (2010), 14,280 (2011), 25,072 (2012).

    [3] SIPRI Military Expenditure Database. Available from: https://knoema.com/SIPRI2020/sipri-military-expenditure-database-1949-2019

    [4] Human Rights Council, ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai’, 27 April 2015, Available from: https://spinternet.ohchr.org/Download.aspx?SymbolNo=A%2fHRC%2f29%2f25%2fADD.1&Lang=en

    [5] For a full list of cases brought  to the UN Human Rights Council’s attention see here: OM 1/2012, OM 2/2012, OM 1/2013, OM 1/2014, OM 2/2014, OM 3/2014, OM 4/2014, OM 5/2014, OM 1/2015, OM 2/2015, OM 1/2016, OM 2/2016, OM 1/2017, OM 2/2017, OM 1/2018.

    [6] Al-Hinai, H. (2014) ‘Female Genital Mutilation in the Sultanate of Oman’, January 2014, Available from: https://www.orchidproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/habiba-al-hinai-female-genital-mutilation-in-the-sultanate-of-oman1.pdf

    [7] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, ‘Second and Third periodic reports of States parties due in 2015: Oman’, 10 March 2016, Available from: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CEDAW%2fC%2fOMN%2f2-3&Lang=en

    [8] Musawah, (2017) ‘Thematic report on article 16, Muslim Family Law and Muslim Women’s Rights in Oman’, Available from: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CEDAW/Shared%20Documents/OMN/INT_CEDAW_NGO_OMN_29224_E.pdf

    [9] Human Rights Watch, (2017) ‘Human Rights Watch Submission to the CEDAW Committee of Oman’s Periodic Report for the 68th Session’, Available from: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CEDAW/Shared%20Documents/OMN/INT_CEDAW_NGO_OMN_29175_E.pdf

    [10] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, ‘Combined second and third periodic reports of Oman’, 3 November 2017, Available from: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CEDAW%2fC%2fSR.1548&Lang=en

    [11] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, ‘Concluding Observations on the Combined Second and Third Periodic Reports of Oman’, 22 November 2017, Available from: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CEDAW%2fC%2fOMN%2fCO%2f2-3&Lang=en

    [12] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, ‘Information received from Oman on follow-up to the concluding observations on the combined second and third reports’, 25 March 2020, Available from: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CEDAW%2fC%2fOMN%2fFCO%2f2-3&Lang=en

    [13] Al-Saadoon, M., Al-Sharbati, M., El Nour, I., Al-Said, B. (2012) ‘Child Maltreatment Types and Effects: Series of Six Cases from a University Hospital in Oman’, Sultan Qaboos University Medical Journal, 12(1), Available from: https://journals.squ.edu.om/index.php/squmj/article/view/1656

    [14]Al-Lamki, L. (2012) ‘Child Rights: What can we do in Oman?’, Sultan Qaboos University Medical Journal, 12(1), Available from: https://journals.squ.edu.om/index.php/squmj/article/view/1643

    [15] Alshistawy, M. (2012) ‘Re: Child Rights, What can we do in Oman?’, Sultan Qaboos University Medical Journal, 12(3), Available from: https://journals.squ.edu.om/index.php/squmj/article/view/1703

    [16] Committee on the Rights of the Child, ‘Concluding observations on the combined third and fourth periodic reports of Oman’, 14 March 2016, Available from: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CRC%2fC%2fOMN%2fCO%2f3-4&Lang=en

    [17] Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, ‘Combined second to fifth periodic reports due in 2012-Oman’, 13 November 2014, Available from: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CERD%2fC%2fOMN%2f2-5&Lang=en

    [18] Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, ‘Concluding observations on the combined second to fifth periodic reports of Oman’, 6 June 2016, Available from: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CERD%2fC%2fOMN%2fCO%2f2-5&Lang=en

    [19] Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, ‘Information received from Oman on follow-up to the concluding observations’, 30 October 2017, Available from: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CERD%2fC%2fOMN%2fCO%2f2-5%2fADD.1&Lang=en

    [20] Amir, N. ‘Letter to His Excellency Mr. Abdulla Nasser Al Rahbi’, 17 May 2018, Available from: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CERD/Shared%20Documents/OMN/INT_CERD_FUL_OMN_31254_E.pdf