Select Committee on Foreign Affairs First Special Report


Memorandum submitted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on democracy and human rights in Kuwait (20 November 2000)

  Kuwait's Constitution enshrines many of the basic principles of democratic government and fundamental rights. Kuwait has a functioning Parliament (National Assembly) whose proceedings are open to the press and public. Although there are no formally organised political parties, active unofficial groupings in the Assembly regularly represent a vocal opposition to the Government; openly questioning Ministers, contesting legislation and criticising the Cabinet. There is a comparatively free press and a system of government based on the separation of legislative, judicial and executive functions.

  Kuwait has signed the core international conventions on human rights, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Although Kuwait has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, it has entered reservations on a number of clauses relating to the role of women in political life.

  In its Annual Report 2000 Amnesty International raised concerns about the continued detention of political prisoners; the use of Martial Law and State Security Courts; the status of the Bidoon (Stateless people); restrictions on freedom of expression; forcible return; and the death penalty.

  The Martial Law and State Security Courts have been abolished. Trials are now conducted openly and freely and are open to appeal. Although some prisoners have been released we understand that a significant number remain in prison. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are allowed free access to prisons. Kuwait is open to international organisations such as the UNCHR, ILO, UNDP, UNESCO and Amnesty International who are all represented locally. There is an increasingly vigorous domestic human rights lobby both through the National Assembly's Human Rights Committee and other less formal organisations.

  There has been less progress in resolving the long-running issue of the Bidoon (Stateless persons living in Kuwait). There are an estimated 66,000 people who have been unable to provide proof of their Kuwaiti nationality. They remain stateless and as such do not enjoy many of the benefits of ordinary citizens, such as full access to Kuwait's generous welfare system.

  The Kuwaiti penal code also provides for the death penalty. Although the Amir frequently commutes sentences of death to life imprisonment, on occasion sentence is carried out for offences such as drug smuggling, murder or rape.

  The Committee asked about Constitutional Court cases in which women challenged the limited basis of the Kuwaiti franchise. Although women can stand and vote in the first tier of local elections, they cannot do so in elections to municipal councils or the National Assembly. In 1999, during an interregnum between parliaments, the Amir promulgated a decree granting women this right. Although the Cabinet approved this measure in 1999, the Kuwaiti Constitution required that a bill based on the proposal be placed before parliament. Such a bill was duly introduced in November 1999: despite Government support it did not however secure the necessary majority in a free vote. There remains significant opposition within the National Assembly to extending equal rights to women and there are indications that the issue may be pushed down the legislative agenda.

  In July 2000, the Chief Justice and Constitutional Court ruled that cases, brought by Kuwaiti women, challenging the limited franchise, could not be heard by the Court, and consequently dismissed them on technical grounds. The Court noted that only the Government or National Assembly had the right to bring cases before the Court. According to the Chief Justice, the women should have submitted their cases via the Interior Ministry rather than directly challenging the constitutionality of the Electoral Law through the courts. The FCO accepts that the issue was properly considered according to Kuwaiti law.

  The FCO and the British Embassy support measures to strengthen democratic rights. Kuwaiti interlocutors welcome this. We maintain regular contact with liberal groups such as the National Democratic Forum. In 1999 Mr Peter Hain, Minister of State, met a number of Kuwait's leading liberals during his visit to Kuwait. During his most recent visit in October 2000 Mr Hain raised the issue of enfranchisement of women and the situation of the Bidoon with the Kuwaiti authorities.

  We have a programme aimed at raising awareness of human rights issues and fostering links between Kuwaiti and British parliamentarians, academics and other opinion formers. In 1998 the British Embassy arranged a Human Rights Seminar. In October 1999 a delegation from the National Assembly, sponsored by the FCO, visited London. In July 2000 we sponsored the attendance of Dr Massouma Mubarak, Head of Political Sciences at Kuwait University, at a Wilton Park conference on women and democracy. We award an annual scholarship for study in the United Kingdom, under the FCO Chevening Scheme, to a woman from Kuwait.

  You also raised the question of possible linkage between international action in 1991 to restore Kuwait's sovereignty and a promise of further democratisation. We are not aware that any direct link was ever made to a commitment to reform by the Kuwaiti Royal Family. International action to restore Kuwait's sovereignty was undertaken because we and our allies and partners were not prepared to see Kuwait's independence and sovereignty snuffed out by invasion, occupation and repression.

  However in October 1990 Crown Prince Sa'ad said, in a speech in Jedda, that "guided by the Constitution of 1962, Kuwait will strengthen democracy and consolidate popular participation, which has been and remains a goal towards which we are striving and devoting our efforts."

  We attach importance to our dialogue with Kuwait on human rights and democracy. The Kuwaiti authorities are responsive.

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