24 March 2016 – Geneva – Today, an important resolution has been adopted during the 31st session of the Human Rights Council.
This resolution, sponsored by Switzerland, Costa Rica and Turkey, refers to the “Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Context of Peaceful Protests”. It encourages States to take positive measures to promote a safe environment for individuals exercising their rights to freedom of assembly and also insists on States’ responsibility to prevent human rights violations in the context of peaceful protests.
The resolution speaks loudly to the complicated relationship of Gulf Council Cooperation (GCC) countries with the right to freedom of assembly, particularly in the context of widespread peaceful protests during and after 2011. Recently, the latest Joint Communications Report of the Special Procedures (A/HRC/31/79) expressed a number of concerns regarding the violation of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression in GCC countries such as Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait.
In Bahrain, an amendment to the anti-Terror Law 58/2006 Protecting Society from Terrorist Acts on 4 December 2014 banned all peaceful protests, rallies, gatherings or sit-ins in the capital Manama. Individuals thus continue to face charges for their participation in such events. In 2011, thirteen high-profile human rights activists, scholars and religious leaders were arrested for their participation in the country-wide protests demanding civil and political reforms. The Bahrain-13 were condemned to long prison sentences ranging from 5 years to life and have yet to be released, despite a number being recognized as arbitrarily detained by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Moreover, the government of Bahrain has continued to use excessive force in response to peaceful protests. Tear gas and birdshot pellets have often been employed at close-range and in quantities that are disproportionate, killing and injuring many protesters, including children. This demonstrates an urgent need for the international community and its human rights bodies to pay closer attention to the guarantee of peaceful assembly in Bahrain and the wider Gulf region.
In Saudi Arabia, similar violations are observed. Recently, the Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Assembly, Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Summary Executions, and Torture together expressed concern regarding the arbitrary death sentence against Saudi minor Dawood Hussain al-Marhoon on charges related to his participation in peaceful protests. On 2 January of this year, Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a Shia cleric and rights activist was also executed on charges relating to his peaceful activism, including the organization and participation in peaceful protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province.
In Oman, the use of restrictive measures against peaceful assembly have similarly increased since 2011. Oman continues to severely stifle the freedom of assembly of peaceful protesters in law and in practice. Article 37 of Oman’s Penal Code criminalizes public protests. According to this provision, the participation in a gathering of at least 9 individuals ‘to commit a breach of public order’ is punishable with up to three years in prison and a monetary fine. Since 2011, many peaceful protesters have been sentenced under this law, including environmental activist Dr. Talib Al-Maamari, whose four-year sentence was upheld by an Omani court in 2014.
In Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, documented violations in the context of peaceful protests are also rampant. Last March, a peaceful protest in Kuwait’s Sahat al-Erada square was forcibly quashed by Kuwaiti Special Forces and resulted in the arrest of a number of individuals, including human rights defender Nawaf Al-Hendal, who was beaten by Special Forces with a baton upon his arrest. Further, UAE’s 2014 Anti-Terror Law’s adoption of a broad definition of terrorism has enabled the government to punish several individuals on charges relating to their freedom of assembly.
These examples demonstrate the several ways in which GCC countries continue to ignore international human rights standards relating to the right to freedom of assembly. Therefore, as highlighted by this resolution, Gulf States should take immediate and definitive measures, in law and in practice, to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests.
Sophia Nizard is an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB.