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Last updated on 30.10.2020 at 13:35

The Civic Space Developments

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Rights groups concerned at violation of migrant workers’ association rights, COVID-19 tracing apps

Rights groups concerned at violation of migrant workers’ association rights, COVID-19 tracing apps

Human Rights Watch published a damning report on Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers, including its failure to protect workers from wage abuses, denial of their rights to form unions and failure to abolish the kafala system; Invasive COVID-19 contact tracing apps which launched, according to Amnesty International, pose a serious risk to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly due to the compromising of users’ digital privacy and security;

Association

In August 2020, Human Rights Watch published a damning report on Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which will be hosted by Qatar. The report reveals that employers across Qatar frequently violate workers’ right to wages and that Qatar has failed to meet its 2017 commitment to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to protect workers from wage abuses. Migrant workers in Qatar are not allowed to form unions and Qatar has also failed to abolish the kafala system, which creates and sustains a repressive system of unchecked power and impunity for labour rights violations. Many workers are said to be fearful of speaking out against their abusive working conditions as their precarious situations make them particularly vulnerable to retaliation. Furthermore, wage abuses are reported to have escalated throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as some employers use the pandemic as a pretext to withhold wages or refuse to pay outstanding wages to workers.

Migrant workers are also prevented from making contact with their families due to a ban on free VoIP services. Khalid Ibrahim, Executive Director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), criticised these policies as a means to isolate migrant workers by depriving them of communication with the outside world.

Peaceful Assembly

Qatar has introduced invasive COVID-19 contact tracing apps which, according to Amnesty International, pose a serious risk to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly due to the compromising of users’ digital privacy and security. Mass surveillance tools place human rights defenders and activists at risk due to their ability to track users’ locations by uploading their GPS coordinates to a central server. Qatar’s EHTERAZ app is capable of optionally activating live location tracking of all users or of specific individuals, and users of this app are obliged to register with a national ID number. Amnesty International conducted an additional investigation into the security vulnerabilities present in Qatar’s mandatory contact tracing app, highlighting the privacy and security threats posed by these vulnerabilities. Although the vulnerability is reported to have been fixed, it would have allowed cyber attackers to access sensitive personal information of the app’s users, including their name, national ID, health status and location data. 

Expression

In January 2020, GCHR warned that proposed new amendments to Qatar’s Penal Code of 2004 would lead to “serious restrictions of expression if implemented.” The new law criminalises a broad range of speech and publishing activities and comes barely two years after Qatar acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 136 authorises the imprisonment of “anyone who broadcasts, publishes or republishes false or biased rumours, statements or news, or inflammatory propaganda, domestically or abroad, with the intent to harm national interests, stir up public opinion, or infringe on the social system or the public system of the state.” Amnesty International also condemned the law as signalling “a worrying regression from commitments made two years ago to guarantee the right to freedom of expression.” Qatar already has a number of laws restricting freedom of expression, such as the 1979 Law on Printing and Publication and the 2014 Law on Combatting Information-Technology Crimes.

Lynn Maalouf, Research Director for the Middle East at Amnesty International, said:

“This law effectively signals a worrying regression from commitments made two years ago to guarantee the right to freedom of expression. Qatar already has a host of repressive laws, but this new legislation deals another bitter blow to freedom of expression in the country and is a blatant breach of international human rights law.”

In April 2019, the Qatari authorities closed the Doha Centre for Media Freedom without giving prior notice to employees and journalists of the Centre and without paying any compensation. The Doha Centre was founded in October 2008 with full funding from the Qatari government. The strong financial backing of the authorities raised question marks as to the independence of the media outlet and resulted in significant restrictions on its ability to cover human rights violations against journalists, including violations against media freedom in Qatar and the rest of the Gulf countries. GCHR believes that the authorities’ decision to close down the Centre was motivated by an intention to completely dominate Qatari media, despite the already stark lack of diversity of opinion in Qatari media.

Association

The Qatari constitution guarantees the freedom to form associations, however, this right is severely restricted through subsidiary laws and in practice.

The Qatari constitution guarantees the freedom to form associations, however, this right is severely restricted through subsidiary laws and in practice. The 2004 Law of Associations and Private institutions governs the registration and operation of CSOs and establishes that Ministerial authorisation must be granted in order to acquire legal personality. Carrying out activities without the proper registration is punishable with prison sentences. The legislation prevents organisations that ‘aim to achieve material or political aims’ from acquiring legal personality. The law further restricts the right to establish associations to Qatari nationals only, except where circumstances do not allow for that to occur. The legislation also establishes exorbitant licensing and annual fees. In practice, independent human rights organisations are not allowed to operate and human rights defenders are subject to harassment, travel bans and arbitrary detention.

Peaceful Assembly

The Qatari constitution guarantees citizens the right to peacefully assemble and demonstrate.

The Qatari constitution guarantees citizens the right to peacefully assemble and demonstrate. However, the Law No. 18 of 2004 on Public Meetings and Demonstration imposes significant pre-conditions which must be met in order for people to be able to exercise this right. The law requires that organisers obtain prior approval from the Director General of Public Security. In practice, the right to peaceful assembly is rarely exercised in the country, and in the exceptional circumstances when it has been exercised—such as the migrant workers protest in 2014—security forces have used excessive force to disperse protests and arrest protestors.

Expression

The Qatari constitution guarantees citizens the freedom to express opinions, however, the legislative framework governing this right is very restrictive.

The Qatari constitution guarantees citizens the freedom to express opinions, however, the legislative framework governing this right is very restrictive. For example, the Press and Publications Law and the penal code both criminalise defamation. In addition, the cybercrime law criminalises posting “false news” online. In practice, the government uses this legal framework to arrest journalists and online activists reporting on sensitive issues. The domestic media landscape is controlled by the government, and access to international media is limited. As the only internet provider in the country is State-owned, authorities routinely censor and block access to certain sites.