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