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UN Calls for Greater Human Rights in the Gulf

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights says more basic freedoms are being seen in Gulf Arab countries, but further progress must be made. For the first time Commissioner Navi Pillay is visiting all six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations during the same mission to get first-hand information of human rights practices in the region.

Speaking at a press conference in the United Arab Emirates Saturday, the fifth stop on her tour, Pillay identified four areas of concern: women's rights, statelessness, the situation of migrant workers and freedom of expression, association and assembly.

In some countries, like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, expatriates outnumber national citizens. But, many governments in the region have not passed legislation that grants equal rights to foreign workers.

A system known as Kafala exists in most states and requires workers to have local sponsors. Pillay says the scheme allows for illegal practices like confiscating passports and withholding wages. "Many problems have arisen through a lack of protection safeguards in the so-called Kafala, or sponsorship, system that leaves migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation in an unequal power relationship with their employers," she said.

Pillay says women in the Gulf are also unable to fully enjoy their human rights. Like in many Muslim nations, they are unable to make certain choices for themselves or fully participate in public life. In Saudi Arabia females are unable to drive and require a male guardian when they are outside their homes.

Steps towards greater gender equality, however, are being taken. And women now have access to higher education in all six Gulf countries and a minimal number of females hold government posts.

Pillay says her meetings with officials have assured her that the overall situation for human rights in the region will continue to improve. "In all the cases, the heads of state and ministers I have met expressed their interest to continue progress on attaining international human rights standards. I am especially heartened by the fact that, in the four countries where I've held talks with the governments so far, there was agreement that not only are human rights not inconsistent with Islam, but they are achievable," she said.

Pillay says she hopes her current tour will allow the U.N. to provide better support and advice to individual Gulf countries on how to improve their human rights records. "Major social changes cannot take place overnight, and I accept that the pace of change depends to some extent on sufficient popular consensus. This, however, does not forestall the possibility of making bold changes. I am convinced the political will is there, as evidence by the words of Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister, Prince Saud Al Faisal, who told me: Not only are we willing to move forward, we are planning to move forward," she said.

Pillay will conclude her mission in Oman on April 26.