Severance of relations with Qatar by several of its regional neighbours imposed arbitrary restrictions on Qatar that resulted in human rights violations. The government continued to unduly restrict freedom of expression. Steps were taken to improve access to compensation for abused migrant workers. The government committed to revise its laws and reform the sponsorship system, as part of an agreement with the ILO. After years of delays, migrant domestic workers’ labour rights were protected for the first time, though the new law contained flaws. Discrimination against women remained entrenched in both law and practice. The courts imposed death sentences; no executions were reported.
On 5 June, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed relations with Qatar, accusing it of financing and harbouring “terrorists” and interfering in the domestic affairs of its neighbours. Saudi Arabia closed Qatar’s only land border while the four countries closed their airspace to flights to Qatar. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE arbitrarily banned their nationals from visiting or living in Qatar, and ordered Qataris to leave within 14 days, threatening fines or other unspecified consequences for non-compliance. Despite statements in response to international outcry, it was unclear what practical steps the three states had taken to mitigate negative impacts on families and those in education or undergoing medical treatment. As a result of the dispute, Qatari forces were expelled from the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen (see Yemen entry) and a UN mission to Djibouti, while the government accelerated efforts to increase its military capacity, including through military co-operation with Turkey and other states. In July, the Emir issued a decree amending some provisions of the 2004 Law on Combating Terrorism, which included redefining some terms and enabling individuals and groups accused of “terrorist activities” to appeal before the courts. In November the Emir announced that the first ever legislative elections would be held in 2018 and appointed four women to the Consultative Council (Shura Council).
Freedoms of expression, association and assembly
The authorities maintained restrictions to the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly that were not in conformity with international law and standards. The authorities did not permit the existence of independent political parties, and workers’ associations were only permitted for Qatari citizens if they met strict criteria. Laws criminalizing expression deemed offensive to the Emir were maintained.
In January, the government arbitrarily imposed a travel ban on human rights lawyer Najeeb al-Nuaimi, who was initially informed by text message. The ban remained in place at the end of the year, limiting the lawyer’s right to free movement.
Torture and other ill-treatment
On 25 May, although he was at risk of torture, the government forcibly returned Saudi Arabian human rights activist Mohammad al-Otaibi to Saudi Arabia, where he faced trial. Mohammad al-Otaibi had arrived in Qatar in February 2017. On 24 May he was travelling with his wife to Norway, where he had been granted asylum, when Qatari officials detained him at Doha airport.
Filipino national Ronaldo Lopez Ulep, whose conviction on espionage charges was upheld in 2016, continued to be detained despite an unfair trial and allegations of torture.
Workers’ rights – migrant workers
In January, the Emir signed an amendment to Qatar’s new sponsorship law, which had come into effect in December 2016. Law No.1 of 2017 confirmed that migrant workers would continue to require the permission of their employer to leave the country, by requiring workers to “notify” their employer. In October the cabinet reportedly approved a new amendment to the exit permit; it was not published during the year.
The ILO complaint against Qatar was closed on 8 November after the government committed to revising its laws in line with international labour standards and the guidance of ILO experts. If implemented in full, the agreement would enhance the protection of migrant workers’ rights.
On 18 August, the Emir approved the establishment of a new, judge-led Labour Dispute Resolution Committee (Law No.13 of 2017) to settle labour disputes within three weeks of a worker filing a complaint. If operated fairly and effectively, the new committee could address some of the barriers to migrant workers accessing justice. At the end of the year the dispute resolution courts had not yet begun operating.
A new law providing legal protections for domestic workers’ labour rights was passed for the first time. Law No.15 of 2017 included a limit to working hours per day, at least 24 consecutive hours off every week and three weeks’ paid leave per year. However, the law failed to provide adequate safeguards to restrict the abuse of a provision allowing domestic workers to work beyond the legal limit if they “agreed”.
Third-party auditors highlighted some progress on projects for the football World Cup in 2022, but identified abuses of migrant workers at all 10 of the contractors they investigated.
The dispute with neighbouring countries affected some migrant workers. Low-paid workers were disproportionately impacted by increases in food prices. Workers in the hospitality and tourism sectors reported being forced to take extended leave without pay. Some foreign workers had annual leave cancelled and exit permits revoked.
Women continued to face discrimination in law and practice. Personal status laws continued to discriminate against women in relation to marriage, divorce, inheritance, child custody, nationality and freedom of movement.
In June, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) urged the authorities to investigate crimes related to gender-based violence and to bring perpetrators to justice. The Committee called on the authorities to amend the Nationality Act in order to allow women to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis with Qatari men. Despite the approval of a draft law providing permanent residency rights for the children of Qatari women married to non-Qataris, discrimination persisted with women unable to pass on nationality and citizenship to their children.
In June, the CRC expressed concern over gender discrimination of children, violence against children in schools and at home, and laws limiting the right to nationality of children born in Qatar. The Committee called for the enactment of measures to end these practices. It also called for ending child marriage and raising the age of criminal responsibility, which remained at seven years of age in contravention of international standards. The Committee reiterated concerns about discrimination against the children of migrant workers and recommended the abolition of the kafala sponsorship system “without delay”.
The courts reportedly imposed at least two new death sentences that were upheld by the Court of Cassation, Qatar’s highest court. No executions were reported.