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Human Rights logo 17, August 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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An international competition is currently underway to design a symbol which is hoped to become the internationally recognized symbol for human rights.

Think of peace or CND, for example, and this sign is synonymous.

Yet human rights has no such  automatic association. To attempt to devise such a universally recognized symbol for human rights seems, to me, to be a rather dignified and noble aim. Have a squizz at the website and judge for yourself which are the best ones thus far and get voting.

Kuwait to get rid of kefala system 27, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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Kuwait is to get rid of its kafala sponsorship system for hiring foreign workers. The kafala system operates by making foreign workers use a local sponsor. This, in conjunction, with a wide-spread ethos that sees domestic servants, drivers and nannies as property and not as human beings, has led to decades of atrocious human rights abuses not only in Kuwait but throughout the Gulf.

It is hoped that this will make it easier for workers to change jobs as opposed to previously when this was practically impossible either legally or because the previous employer held the worker’s passport. The kefala system has – with very good reason – been described as modern-day slavery. However, while obviously a step in the right direction, clearly, this will not be a panacea to continued human rights abuses in Kuwait: culture cannot change overnight.

Bahrain got rid of its kefala system in 2009, much to the anger of its business community. Kuwait authorities said that they were scrapping this system “as a gift to foreign workers on the anniversary of Kuwait’s liberation.”

The other Gulf countries still practice the kafala system.

Kuwait’s daily shame 2, July 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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I’ve just returned to Kuwait for only the second time since I lived here some years ago. Alas, the papers are still full of despair-ridden stories of migrant workers in Kuwait. Page 6 alone of today’s Al Watan describes an Indian maid and two Philippine maids drinking Dettol, Colorx and various pesticides in attempts to kill themselves. Only the Indian maid was successful. One can only imagine just how epically awful conditions must have had to have been to drive these workers to kill themselves by – of all painful and horrific things – swallowing highly concentrated bleach. I fervently hope that their employers (or owners, as they may see themselves) pause and think about just why these human-beings did this. Alas, I doubt they will.

Bahrain to get rid of visa sponsoring 7, May 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Qatar.
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One of the key underlying problems with the issue of migrant workers in the Gulf lies in the sponsorship mechanisms. Workers from India, Indonesia Bangladesh and other countries sign up to a company who sponsor them to get to the Gulf country. This involves paying the company money over time for administration, visas and flights. The problem is that more often than not these companies are poorly regulated and abuse their position. Promised levels of wages often do not come to fruition, their hours can be significantly longer, the companies hold their passports, it is impossible to change jobs and so on.

Bahrain has, however, become the first Gulf country to end this system. According to the BBC such companies will be closed down and instead workers will work directly for the Ministry of Labour. This has advantages: it will enable the workers to retain their passport; they will be able to hand in a resignation letter and change jobs if they so choose and there is more accountability in the government department than an anonymous sponsorship company.

There are three possible motives for Bahrain’s decision. First, they could be doing this for humanitarian reasons; simply because it is the right thing to do. Call me cynical, but I doubt this very much. Second, Bahrain, like all of the Gulf countries, finds itself on the US State Department’s people trafficking list (though not as highly placed as Saudi, Kuwait and Qatar). This, therefore, is a blot on their international reputation and this new system could be a way of trying to remedy this situation. Third, Bahrain is facing large social problems. Their Shia majority is chaffing ever more at the Sunni minority rule. Unemployment is estimated to be around 15% and, as always, afflicts younger generations more. These factors have recently coalesced in the rioting in Manama and elsewhere. This measure can perhaps be seen in part as an answer to this. Theoretically, the Department of Labour can designate more jobs for Bahrainis now that they have control of the migrant labour supply. Whether a Bahraini citizen will take a job that is traditionally seen as a migrant worker’s job, is, however, a very different question.

Saudi Arabia flogs a 75 year old widow 10, March 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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As I have said on many occasions 1 2 3 4 5 with Saudi Arabia it is, more often than not, one step forward, several back. After unquestionably good news in recent weeks where real reforms appear to have been instigated, out comes the twice yearly ridiculously cruel Saudi “justice” story. Cue the flogging of a 75 year old widow for consorting (sitting in a car) with men who were not her immediate relatives. One was – shock and horror – her first cousin. Draw your own conclusions…

The controversies of the DNA database 29, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Terrorism.
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Have you noticed a strange number of cases in recent years of old crimes being solved? I confess, I have hunted around for empirical evidence to back up that claim, but I simply can’t remember the names of the cases themselves. Nevertheless, like any good political scientist, I am still totally convinced that my initial notion is true, despite a dearth of evidence supporting it.Such a hypothesis would, however, fit in with the trend in recent years adopted by the UK government of collecting more and more people’s DNA. This elicits predictable responses from predictable people.

The government trot out the usual dynamic and positive adjectives defending their case along with statistics beseeching people to just see sense and eschew the dark side. According to the Government, if you’re against the plan it seems you are just begging for someone’s daughter to get murdered or raped. In an interview with the home affairs select committee, Meg Hillier the Home Office minister employed, to my mind, despicable and childish emotional blackmail to make her point when she said that she “wouldn’t want to be sat in the same room as someone whose family member was murdered, saying we could have prevented this but we didn’t.” The bizarre thing is that she needn‘t use such a distasteful argument. The figures that the Government quote are really quite impressive (but when are they not?). Apparently, DNA evidence has helped to solve 452 murders, 644 rapes, 222 sex offences and 2,000 violent crimes in recent years. Nevertheless, there are no plans for a mandatory nation wide DNA database.

On the other side of the debate you have, among others, Shami Chakrabarti the Director of Liberty.

“At the moment in Britain, if you were arrested of any offence ever, even if you’re never charged or cautioned, you’ll stay on the database forever…where do you draw the line – market manipulation, dropping litter?”

As far as I am concerned, Shami can keep on going: parking violations, not crossing the street at zebra crossings, gratuitously offensive clothing, talking loudly on a mobile on the train … no offence is too small for your DNA to be scooped up and put in the DNA database. I think it is simply irrefutable that were such a database to be mandatory, more crimes would be solved quicker. This is surely an obvious fact which does not need testimony to back it up. If it did, however, look to Detective Superintendent Stuart Cundy who arrested necrophiliac Mark Dixie for the murder of Sally Anne Bowman. Cundy was deported from Australia in 1999 and his DNA – as envisaged by the DNA register – would have been on file. However, it was not, and only when he was arrested for being in a pub brawl was his DNA sampled and the case closed. Therefore, as Detective Superintendent Cundy put it, “If there had been a national DNA register, with all its appropriate safeguards, then rather than nine months before Mark Dixie was identified, he could have been identified much sooner.”

However, this is not the real issue with the DNA database, so far as I see it. Indeed, Mrs Chakrabarti is perfectly correct when she asks whether the government is capable of safely storing such critical information about people. Their current record does not inspire confidence. From the loss of personal data of more than 25 million people by the Child Benefit office, to the loss of data regarding 1400 students here in Scotland, there appears to be systematic problems at all levels of the government and its appendages. Indeed, the fact that at present Britain’s DNA database holds the records of around 4-5 million people, making it percentage terms the biggest file of its kind in the world, may well leave people uneasy.

Were these inherent problems to be rectified then a modest expansion of the DNA database would, I imagine, have most people’s support. However, given that such a solution (or at least people’s confidence in it) is far off, if not impossible, it comes down to a judgement call. Perhaps this particular decision would be better informed in light of the case which is about to be heard by the European Court of Human Rights.

In 2001 an 11 year old boy with no previous warnings or cautions, was arrested for attempted robbery. He was subsequently exonerated and asked for his DNA to be taken off the register. The police refused and their decision was backed up by the High Court in 2002, owing to the 2001 Criminal Justice and Police Act, which allows the police to retain DNA samples, even if the person in question is cleared or indeed never charged in the first place. The boy in question, who is now a teenager, along with another man in a similar situation are currently in the process of bringing their case to the European Court of Human Rights. If they win their case, it is thought that some half a million names would have to be removed from the database.

That seems like a lot to me. Do you think that there is a chance that one of these half a million people is likely to commit a crime at some time in future? Or that someone whose DNA record is deleted in the future because of this change in law, is likely to commit a crime? Would their DNA being on file aid a quicker arrest and prosecution? Does the chance of this scenario coming to fruition outweigh the chance of the government posting their records to God knows where and losing their them? These are personal decisions for which there are, need it be said, no right or wrong answers. My own inclination is to err on the side of caution (my caution that is) and leave the names and records where they are.

The Chinese media reaction to the Darfur crisis – caught between the old and the new 25, February 2008

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The Chinese media reaction to the Darfur crisis – caught between the old and the new.

The Chinese reaction to the criticism of their Sudanese policies has varied widely. Liu Guijin the Chinese special envoy to Africa spoke eloquently to journalists in London last week. In excellent English, he calmly and coherently made the Chinese case. China was indeed trying to help in Darfur through various meetings and other mediums. China only supplies some 8% of the weapons to Sudan, he claimed, and professed confusion as to how stories exaggerating China’s arms exporting deals come about. “Is it a misunderstanding or is it intentional?” he mused. However, he reiterated the fundamental plank of Chinese foreign policy being non-intervention and was clear that China would only go so far in terms of persuasion. This particular example is similar to the Chinese response in front of the Western media as a whole: professional and slick.

This is in stark contrast to the Chinese domestic response to the same crisis, even in the English language news in China. Take Xinhua for example, the Governmental mouth piece. To choose two of their stories covering Sudan and China, one was titled “Sudan’s FM lauds China’s role in solving Darfur issue.” At a press conference with Liu Guikin the Sudanese foreign minister gave a statement as if it was written for him by the Chinese:

“China is using its good relations with Sudan to help it solve the Darfur issue…China is not here to help Sudan in a way that will prompt the Darfur conflict to continue. China is here to help Sudan in issues regarding economic developments. China is here to help build Sudan, and China is engaged in business not only in the oil sector, but also other sector…[Commenting on some Western organizations’ threat to boycott the Beijing Olympic Games] What they should do is to solve the Darfur issue in a right direction, instead of putting more pressure on China.”

It seems that the Sudanese English language newspapers were equally on message, as quoted in Xinhua:

Sudan Vision, the largest English-language daily in terms of circulation, ran an editorial in both English and Chinese, the first of its kind by a newspaper in Sudan.

“Indeed, Chinese leadership and media refused to trail behind Western fabrications on Darfur, and have instead firmly stood in the face of pressures put on it because it is fully aware of Western attempts to capitalize on the African problem to pass its own agendas which did not change since the colonial era,” the independent daily said in the editorial.

“We have every right to mock at the flawed voices attempting tolink the Olympic Games China will host to the Darfur problem. Such cheap attempt will not affect the eligibility of China for hosting this international activity in the best manner,” the editorial said.

“We, too, appreciate China’s repeated call for political dialogue to resolve the Darfur issue, contrary to Western pressures on Sudan,” it said.

“But the way Western countries dealt with the issue, providing Darfur rebels with funds, weapons and political support, made the rebels reluctant to reach peace. Not only that, the West has continued to use rebels as pawn to achieve its target,” said the editorial.


Such flagrant bias would simply not be tolerated in Western media. Indeed, it would surely be treated with the scorn and contempt that it deserves. What is more puzzling is that China appears to realise this, at least to some extent. You don’t see them peddling this kind of insipid and transparent dialogue in the West, not that they could find (one would hope) a Western newspaper to promulgate Beijing’s line in such an obsequious manner.

Victor Mallet of the Financial Times recently wrote an interesting piece tangential to this theme. He suggested that Beijing ought to open up its media to a greater extent, to allow Chinese people to decide the pros and cons for themselves. Then, “its officials and citizens would be better prepared for the onslaught of criticism and political activism likely to be directed at Beijing’s domestic and foreign policies ahead of the Olympic Games.”

Beijing’s cautious, simplistic and anachronistic assumption that such sycophantic reporting is the safer way to proceed to minimise protest and disharmony is sure to backfire.

Firstly, if people do indeed believe such stories in their entirety then, as Mallet points out, they will be shocked and none too happy with the Western media coverage of events in the lead up to the Olympics. This will create a feeling that the Western media and thus the West are unjustly attacking China just as it is about to take centre stage in one of the most significant events in its recent history. Again, one must not underestimate the importance of the Olympics to the Chinese, in terms of the pride with which they take in hosting it and the prestige that they believe will bestowed on China because of it.

Secondly, for those who read such reports with a wry and rueful smile, the Chinese government are doing themselves no favours. Such reporting suggests gullibility on the part of the reader: not a nice assumption to be fostered upon anyone. Disenfranchising swathes of citizens (and it is surely swathes: most people don’t really take these reports seriously?) will only push them to seek more sources of news, something which the Government seeks to keep under control.

Overall, such reports smack of the old days; of absurd communist pre-Perestroika press or even of Comical Ali, where press reporting was decidedly more fiction than fact. And, to reiterate, the Chinese know better: they show that they do in their modern, fluent and professional Western media interviews. They must not think that they can keep – á la King Canute – the tide of free press and free discussion away from their citizens, it is simply not feasible and, in the long run, not advantageous.


The Beijing Olympics and China’s evolving foreign policy 14, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in China, Foreign Policies.
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A recent article in Foreign Affairs suggests that China is modifying its foreign policy. “Over the last two years, Beijing has been quietly overhauling its policies towards pariah states” the authors claim. They then proceed to make a very convincing case almost to the contrary of this statement. Indeed, their evidence at best suggests that China is improving its foreign policy image, without substantial changes in the nuts and bolts. Furthermore, what their ample and well researched evidence suggests to me is that Beijing is being as pragmatic as ever in the pursuit of its foreign policy.

China’s dealings with pariah states are well known. It has intimate relations with despotic North Korea, racist Zimbabwe, genocidal Sudan and terrorist-propagating Iran, to name but a few. The article, however, suggests that there is evidence that in recent times China has been playing a much more forceful hand towards these states, especially when they have fallen under international pressure. They cite many instances of China’s apparent change of foreign policy in recent years.

Regarding North Korea, amongst various other Chinese policies, the authors praise Beijing’s crucial role in forcing North Korea to the negotiating table in 2003. The singing of the UNSC resolution 1696 demanding Iranian suspension of their Uranium enrichment programme is seen – rightly – as a change in step by China. The important role of various Chinese ministers and special envoys in getting Sudan to accept foreign troops in Darfur is also a worthy argument, auguring towards a potential change in Chinese foreign policy. Also, the authors suggest that there has been a distinct cooling in Sino-Zimbabwean relations, despite the lack of significant international pressure, suggesting that China might have proceeded with this change in policy for internal reasons i.e. their overall change in foreign policy.

However, as the authors point out themselves, at every stage of these apparent changes, there were wholly pragmatic reasons for the Chinese to do so. The authors, however, do not fully appreciate explore this reasoning. In the example of Zimbabwe, with the economy plummeting and inflation rising as they have been for some time now, any Chinese investment was simply not seeing any real return. Thus, the cooling of relations between these countries is not, I would suggest, primarily because of Chinese human rights concerns, but simply motivated by basic economics: why would they invest heavily in a country with either poor or no return? The examples of Sudan and Iran can be explained by China’s increased vulnerability to international pressure, for the next year at least. It is difficult to underestimate the importance that the Olympics has for China. Whilst there are a significant number of people in the UK who are generally apathetic or even hostile to the London 2012 Olympics, people in China tend see this as an opportunity to extol China’s virtues after its century of humiliation. Indeed, as for back as 2003 there were Olympic t-shirts abounding in the markets of every Chinese town and Chinese people, when they stopped you in the street to talk (a daily occurrence), would frequently chat about the Olympics. It really is taking on a different level of importance in China. Thus, any notion that it might be branded the Genocide Olympics is a serious political concern for China. It genuinely seems likely that China would modify its international politics to some degree in order attempt to preempt or assuage the most vociferous anti-China voices and protect their Olympics from ridicule, protests and marginalisation.

These are only hypotheses. However, these are the simplest and to my mind the best explanation for China’s minor changes in foreign policy in recent years. They are an ultimately rational and pragmatic actor. When the benefits of interaction outweigh international displeasure, then China will ignore international displeasure and trade with the countries in question. However, if and when this calculation shifts – as it has done when the Beijing Olympics are considered – so does the Chinese position.