Browsing 'human rights' News

Omar Chatriwala / Doha News

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Qatar’s blasphemy laws are among the five worst in the world when it comes to violating human rights, a new US report has said.

The Gulf state was ranked fifth in the newly released Respecting Rights? Measuring the World’s Blasphemy Laws.

It came just behind Iran, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and narrowly ahead of Egypt, Italy and Algeria.

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Respecting Rights? Measuring the World’s Blasphemy Laws.

The report was authored by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

It found that 71 of the world’s 195 nations have blasphemy laws, with penalties ranging from fines to jail time or death.

Blasphemy was defined as “the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God.”

Human rights

The purpose of the report was to raise awareness of human rights violations incurred through blasphemy laws.

In a statement, USCIRF Chairman Daniel Mark said the problem with such legislation is that it can lead to violence.

“Advocates for blasphemy laws may argue that they are needed in order to protect religious freedom, but these laws do no such thing,” he said.

“Blasphemy laws are wrong in principle, and they often invite abuse and lead to assaults, murders, and mob attacks. Wherever they exist, they should be repealed.”

The 71 countries with blasphemy legislation were ranked in the report. Factors included the vagueness and penalty severity of the laws, as well as how they affected freedom of expression and religion.

Whether the rules discriminated against groups through state religion protections was also assessed.

Performing Eid prayer

Ray Toh / Doha News

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The five worst-ranked nations, including Qatar, appear to protect the official state religion of Islam in a way that discriminates against non-Muslims, the report found.

It added that most countries listed in the report have signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protect free speech.

Qatar however is not a signatory to either document.

Qatar’s laws

Religion can be a bit of a touchy subject in Qatar, a conservative Muslim country.

Its first church since pre-Islamic times opened in 2008. But other religions such as Hinduism are not permitted to open houses of worship.

Lance Cenar

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In terms of disrespecting religion, Article 256 of Qatar’s penal code specifically prohibits:

  • Insulting God through writing, drawing, gesturing or in any other way or through any other means;
  • Offending, misinterpreting or violating the Quran;
  • Offending the Islamic religion or any of its rites and dictates;
  • Cursing any of the divine religions (Christianity and Judaism) according to the regulations of Islamic law;
  • Insulting any of the prophets through writing, drawing, gesturing or in any other way or through any other means; and
  • Sabotaging, breaking, damaging or violating sites or their contents if they are made to perform religious rites for one of the divine religions according to the regulations of Islamic law.

The maximum penalty for such offenses is seven years’ imprisonment.

One reason for Qatar’s poor score on the index was because it singled out Islam and “divine religions” in its blasphemy law.

This is problematic because it establishes “a clear hierarchy of beliefs within the confines of the state religion,” the report said.

Other nations

Countries with blasphemy laws that fared better in the report included Ireland, Spain and the Philippines.

The first two nations only punish blasphemy through a fine, and many of the top-scoring countries do not discriminate between religions.

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Tunisia was the only Muslim nation in the top 10 best-scoring countries.

In terms of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia was 12th worst, Bahrain 13th, the UAE 16th and Oman 21st.

Kuwait fared better at 33rd, which was in the middle of the rankings.

Thoughts?

Reem Saad / Doha News

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Employees in Qatar should soon have an easier and quicker way to pursue grievances against their bosses, after the Emir approved a new law this week.

The legislation, Labor Law No. 13 of 2017, establishes a Labor Dispute Resolution Committee that allows employees to circumvent the court system.

It also amends some provisions of previous iterations of the labor law from 2004 and 1990.

Business2community.com

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Examples of complaints heard by the committee will include breach of contract or failure to provide a valid RP.

Notably however, the committee won’t be for everyone, since not all workers in Qatar are protected under the Labor Law.

Those who are exempt include employees at government ministries and other public bodies, and those working for Qatar Petroleum and its subsidiaries, according to Article 3 of the 2004 law, which was amended in 2009.

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Domestic staff such as household workers, drivers and gardeners are also not covered under this law.

But new legislation is in the works to “regulate” the relationship between these workers and their employers.

How to complain

The committee will operate under Qatar’s Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor and Social Affairs (MADLSA).

It aims to make decisions on grievances within three weeks of when they were filed.

Richard Messenger/Flickr

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However, before a complaint reaches the new committee, workers should first try to address their issues with their employer directly.

If that doesn’t work, the employee can escalate the problem to the ministry’s Labor Department, according to Al Sharq which has published the full details of the new law in Arabic.

The Labor Dispute Resolution Committee will then step in if both previous steps fail to get a result.

Omar Chatriwala / Doha News

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That said, an employee can go directly to the committee if they have been terminated in what they feel is an arbitrary way.

If the panel finds a worker was dismissed illegally, the employee can be reinstated and awarded all payments owed to them. Compensation could also be ordered to be paid to the worker.

The committee’s decision would be immediately binding.

Committee structure

The committee will be chaired by a judge from the court of first instance who is chosen by the Supreme Judicial Council.

Two other members will be nominated by the Labor Ministry, one of which should have a background in accounting.

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The secretariat of the committee will comprise at least one employee from labor ministry, and the ministry is tasked with deciding the committee’s rules, procedures and mechanisms for awarding decisions and enforcing them.

The committee will be independent, and will have sole discretion over its decisions.

Appeals

Parties will have a right to appeal a decision made by the committee. They must lodge their dissent with the Court of Appeal within 15 days from the date of the decision.

The Court of Appeal then has 30 days to make a decision, from the date of the first hearing there, the new law states.

Chantelle D'mello / Doha News

Court of Appeals and Cassation

While new grievances will only be heard through the committee, complaints that have already been lodged by workers will continue to be processed through the courts.

The new committee was first publicly mooted last October, when the State Cabinet approved the planned changes to the Labor Law.

In March this year, it then approved further changes to the draft law, before it went to the Advisory (Shura) Council.

Speedier justice

The committee and changes to the law have been brought in to try to provide quicker justice to workers who have been wronged by their employers.

Under the previous system, workers with labor grievances usually approached their embassy.

Reem Saad / Doha News

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Officials there often mediated with the employer to try to reach a solution, but if that failed workers were advised to file a complaint with the labor ministry.

That lead to a meeting between the worker and their employer.

However, some workers who previously complained about their bosses reported retaliation.

This can come in the form of docked pay, employers failing to renew their Residency Permits (RP) or removing them from company accommodation, UN labor officials noted.

Qatar’s authorities have previously tried to make it easier for individuals to seek redress, and a 2014 report found that 90 percent of the cases lodged were resolved at this stage.

However, those that weren’t had to go through the court system.

This can be a long, expensive process for workers, particularly for those had been sacked or abandoned by their employers.

Thoughts?

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Despite recent reforms to Qatar’s sponsorship law, employers still enjoy a great deal of control over their staff, paving the way for many abuses.

For low-income expats especially, it is hard to challenge the status quo even if their bosses are doing something illegal.

But there are ways for more privileged residents to help, according to former Qatar expat Andrew Leber, a PhD Candidate at Harvard University’s Department of Government. In this opinion piece, he explains how.

During the years that I worked in Doha and since I’ve left, I’ve read a steady patter of expat reflections on life in Qatar.

Almost all of them mention the kafala system – which in my opinion, still exists – and how it sows deep divides between nationalities and professions.

Navin Sam

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It also creates an informal hierarchy between those who can walk in the city’s parks on “family days” while remaining eminently single, and those who remain “bachelors” even as they work to support wives and children back home.

Most white-collar expats are well aware of these dynamics. But when discussing kafala (in print or around the dinner table), most people usually throw up their hands, declaring “it is what it is, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

That’s not quite true.

Individual actions

Yes, deep power imbalances are baked into the structure of the sponsorship system, and anybody willing to work in Qatar should understand that they are unlikely to effect systemic change.

Abdulla Almesleh/Flickr

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Yet on an individual level, there is much that the more privileged among us can do to try to address the symptoms of this system.

Those of us from Western countries and some Arab nations especially enjoy a privileged place in Doha, due to the advantages of education, nationality, income and even ethnicity.

This will likely only increase with recent changes to the law – most expats will have little hope of attaining permanent residency, even under the rosiest of scenarios.

While not immune to the troubles of the kafala system, most of us have access to cars, competent (and influential) embassies and lawyers, and tend to work for companies with reputations to consider back home or abroad.

A bewildering place

For blue-collar expats, on the other hand,  Qatar can often be a bewildering place.

Richard Messenger/Flickr

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With a poor grasp of English, little formal education, or salaries so low that independent transportation is a major challenge, they can find themselves unable to challenge the way they are treated.

Imagine your most difficult interaction with a government agency or private company, then imagine it being ten times as stressful, with stakes ten times as high.

With that in mind, here are some easy steps you can take to try to make a difference in other people’s lives.

Many of you no doubt do some of the following already. For the rest, please take them as suggestions.

And feel free to chime in with more ideas.

1. Check in

The most basic thing you can do is check in with the expats around you who aren’t part of your work team or immediate social circle.

These might be the receptionists and security guards in your building, the office assistants on contract to a general services company, or the guys running the car repair shop behind your neighborhood.

Chantelle D'mello

Landmark mall security

Ask how they’re doing, ask about family, ask about how they got to Doha. Above all, make sure you get names.

At a minimum, this helps ensure that we keep treating people like people, and helps build the trust needed for people in vulnerable positions in Qatar to tell you if something’s not right.

2. Help connect

Phone calls to family, social media and TV shows from home are obviously major lifelines for expats of all walks of life in Doha. And internet connections are essential to keep people from running up huge phone bills from data usage.

Apple

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This is why you see some expats hanging out near banks even when they’re closed – the free wifi keeps running on weekends and is vastly cheaper than any data plan.

For any service workers contracted to or directly employed by your building, see if you can get your company to top up salaries with phone cards, and at a minimum try to make sure everybody can get wifi access.

Likewise, if you have any older-generation Galaxies or iPhones gathering dust in the back of a drawer, see if you can find a better home for them.

3. Bolster transport options

Getting around Doha can be costly. There is something of an affordable bus system, but based on my limited experience, coverage is spotty and it can take a long time to get anywhere.

Satheesh/Flickr

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Be careful about offering rides, but do consider asking people you know if they need a lift, especially if it’s to a hard-to-reach embassy or to government offices to fill out paperwork and/or file a complaint.

In particular, check whether you can offer a ride to any fellow worshippers aiming to attend services out in the desert or elsewhere.

Most Qatar churches offer some kind of transportation services, but it can be hard to sign up without visiting the complex at least once.

4. Report violations

If you do hear of any violations, try to help expats bring labor violation issues to the authorities – and keep an eye out at your own workplace to ensure no abuse is taking place.

Plenty of expats don’t even know that they can flag concerns to the government, and it can be logistically difficult for them to do so.

Reem Saad / Doha News

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For example, any trip to an embassy or official building to remedy a problem would cost a blue-collar worker a sizable chunk of a month’s salary.

Make sure they know that they can visit the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor and Social Affairs (here they are on Twitter) in person to report potential wrongdoing by a company.

Also consider helping them to do so.

They can also download a complaint form here, or call the labor ministry’s hotline at 44241101 to begin the complaints process.

Additionally, somebody in your office – perhaps a government relations specialist – might even be able to provide names of trusted government employees to reach out to as well.

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These four actions I’ve outlined here are just a start. I hope, however, that they’ve given you ideas.

I hope I’ve helped you to see that there is something that Qatar’s wealthier residents can do to help those less fortunate then themselves.

With a bit of effort, we can all, as individuals, make a difference.

What advice would you add?


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Doha News’ editorial policy.