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U.S. Department of State

Kuwait Report on Human Rights Practices for 1997

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1998.

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Amirs, or princes, from the Al-Sabah family have ruled Kuwait in consultation with prominent community figures for over 200 years. The Constitution, adopted in 1962 shortly after independence, provides for an elected National Assembly and enumerates the powers of the Government and the rights of citizens. It also permits the Amir to suspend its articles during periods of martial law. The Amir twice suspended constitutional provisions from 1976 to 1981 and from 1986 to 1992 and ruled extraconstitutionally during these periods. Kuwait was occupied by Iraq from August 1990 to February 1991, when Iraqi forces were expelled by an international coalition. The National Assembly resumed functioning after the 1992 elections. National Assembly elections were held again in 1996. Legislation passed in 1996 granted the judiciary greater administrative and financial independence, but the Amir appoints all judges, and renewal of many judicial appointments as subject to government approval.

The Ministry of Interior supervises the security apparatus, including the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and Kuwait State Security (KSS), two agencies that, in addition to the regular police, investigate internal security-related offenses. Some members of the security forces committed human rights abuses.

Richly endowed with oil, in 1997 the country's estimated gross domestic product (GDP) is approximately $17,667 per capita. The decline in per capita GDP from previous years reflects a significant increase in resident foreign workers rather than a decline in economic activity. Costly reconstruction undertaken to recover from the destruction caused by the Iraqi occupation led the Government to incur a cumulative fiscal deficit of approximately $70 billion, which it covered by liquidating government-owned foreign assets and increasing the public debt. The Government is gradually reducing the deficit and plans to eliminate it by 2000. Due to high oil revenues in 1997, Kuwait recorded a $1.3 billion budget surplus. Despite its emphasis on an open market, the Government continues to dominate the local economy through direct expenditures and government-owned companies and equities. The Government has initiated a program of disposing of its holdings of stock in private companies. According to government statistics, 92 percent of the indigenous work force is employed by the Government. Expatriates constitute 94 percent of the private sector work force.

The Government's human rights record improved somewhat, although serious problems remain in certain areas. Citizens cannot change their head of state. Police abuse detainees during interrogation. The Government bans formal political parties and women do not have the right to vote or seek election to the National Assembly. The Government restricts freedom of assembly and association, and places some limits on freedom of religion. Journalists practice self-censorship, and the Government uses informal censorship. The Government prevents the return to Kuwait of stateless persons who have strong ties to the country. Deportation orders may be issued by administrative order, and hundreds of people are being held in detention facilities pending deportation. Many have been held for up to 6 years. Discrimination and violence against women are problems. Domestic servants are not protected by labor law, and unskilled foreign workers suffer from a lack of a minimum wage in the private sector, and from failures to enforce labor law.

Although the Government has not found a solution to the human rights problems of the approximately 114,000 stateless people residing in Kuwait known as the "bidoon", the Government naturalized a small fraction of the bidoon, and made a proposal to consider the naturalization of approximately 10 percent of the bidoon population. The Amir commuted the sentences of 12 individuals who were convicted of security offenses in 1991 by Martial Law and State Security courts.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings.

There were no developments in the investigations into the extra- judicial killings that occurred during the chaotic period after Kuwait's liberation in February 1991.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

There have been no developments since 1994 in the cases of disappearance that occurred following Kuwait's liberation in 1991.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Iraqi authorities have not yet accounted for 598 Kuwaitis and residents of Kuwait, including 6 women, who disappeared during Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. The Government of Iraq has refused to comply with U.N. Security Council Resolution 687, which stipulates the release of the detainees. Iraq denies that it holds Kuwaiti detainees.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution prohibits torture; however, there continue to be credible reports that some police and members of the security forces abuse detainees during interrogation. Reported abuse includes blindfoldings, verbal threats, slaps, and blows. Police and security forces were more likely to inflict such abuse on non-Kuwaitis, particularly citizens of other non-Gulf Arab nations and Asians, than on citizens. There were credible reports of more serious abuse, including beatings, of several persons held in custody, although these appear to be isolated incidents.

The Government says that it investigates all allegations of abuse and that it has punished at least some of the offenders. However, the Government does not make public the findings of its investigations or what, if any, punishments are imposed. This omission creates a climate of impunity, which diminishes deterrence against abuse.

Defendants have the right to present evidence in court that they have been mistreated during interrogation. However, the courts frequently dismiss abuse complaints because defendants are often unable to substantiate their complaints with physical evidence. Members of the security forces routinely do not reveal their identity during interrogation, a practice that further complicates confirmation of abuse.

Prison conditions, including conditions for those held for security offenses, meet minimum international standards, in terms of food, access to basic health care, scheduled family visits, cleanliness, and opportunities for work and exercise. Continuing problems include overcrowding and the availability of specialized medical care. In addition, some minor children of female prisoners stay in the prison with their mothers, where they are provided some access to educational instruction. In January the Government acted to improve prison conditions by removing contraband in the form of illegal drugs and weapons from the prison population and by removing prison officials who were implicated in drug smuggling. Some Jordanian prisoners alleged that they had been abused during a January search and seizure operation. Investigations of the incident by local and international humanitarian organizations suggested that it was an isolated event, that the Jordanians were not specifically targeted, and that it did not characterize overall prison conditions.

The National Assembly's Human Rights Committee continues to monitor prison conditions, and the Government allows the ICRC access to all detention facilities.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution provides for freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention. There were no reports of arbitrary arrest during the year.

Police officers must obtain an arrest warrant from state prosecutors before making an arrest, although in misdemeanor cases the arresting officer may issue them. Security forces occasionally detain persons at checkpoints in Kuwait City (see Section 2.d.).

Under the Penal Code, a suspect may not be held more than 4 days without charge. Security officers sometimes prevent families from visiting detainees during this confinement. After 4 days, prosecutors must either release the suspect or file charges. If charges are filed, prosecutors may remand a suspect to an additional 21 days in detention. Prosecutors may also obtain court orders for further detention pending trial.

Approximately 1,800 persons are serving sentences or pending trial at the central prison. Of the 1,800, approximately 200 are being held in the central prison on security-related grounds. At any given time, an additional 600 prisoners are being held in the Talha detention facility pending deportation. Many deportation orders are issued administratively, without benefit of a trial. The Government may expel noncitizens (including "bidoon", i.e., stateless residents of Kuwait, some of whom are native-born or long-term residents), if it considers them security risks. The Government may also expel foreigners if they are unable to obtain or renew work or residency permits. About 10 percent of the detainees awaiting deportation, especially Iraqis, stateless Palestinians, Jordanians, and bidoon, have been in detention for more than 1 year, some for up to 6 years. However, the Government does not deport such detainees to their country of origin against their will. The Government began granting bail, upon the sponsorship of a citizen, to prisoners held on non-security related charges at Talha deportation center. The Government also improved health and nutritional standards at the center. In November the Government implemented an amnesty program that allowed illegal residents, if they had no previous charges pending, to depart the country without penalty through December 16 (see Section 2.d.).

The law protects citizens from exile, and there are no reports of this practice.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution states that "judges shall not be subject to any authority," and legislation passed in 1996 granted the judiciary greater administrative and financial independence. However, the Amir appoints all judges, and renewal of many judicial appointments is subject to government approval.

Judges who are citizens have lifetime appointments, but the Government also employs many non-citizens as judges. These non-Kuwaiti judges work under 1- to 3-year renewable contracts, which undermines their independence. The Ministry of Justice may remove judges for cause, but rarely does so. Foreign residents involved in legal disputes with citizens frequently complain that the courts show a pro-Kuwaiti bias.

One court system tries both civil and criminal cases. The Court of Cassation is the highest level of judicial appeal. Sunni and Shi'a Muslims have recourse to courts of their respective denominations for family law cases; however, there is no Shi'a appellate court. Shi'a cases are referred to the Sunni court on appeal.

Defendants have the right to confront their accusers and appeal verdicts. The Amir has the constitutional power to pardon or commute all sentences. Defendants in felony cases are required by law to be represented in court by legal counsel, which the courts will provide in criminal cases. In misdemeanor cases, defendants have the right to waive the presence of legal counsel, and the court is not required to provide counsel to indigent defendants.

Both defendants and prosecutors may appeal court verdicts to the High Court of Appeal, which may rule on whether the law was properly applied, as well as on the guilt or innocence of the defendant. Decisions of the High Court of Appeal may be presented to the Court of Cassation, which will conduct a limited, formal review of cases to determine only whether the law was properly applied.

In the regular court system there are no groups, including women, who are barred from testifying or whose testimony is given lesser weight. However, the Islamic courts, which have jurisdiction over family law, apply Shari'a (Islamic) law, which states that the testimony of two women equals that of one man.

There are no reported political prisoners. The Government continues to incarcerate persons convicted of collaboration with Iraq during the occupation. By law such collaboration is a felony. Most of the people convicted in the Martial Law Court in 1991, and the Special State Security Court, which was abolished in 1995, did not receive fair trials. In February the Amir commuted the sentences of 12 individuals, two Kuwaitis and ten Jordanians, convicted by the Martial Law and State Security Courts. This group included 7 of the 16 remaining Jordanian journalists who worked for the Iraqi publication Al-Nida during the 1990 occupation (see Section 2.a.). In addition, the Amir pardoned a total of 405 prisoners, the largest group ever, and reduced the sentences of 590 more.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The Constitution provides for individual privacy and sanctity of the home. The police must obtain a warrant to search both public and private property, unless they are in hot pursuit of a suspect fleeing the scene of a crime, or if alcohol or narcotics are suspected on the premises. The warrant can be obtained from the state prosecutor or, in the case of private property, from a judge. The security forces occasionally monitor the activities of individuals and their communications.

By law males must obtain government approval to marry foreign-born women. Many citizens comply with this law by validating their foreign marriage certificate at a Kuwaiti embassy or consulate. Although the Government may advise against marriage to a foreign national, there are no known cases of the Government refusing permission to marry. The Government also advises women against marrying foreign nationals.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution states that "freedom of the press, printing, and publishing shall be guaranteed in accordance with the conditions and manner specified by law." With a few exceptions, citizens are free to criticize the Government at public meetings and in the media. However, journalists practice self-censorship. Several laws empower the Government to impose restrictions on freedom of speech and of the press, but they are rarely invoked. The Government, through the Ministry of Information, practices informal censorship by placing pressure on individual publishers and editors believed to have "crossed the line" in attacking government policies and discussing issues deemed offensive to Islam, tradition, or the interests of the State.

Newspapers are privately owned and free to publish on many social, economic, and political issues and frequently criticize government policies and officials, including the Crown Prince, who is also the Prime Minister.

The Government ended prepublication censorship in 1992, but journalists still censor themselves. The Press Law prohibits the publication of any direct criticism of the Amir, official government communications with other states, and material that serves to "attack religions" or "incite people to commit crimes, creates hatred, or spread dissension among the populace." In April the editor-in-chief and a journalist from Al Hadath were each fined $250 (75 Kuwaiti dinars) for violating the Press Law's prohibition on publishing "immoral or defamatory" material. The case stemmed from the publication of comments made by Kuwait University professor Alia Shuaib on the prevalence of lesbianism among the student body. In 1995 the Government banned publication of one newspaper, Al Anba, for 5 days under a law that the media and opposition parliamentarians alleged was unconstitutional. The paper took the Government to court, and has appealed an initial court ruling in favor of the Government. The case is still pending in the Appeals Court. The Government is reportedly seeking a settlement.

In order to begin publication of a newspaper, a publisher must obtain an operating license from the Ministry of Information. However, in July, the National Assembly began printing its own weekly newspaper, Al-Dustour (the Constitution), without having obtained a license, but without interference from the executive branch of government. Publishers may lose their license if their publications do not appear for 6 months. This 6-month rule prevents publishers from publishing sporadically--it is not used to suspend or shut down existing newspapers. Individuals must also obtain permission from the Ministry of Information before publishing any printed material, including brochures and wall posters.

The Government does not censor foreign journalists and permits them open access to the country.

In February the Amir commuted the sentences of 7 of the remaining 16 Jordanian journalists who worked for the Iraqi publication Al-Nida during the 1990 occupation. The Jordanians, who were convicted in 1991, argued that their collaboration was under duress, in response to Iraqi threats.

The Government owns and controls the radio and television companies. The Government does not inhibit the purchase of satellite dishes which are widely available. Citizens with such devices are free to watch a variety of programs, including those broadcast from Israel.

The Ministry of Information censors all books, films, videotapes, periodicals, and other imported publications deemed morally offensive. However, the Ministry has censored political topics as well and does not grant licenses to magazines with a political focus. The General Organization of Printing and Publishing controls the printing, publishing, and distribution of informational materials. In November the Ministry of Information released for sale at an international Arab book fair in the country 160 books that previously had been censored.

In May the Government defeated a bill in the National Assembly to ban concerts and fashion shows. The Ministry of Information, announced that current regulations already prohibit any performance contrary to Islamic tradition, but that the Ministry would tightly regulate such shows. A ministerial decree issued in July reiterated this position by forbidding the issuance of licenses for public musical events that contradict Shari'a and Kuwaiti traditions.

There is no government censorship of university teaching, research, or publication. However, academics are subject to the same restraints as the media with regard to criticism of the Amir or Islam. Kuwait University political science department chairman Ahmad Al-Baghdadi was charged with violating the Press Law's prohibition against insulting the Prophet. He faces a maximum penalty of 6-months imprisonment or a monetary fine if he is found guilty of the offense. In 1996 Al-Bbaghdadi was branded an apostate by private individuals for writing an article deemed critical of the Prophet. In March a Kuwait University panel recommended the dismissal of Dr. Alia Shuaib, a professor who commented on lesbianism at the university. The recommendation requires the endorsement of the Minister of Education, who has thus far refrained from acting on the panel's recommendation.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Although the Constitution affirms the right to assembly, the Government restricts this right in practice. Public gatherings must receive prior government approval, as must private gatherings of more than 5 persons that result in the issuance of a public statement. Political activity finds its outlet in informal, family-based, almost exclusively male, social gatherings known as diwaniyas. Practically every male adult, including the Amir, hosts and attends diwaniyas, at which every possible topic is discussed. The diwaniya contributes to the development of political consensus and official decision making.

Although the Constitution affirms the right of association, the Government restricts this right in practice. The Government bans political parties. Several informal blocs, acting much like parties, exist and were active during the 1996 National Assembly elections. The Government has made no effort to constrain these groupings, which are organized on the basis of common ideological goals. Many may be categorized as "opposition" groups.

In May a group of 75 prominent citizens established a self- declared new political grouping, the National Democratic Association (NDA). Claiming to represent Kuwait's moderate "silent majority," the NDA plans to focus on issues such as franchise expansion, education, unemployment, privatization, and other economic issues. The NDA purports to be the first political grouping to include a woman on its executive board. The NDA's elaborate launching ceremony was thwarted by the Government's non-response to the group's request for a permit to hold a public meeting. As a result, the NDA's opening session and accompanying press conference were moved from a hotel ballroom to a private office.

All nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) must obtain a license from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor. The Government uses its power to license as a means of political control. The Ministry has registered 55 NGO's, including professional groups, a bar association, and scientific bodies. These groups receive government subsidies for their operating expenses. Their members must obtain permission from the Ministry before attending international conferences. Since 1985 the Ministry has issued only two licenses. The Ministry has disapproved other license requests on the grounds that previously established NGO's already provide services similar to those proposed by the petitioners.

The Prisoners of War (POW) families organization, a new but as yet unlicensed NGO, was established in the summer. The license request was still pending at year's end.

The Government generally overlooks the activities of many unlicensed NGO's, despite a 1993 decree ordering unregistered NGO's to cease activities. No organization has challenged the 1993 decree in court.

c. Freedom of Religion

Islam is the state religion. The Constitution states that Islamic law, Shari'a, is "a main source of legislation." The ruling family and many prominent Kuwaiti families belong to the denomination of Sunni Islam. However, 30 to 40 percent of the population belong to the Shi'a denomination. They are free to conduct their traditional forms of worship without government interference. However, Shi'a figures claim that the Government has not approved the construction of new Shi'a mosques in recent years.

The Constitution states that "all people are equal in...public rights and duties before the law, without distinction as to...religion," and that "freedom of belief is absolute. The state protects the freedom to practice religion in accordance with established customs, provided that it does not conflict with public policy or morals." There are several legally recognized expatriate congregations and churches, including a Catholic diocese and several Protestant churches. Expatriates who are members of religions not sanctioned in the Koran, e.g., Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists, may not build places of worship but may worship privately in their homes. The Government prohibits missionaries to proselytize among Muslims; however, they may serve expatriate congregations. The law prohibits religious education for religions other than Islam, although this law is not rigidly enforced. The Government does not permit the establishment of non-Islamic publishing companies or training institutions for clergy.

Although there is a small community of Christian citizens, the law prohibits the naturalization of non-Muslims. A non-Muslim male must convert to Islam when he marries a Muslim woman if the wedding is to be legal in Kuwait. A non-Muslim female does not have to convert to Islam to marry a Muslim male, but it is to her advantage to do so, i.e., failure to do so may mean that the Muslim father will be granted custody of children should the couple later divorce.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

Citizens have the right to travel freely within the country and to change their workplace as desired. Unmarried women the age of 21 and over are free to obtain a passport and travel abroad at any time. However, married women who apply for passports must obtain their husband's signature on the application form. Once she has a passport, a married woman does not need her husband's permission to travel, but he may prevent her departure from the country by placing a 24-hour travel ban on her. He can do this by contacting the immigration authorities. After this 24-hour period, a court order is required if the husband still wishes to prevent his wife from leaving the country. All minor children must have their father's permission to travel outside of the country. Citizens are free to emigrate and to return.

The Government has the right to place a travel ban on any citizen or foreigner who has a legal case pending before the courts.

A serious problem exists in the case of the bidoon, who are stateless persons, many of Iraqi or Iranian descent, who resided in Kuwait prior to the Iraqi invasion. The Government argues that many bidoon (the term means "without") are concealing their true citizenship in order to remain in Kuwait, become citizens, and enjoy the generous benefits provided to citizens. Some bidoon have had residency ties to Kuwait for generations. Others entered Kuwait during the oil boom years. There are approximately 114,000 stateless persons in Kuwait, down from a prewar level of about 220,000. The Government does not wish the return of the bidoon who departed Kuwait during the Gulf War and frequently delays or denies issuing them entry visas. This policy imposes serious hardships and family separations. In March the Government naturalized 111 children of bidoon fathers who died in the service of the country during the Iraqi invasion and occupation. In addition, 300 individuals were naturalized in July under an article of the Nationality Law that pertains to granting citizenship to the children of Kuwaiti mothers and foreign fathers. Credible reports suggest that those naturalized in July were bidoon children of Kuwaiti mothers. The Government announced in August that approximately 3,400 bidoon had "found" their citizenship and were permitted to remain in Kuwait using their original passports. This meant that nationals from Gulf Cooperation Council countries could remain in Kuwait without residence permits but nationals from all other countries had to obtain a residence permit to live and work in the country.

The Government continued its postwar policy of reducing the number of nationals from those countries that supported Iraq during its invasion of Kuwait. The number of such residents is now only about 10 percent of its prewar total. The Government instituted a policy in 1996 to route the residence permit renewals of these nationals through the State Security Service. As a result, there has been a sharp increase in the number of renewal denials for these nationals, many of whom have no country of origin to return to or have fears of persecution upon return.

The Government permits the ICRC to verify if a deportee objects to returning to his country of origin. The Government detains those deportees who have objections at the main Talha deportation center. Many have been held for 1 year or more; some have been held for up to 6 years.

Security forces in Kuwait city occasionally set up checkpoints where they may detain individuals. The checkpoints are mainly for immigration purposes and are used to apprehend undocumented aliens. In November and December, the use of roadside checkpoints increased considerably as authorities stepped up the number of checks as part of the illegal resident amnesty program, and in preparation for the 18th annual Gulf Cooperation Council summit, which was held in Kuwait December 20-22.

In November the Government instituted an amnesty program, permitting illegal residents to depart the country without penalty, provided they had no previous charges pending against them. The program was scheduled to end on December 15; however, the Government extended it 1 day. The Government announced that more than 11,500 illegal foreign residents departed the country and 12,074 legalized their status during the amnesty program. Officially registered bidoon were exempt from the program (see Section 1.d.).

There is no legislation governing refugees, asylees, or first asylum, and no clear standard procedure for processing a person's claim to be a refugee. The Constitution prohibits the extradition of political refugees. The Government states that it does not deport anyone who claims a fear of persecution in his home country, but it will often keep such persons in detention rather than grant them permission to live and work in Kuwait. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) maintains an office in Kuwait and has access to refugees in detention.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens cannot change their head of state. Women and citizens naturalized less than 20 years earlier may not vote or seek election to the National Assembly. In addition, members of the armed forces, police, and other uniformed personnel of the Ministry of Interior are prohibited from voting.

Under the Constitution, the Amir holds executive power and shares legislative power with the National Assembly. The Prime Minister presides over a 14-member cabinet. In accordance with the practice of the ruling family, the Prime Minister has always been the Crown Prince. The Constitution empowers the Amir to suspend its provisions and to rule by decree. The Amir dissolved the National Assembly from 1976 to 1981, and in 1986 the Amir effectively dissolved the Assembly by suspending the constitutional provisions on the Assembly's election. The Assembly remained dissolved until 1992, when elections were held. Members serve 4-year terms, and National Assembly elections were held on schedule in 1996. The elections were conducted freely and fairly among the minority of citizens who are permitted to vote. Since the Government prohibits political parties, Assembly candidates must nominate themselves. Nonetheless, informal political groupings are active in the Assembly. The Constitution empowers the National Assembly to overturn any Amiri decrees made during the dissolution, and the Assembly has done so in some cases.

Women are disenfranchised and have little opportunity to influence government. In the past, a majority of the members of the National Assembly have expressed opinions favoring women's rights to vote. In January four Members of Parliament submitted a bill to grant women the right to vote and stand for election to the National Assembly. As with women's rights legislation previously submitted, no strong parliamentary support currently exists for this law, and the Government has made no effort to persuade the National Assembly to pass the legislation. Women's groups in Kuwait are divided on the franchise issue.

Members of the Shi'a minority are generally underrepresented in high government positions. Currently only one member of the Cabinet, 5 out of 50 National Assembly members, and the armed forces chief of staff are Shi'a Muslims.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

The Government has prevented the establishment of local human rights groups by not approving their requests for licenses (see Section 2.b.). The Government permits international human rights organizations to visit Kuwait and to establish offices. Several organizations conduct field work and report excellent communication with and reasonable cooperation from the Government.

The National Assembly has a Human Rights Committee, which takes testimony from individuals about abuses, investigates prison conditions, and has made nonbinding recommendations for redress.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, national origin, language, or religion. However, laws and regulations discriminate in some cases against women and non-Kuwaitis, who face widespread social, economic, and judicial discrimination.


According to some local experts, domestic abuse of women occurs in an estimated 15 percent of all marriages. Each of the country's 50 police stations receives approximately 1 to 2 complaints of spousal abuse each week. Of the complaints received, approximately 60 percent involve spousal abuse of non-Kuwaiti women. The police and the courts generally seek to resolve family disputes informally and may ask the offending spouse to sign a statement affirming that he will end the abuse. The police refer serious cases to the Psychiatric Department at the Ministry of Health. The courts have found husbands guilty of spousal abuse. There are reports of rape of female domestic servants by male employers.

A significant number of employers physically abuse expatriate women working as domestic servants. The local press gives the problem considerable attention. In August the press published a report of alleged abuse of three Sri Lankan maids by their Kuwaiti employer. Justice officials promised to prosecute the employer if the abuse allegations are proved true. Foreign-born servants have the right to sue their employers for abuse, but few do so owing to both fear of deportation and fear that the judicial system is biased against them. The Government has designated a police station to investigate complaints and provide some shelter for runaway maids. Both the police and the courts have taken action against employers when presented with evidence of serious abuse.

Runaway servants seek shelter at their country's embassy, where they seek repatriation or a change in employers. On several occasions, the Philippine and Sri Lankan embassies have each sheltered nearly 300 women. Although most of these women sought shelter due to contractual or financial problems with their employers, many also alleged physical and sexual abuse.

Women experience legal and social discrimination. Women are denied the right to vote (see Section 3); their testimony is not given equal weight to that of males in the Islamic courts (see Section 1.e.), and married women require their husband's permission to obtain a passport (see Section 2.d.). By law only men are able to confer citizenship, which means that children born to Kuwaiti mothers and stateless fathers are themselves stateless. Inheritance is governed by Islamic law, which differs according to sects. In the absence of a direct male heir, Shi'a women may inherit all property; Sunni women inherit only a portion. The balance is divided among brother, uncles, and male cousins of the deceased.

Women are traditionally restrained from choosing certain roles in society, and the law restricts women from working in "dangerous industries" and trades "harmful" to health. However, almost all citizens work for the State in office jobs, and women are allowed into most areas of the bureaucracy, including even oil well fire-fighting units. Educated women maintain that conservative religious trends limit career opportunities. Nonetheless, an estimated 28 percent of women of working age are employed. The law promises "remuneration equal to that of a man provided she does the same work." This promise is respected in practice. Women work as doctors, engineers, lawyers, bankers, and professors. A few have been appointed to senior positions in the Ministry of Education and the state-owned Kuwaiti Petroleum Corporation. However, there are no female judges or prosecutors.

In case of divorce, the Government makes family entitlement payments to the divorced husband, who is expected by law and custom to provide for his children even though custody of minor children is usually given to the mother. The law discriminates against women married to foreign men. These women are not entitled to government housing subsidies, which are available to male citizens. The law also requires women to pay residence fees for their husbands and does not recognize marriage as the basis for granting residency to foreign-born husbands. Instead, the law grants residency only if the husband is employed. By contrast, men married to foreign-born women do not have to pay residency fees for their spouses, and their spouses' right to residency derives from marriage.

Polygyny is legal. A husband is obliged to inform his first wife that he is taking a second wife. The husband is obligated to provide the first wife a separate household if that is her preference. It is the second wife's choice to get married. A first wife who objects to a second marriage can request a divorce, but the court's determination of divorce and child custody would be made on grounds other than the fact of the second marriage itself.

There is at least on active women's organization and several other NGO's than follow women's rights issues.


The Government is committed to the welfare of children. Both boys and girls receive a free education up to the university level. The Government provides free health care and a variety of other services to all children.

There is no societal pattern of abuse of children.

Marriage of girls under the age of 17 is uncommon among the urban population, but remains a practice of the Bedouins in outlying areas.

People with Disabilities

There is no institutionalized discrimination against disabled people in employment, education, or in the provision of state services. Legislation passed by the National Assembly in 1996 mandates accessibility for the disabled to all facilities frequented by the public, and provides an affirmative action employment program for the disabled. However, this law has not been fully implemented. The Government pays extensive benefits for disabled citizens, which cover transportation, housing, job training, and social welfare.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The Government's failure to improve the plight of the 114,000 bidoon remains a significant human rights abuse. The bidoon have been the objects of hostile government policy since the mid-1980's. Since 1985 the Government has eliminated the bidoon from the census rolls, discontinued their access to government jobs and free education, and sought to deport many bidoon. In 1993 the Government decreed that bidoon males would no longer be allowed to enlist in the military service. Those presently in the armed forces are being gradually replaced, although the Government in August allowed 800 bidoon sons of Kuwaiti mothers to enlist. The Government does not routinely issue travel documents to bidoon, and if bidoon travel abroad, they risk being barred from returning to the country unless they receive advance permission from the immigration authorities. Marriages pose special hardships because the offspring of male bidoon inherit the father's undetermined legal status.

In May the National Assembly reviewed a proposal by the Government to naturalize approximately 10 percent of the bidoon population, i.e., about 10,000 individuals. The proposal has not been enacted and there are credible reports that naturalization of the 10,000 could take a number of years. The proposal did not address the problem of the remaining approximately 104,000 bidoon. In March the Government naturalized a small fraction of the bidoon, primarily children of bidoon fathers who served in the military and were killed during the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait. The Government claims that it issues a residency visa, and legal status, to any bidoon who presents a passport, regardless of the country of issuance. This has led some bidoon to acquire passports from countries with which they have no tie, but which have liberal "economic citizenship" programs. There are reports that the Government has denied residency visas to some bidoon who obtained passports, particularly Iraqis. In some cases the Government has unilaterally decided the "real" nationalities of bidoon without a hearing and without possibility of review. In August 1996, the Government called on all bidoon to register with the Ministry of Interior and issued identification cards valid for 1 year or less. The Government announced in September that the cards would be renewed but did not stipulate the length of the renewal period.

Since the end of the Gulf War, government policy has been targeted against workers from those nationalities whose leaders supported Iraq, especially Palestinians, Jordanians, and Yemenis. The Government argues that during the Iraqi occupation many residents from these places sided with the Iraqi forces. The Government has delayed or denied the issuance of work and residency permits to persons in these groups, and in many cases has hindered those workers that are permitted to reside in the country from sponsoring their families to join them. Many of these nationals have also resorted to the purchase of third country passports in order to gain entry to Kuwait or legalize their status in the country. A government policy to route the residency visas of these nationals through the State Security Service has led to a sharp increase in renewal denials (see Section 2.d.).

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Workers have the right, but are not required, to join unions. Nonetheless, the Government restricts the right of association by prohibiting all workers from freely establishing trade unions. The law stipulates that workers may establish only one union in any occupational trade, and that the unions may establish only one federation. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has long criticized such restrictions.

Approximately 50,000 people of a total work force estimated at 1,100,000 are organized in 14 unions, 12 of which are affiliated with the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF), the sole, legal trade union federation. The Bank Worker's Union and the Kuwait Airways Workers Union, constituting approximately 4,500 workers, are independent of the KTUF. The Government has shown no sign that it would accept the establishment of more than one legal trade union federation. The law stipulates that any new union must include at least 100 workers, of whom at least 15 are citizens. Both the ILO and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) have criticized this requirement because it discourages unions in sectors employing few citizens, such as the construction industry and domestic sectors.

The Government's pervasive oversight powers further erode union independence. The Government subsidizes as much as 90 percent of most union budgets, may inspect the financial records of any union, and prohibits any union from engaging in political or religious activities, which the law does not clearly define. The law empowers the courts to dissolve any union for violating labor laws or for threatening "public order and morals." Such a court decision may be appealed. The Amir may also dissolve a union by decree. By law, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor is authorized to seize the assets of any dissolved union. The ILO has criticized this aspect of the law. Although no union has been dissolved, the law subordinates the legal existence of the unions to the power of the State.

Approximately 955,000 foreigners are employed, constituting most of the work force but only 10 percent of the unionized work force. The law discriminates against foreign workers by permitting them to join unions only after 5 years of residence, and only as nonvoting members. Unlike union members who are citizens, foreign workers do not have the right to elect their leadership. The law requires that union officials must be citizens. The ILO has criticized the 5-year residency requirement and the denial of voting rights for foreign workers. The KTUF says that this requirement is not enforced and foreigners may join unions regardless of their length of stay. The KTUF administers an Expatriate Labor Office, which is authorized to investigate complaints of foreign laborers and provide them with free legal advice. However, these services are not widely utilized. Any foreign worker may submit a grievance to the Labor Office regardless of union status.

The law limits the right to strike. It requires that all labor disputes must be referred to compulsory arbitration if labor and management cannot reach a solution (see Section 6.b.). The law does not have any provision ensuring strikers' freedom from any legal or administrative action taken against them by the State. In May a group of 180 Indian nursing assistants left their housing camp and moved into the Indian embassy, protesting the fact that they had not received the wages they were promised by their recruiting agents in India and Kuwait. By the end of September, most of the nursing assistants had agreed to return to their jobs at the original salary; the remaining nursing assistants returned to India.

In June pilots and air and ground engineers from the national carrier, Kuwait Airways, staged a strike to protest a cut in free ticket entitlements and inaction on increases to some of their allowances.

Ninety-two employees of the Kuwaiti National Petroleum Company walked off the job for 4 days in late September to protest the imposition of certain promotion and hiring precepts. After the Government intervened, the workers agreed to suspend the strike and enter into talks with management.

Unions may affiliate with international bodies. The KTUF belongs to the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions and the formerly Soviet-controlled World Federation of Trade Unions.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Workers have the right to organize and bargain collectively, subject to certain restrictions (see Section 6.a.). These rights have been incorporated in the Labor Law and have, according to all reports, been respected in practice.

The Labor Law provides for direct negotiations between employers and "laborers or their representatives" in the private sector. Most agreements are resolved in such negotiations; if not, either party may petition the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor for mediation. If mediation fails, the dispute is referred to a labor arbitration board composed of officials from the High Court of Appeals, the Attorney General's office, and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor.

The Civil Service Law makes no provision for collective bargaining between government workers and their employer. Technically, wages and conditions of employment for civil service workers are established by the Government, but in practice, the Government sets the benefit scales after conducting informal meetings with officials from the civil service unions. Union officials resolve most issues at the working level and have regular access to other senior officials.

The Labor Law prohibits antiunion discrimination. Any worker who alleges antiunion discrimination has the right to appeal to the judiciary. There were no reports of discrimination against employees, based on their affiliation with a union. Employers found guilty of antiunion discrimination must reinstate workers fired for union activities.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced labor "except in cases specified by law for national emergency and with just remuneration." The Government does not specifically prohibit forced and bonded labor by children, but such practices are not known to occur.

Foreign workers may not change their employment without permission from their original sponsors unless they have been in the country for over 2 years. Domestic servants are particularly vulnerable to abuses from this practice because they are not protected by the Labor Law. In many cases employers exercise control over their servants by holding their passports, although the Government prohibits this practice and has acted to retrieve passports of maids involved in disputes.

Some foreign workers, especially unskilled or semiskilled south Asian workers, live much like indentured servants. They frequently face poor working conditions and some physical abuse (see Section 6.e.).

Domestic servants who run away from their employers may be treated as criminals under the law . However, the authorities usually do not enforce this provision. In some reported cases, employers illegally withheld wages from domestic servants to cover the costs involved in bringing them to Kuwait. The Government has done little, if anything, to protect domestics in such cases.

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment

The legal minimum age is 18 years for all forms of work, both full- and part-time. Employers must obtain permits from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor to employ juveniles between the ages of 14 and 18 in certain trades. Education is compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 15. The Government does not prohibit forced and bonded labor by children, but such practices are not known to occur (see Section 6.c.). Some small businessmen employ their children on a part-time basis, and there have been confirmed reports that some south Asian and southeast Asian domestic servants are under 18, but falsified their ages in order to enter the country.

Juveniles may work a maximum of 6 hours a day on the condition that they work no more than 4 consecutive hours followed by a 1-hour rest period.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor is responsible for enforcing all labor laws. An informal two-tiered labor market ensures high wages for Kuwaiti employees, while foreign workers, particularly unskilled laborers, receive substantially lower wages. There is no legal minimum wage in the private sector. In the public sector, the effective minimum wage is approximately $774 (226 dinars) per month for citizens and approximately $301 (90 dinars) per month for non-citizens. The public sector minimum wage provides a decent standard of living for a worker and family. Wages of unskilled workers in the private sector do not always permit a decent standard of living. To be eligible to sponsor family members for residency in Kuwait, government workers must receive a minimum wage of $1,530 (450 dinars) per month, and private sector workers must make at least $2,210 (650 dinars) per month.

The Labor Law establishes general conditions of work for both the public and the private sectors, with the oil industry treated separately. The Civil Service Law also prescribes additional conditions for the public sector. The Labor Law limits the standard workweek to 48 hours with 1 full day of rest per week, provides for a minimum of 14 workdays of leave each year, and establishes a compensation schedule for industrial accidents. Domestic servants, who are specifically excluded from the Private Sector Labor Law, frequently work long hours, greatly in excess of 48 hours.

The ILO has urged the Government to provide the weekly 24-consecutive-hour rest period to temporary workers employed for a period of less than 6 months and workers in enterprises employing fewer than 5 persons. The law pertaining to the oil industry provides for a 40-hour workweek, 30 days of annual leave, and sick leave. Laws establishing work conditions are not always applied uniformly to foreign workers. Labor law also provides for employer-provided medical care and compensation to workers disabled by injury or disease due to job-related causes. The law also requires that employers provide periodic medical examinations to workers exposed to environmental hazards on the job, e.g., chemicals, asbestos, etc. The Government has issued occupational health and safety standards; however, compliance and enforcement appear poor, especially with respect to unskilled foreign laborers. Employers often exploit workers' willingness to accept substandard conditions. Some foreign workers, especially unskilled or semiskilled south Asian workers, live much like indentured servants, are unaware of their legal rights and generally lack the means to pursue a legal remedy. They frequently face contractual disputes, poor working conditions, and some physical abuse. Most are in debt to their employers before they arrive in the country and have little choice but to accept the employer's conditions, even if they contradict the contractual terms; it is not uncommon for wages to be withheld for a period of months. Most, if not all, of the foreign workers are forced to live in "housing camps," which are generally overcrowded and lack adequate cooking and bathroom facilities; they are only allowed off the camp compound on company transport or by permission of the employer.

Workers have the right to remove themselves from dangerous work situations without jeopardy to their continued employment, and legal protection exists for workers who file complaints about such conditions. According to the most recent figures available, the Government had registered about 800 cases involving occupational injuries during the year. To cut accident rates, the Government periodically inspects installations to raise awareness among workers and employers and ensure that they abide by the safety rules, control the pollution resulting from certain dangerous industries, train workers who use new machines in specialized institutes, and report violations.

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