Thursday, January 19, 2012

Kuwait: Is it legal to deport stateless protesters?

Image via Mideastposts.com
According to news coming in the past few days from Kuwait, a meeting assembled by the Central Agency in charge of illegal residents (bidoon/bedoon) has reached a decision following several weeks of protests by members of the community. The government will take "deterrent measures" against protesters, including layoffs, eviction, cancellation of naturalization cases and, most crucially, deportation. These measures will apparently be levied against those who participated in the protests, and those who plan to participate in the future. (if you're not raising an eyebrow now, go back and re-read that sentence.)

Although there are an estimated 100,000 bidoons in Kuwait, naturally only a portion of these participated in the protests, and an even smaller portion are currently in jail or under investigation for such participation. (Some 80, according to the AFP.) Even one person in jail for peaceful protest is too many, but symbolically these actions are even more important as instruments to intimidate the bidoon population and to discourage further shows of solidarity or discontent with their untenable situation. In recent weeks the protests have turned ugly, with riot police attacking protestors with tear gas and batons and government spokesmen claiming that the demonstrations have been incited by Iraqis and other "enemies of Kuwait."

Despite the tough talk, both supporters and non pretty much agree that the aim of the protests has always been to ensure citizenship and other basic rights for this population that has been living illegally for almost 4 decades, and of course I tend to believe that too, absent evidence to the contrary. It seems much more likely that bidoons were inspired to non-violent protest by Arab Spring than that they were foreign provocateurs trying to destabilize one of the most democratic regimes in the Middle East.

Regardless, it is worth asking now: under international human rights law, is it legal to deport non-citizens based on their participation in a protest? In other words, do non-citizens possess the right to assemble?

First, let's look to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 20(1) states "everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association." (Other relevant provisions for this question could be articles 6, 9, 15, and 19.) A threshold question might be whether the UDHR is binding on Kuwait. My opinion is of course "yes"- as I have stated elsewhere:
"through multiple invocations in state constitutions, international law cases, and repetition in subsequent conventions, the UDHR is regarded to be of special significance and almost certainly of an instructive character in defining what is meant in the U.N. Charter by “human rights". 
I think the UDHR has special status as evidence of international customary law on human rights. (For case law on the subject, see e.g., Corfu Channel Case (Merits), ICJ Reports (1949), Iranian Naturalization Case, 60 ILR 204 at 207,  Case Concerning the United States Diplomatic and Consular Staff in Tehran, ICJ Rep 1980, 3).

Moving more to the point, can the expansive term "everyone" really mean, well, everyone? Is a state really bound to protect the rights of non-citizens, especially when it comes to expressing discontent? Again, I would say "yes." The drafters were not shy about sprinkling universalizing terms like "all" "no-one" and "everyone" throughout the UDHR, but neither were they shy about confining rights when necessary by adding modifiers like, "within their own state." Further, the Preamble states that "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world," a sentence that leaves little room for quibbling about territorial jurisdiciton.

We can look elsewhere for evidence that Kuwait must, under international law, respect the rights of stateless persons to peacefully assemble. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which Kuwait is a signatory) protects freedom of association and right of peaceful assembly in articles 21 and 22 and the right also shows up in the Migrant Workers Convention and IESCR. However, these rights are proscribed by law, and Kuwait is entitled to regulate them based on national security and public order- an argument they will likely raise to support deportation.

However, the stated intent of the protests is to gain basic human rights. If this is considering a destabilizing or threatening concept to the government, what does this say about Kuwait?

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