The Office of the European Union Representative
(West Bank and Gaza Strip, UNRWA)

2020 EU Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy in the World

Brussels, 28/06/2021 - 11:03, UNIQUE ID: 210628_28
Press releases


1. Overview of the human rights and democracy situation: The enjoyment of civil and political rights, such as freedom of expression and association, continued to be restricted based on the Terrorist Act, through an overly broad definition of terrorism and trials on counter-terrorism grounds. Altogether 12 individuals were sentenced to death in relation to terrorism charges, after exhaustion of all legal remedies. In July, the Court of Cassation confirmed the death sentences in two cases, but no death sentences were implemented in 2020. Allegations of torture and ill-treatment of detainees continued to be reported. Some of the complaints were investigated and quickly denied by the National Institute for Human Rights and the Ombudsperson’s office, whose overall independence and effectiveness however remain difficult to assess.

Human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, who had been sentenced in 2018 to five years in prison on charges of spreading false information, insulting a sisterly country and damaging state security, was released from prison on 9 June and granted a non-custodial alternative sentence. However, several political activists continued to be imprisoned under severe terms. On 12 March, King Hamad pardoned 901 detainees partly on humanitarian grounds due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Other 585 detainees were granted a non-custodial alternative sentence and released from prison.

Bahrain has achieved significant progress in the fight against trafficking in human beings and kept advancing on socio-economic rights through initiatives in the areas of housing, education and healthcare. However, in some of these areas, the Shia community continued to face instances of discriminatory treatment. Bahrain’s longstanding commitment to 171

promoting inter-faith dialogue and peaceful coexistence took another step forward in October when a Memorandum of Understanding against antisemitism was signed between the US Government and the King Hamad Global Center for Peaceful Coexistence, following the normalisation of ties with Israel in September.

Despite progress on gender equality, Bahraini legislation continued to discriminate against women in relation to the right to divorce and transmission of Bahraini nationality to their children. Moreover, Article 353 of the Penal Code exempts perpetrators of rape from prosecution and punishment if they marry their victims. A national human rights action plan will be adopted after a series of consultations and workshops.

2. EU action – key focus areas: The EU and Member States continued to raise human rights issues, including individual cases, in their engagements with Bahraini authorities, mainly with the MFA and the national human rights institutions.

In 2020, the HR/VP Spokesperson issued three statements on individual human rights cases in Bahrain. Following the High Criminal Court of Appeals’ confirmation of the death sentences for Mohammed Ramadan and Hussain Al Moussa, a statement on 9 January called on the Bahraini authorities to halt the execution of the two individuals and ensure that their re-trial would be in accordance with international law and standards.15 On 10 June, the release of prominent Bahraini human rights defender Nabeel Rajab was welcomed, following the decision of a Bahraini court to grant him a non-custodial alternative sentence to the five-year jail term he was serving since 2016 for peacefully expressing his opinion.16 On 13 July, following the final confirmation of the death sentences for Mohammed Ramadan and Hussein Al Moussa by the Court of Cassation, a call was reiterated to halt the executions. It reaffirmed the EU’s strong and unequivocal opposition to the use of the death penalty as well as the call on the Bahraini authorities to establish a moratorium on executions as a first step towards the abolition of death penalty and to commute all pending death sentences.17 The EU’s strong opposition to the death penalty was communicated also by the EUSR for Human Rights Eamon Gilmore who called Foreign Minister Zayani on 29 June.

On 9 June, the German Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid welcomed the release from detention of human rights defender Nabeel Rajab.18 On 13 July, she expressed her regret over the decision by the Court of Cassation in Bahrain to dismiss the appeal Mohamed Ramadan and Husain Moussa, and thus clear the way for execution.19 She called on the government of Bahrain to refrain from carrying out the executions and to readopt the de facto moratorium that existed between 2010 and 2016.20

On 27 October, the Ambassadors of France, Italy and Germany attended a virtual Human Rights and Diplomacy workshop hosted by the Bahraini MFA with several hundred participants where they voiced their rejection of the application of the death sentence under all circumstances and called for a moratorium on executions.

3. EU bilateral political engagement: The EU Delegation in Riyadh (covering Bahrain) and Member States continued to attend court cases in close liaison with other like-minded embassies. The 2020 round of the EU-Bahrain Human Rights Dialogue was postponed till early 2021, as the Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa passed away close to the foreseen date.

In the context of combating the COVID-19 pandemic, the EUSR for Human Rights reached out to Bahrain calling for the humanitarian release of vulnerable persons in detention who are among the most exposed to contracting the coronavirus. In his letter to FM Zayani from 1 April, he raised also individual cases such as that of Nabeel Rajab. In a follow-up phone call with the FM in June, the EUSR voiced the EU’s opposition against the death penalty in the face of two imminent executions, welcomed the release of Nabeel Rajab and called on Bahrain to release other jailed human rights defenders.

In 2020, the EU participated in a virtual workshop in which it informed about the main features of the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2024 and the Bahraini authorities provided a state of play of the elaboration of its future national action plan on human rights.

4. EU financial engagement: There is no EU financial support provided for human rights-related activities in Bahrain.

5. Multilateral context: Bahrain has been a member of the UN Human Rights Council since January 2019 and its term will expire in 2021. It rarely aligns with EU priorities, be it thematic or geographic. It has issued no standing invitation to UN Special Procedures. Many requests to visit are pending, such as by the Special Representative on torture. In December, Bahrain presented its candidacy for the Presidency of the HRC (which in 2021 pertains to the Asia Pacific Bloc) but was not elected. Bahrain is a party to the most core UN human rights treaties but has not ratified the Optional Protocol of the Convention against Torture, the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming to the abolition of the death penalty nor the Convention on Enforced Disappearances.


1. Overview of the human rights and democracy situation: The human rights situation did not undergo substantial changes in 2020. The death of Sultan Qaboos in January 2020 ended a reign of 50 years, the longest in the Arab World. His cousin Sultan Haitham succeeded him and undertook important reforms, in an attempt to modernise the Sultanate in order to respond to the current challenges, especially in socio-economic terms. A significant number of international human rights treaties were signed or ratified. Authorities continued to enforce the moratorium on the death penalty and freedom of religion or belief and increased efforts to address trafficking in human beings. Restrictions persisted over the space for political debate and freedom of expression. Women continued to face discrimination in a number of areas. The sponsorship (kefala) system remained an issue of concern.

The de facto moratorium on the death penalty since 2001 continued. Government and religious leaders continued to protect freedom of religion or belief and to promote religious tolerance. No frictions were reported between the main Islamic schools (the dominant Ibadi school and the Sunni and Shiite schools). Followers of other religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity) are also allowed to practice their religion. The government continued its efforts to tackle trafficking in human beings by prosecuting traffickers and conducting trainings for law enforcement, prosecutorial and judicial personnel. It identified victims and provided them with basic care and continued to fund and operate shelters. The government continued its work under its first Five-Year Action Plan (2018-2022) as well as its first public awareness campaign against trafficking in several languages.

The space for political debate and freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and media freedom remained restricted. The authorities reportedly targeted social media activists. Popular apps and platforms remained blocked reducing the ability of Omanis and migrant workers to connect and communicate with their families and communities abroad amid the pandemic and associated movement restrictions. Oman continued to discriminate against women with respect to marriage, divorce, inheritance, nationality, and responsibility for children in its Personal Status Laws. Women’s representation in public office or senior legal positions remains disproportionately low. To date, no woman has ever served as a judge in the country.

Migrant workers continued to face the risk of mistreatment and abuse due to the shortcomings of Oman’s Labour Laws and the restrictive kafala sponsorship system that ties them to their employers. However, a slight improvement was marked by the reform in sponsorship requirements: Since June 2020, migrant workers can transfer their sponsorship without permission (in the form of a no-objection certification) from their sponsor after completing a two-year contract.

2. EU action – key focus areas: Throughout 2020, the EU has monitored the human rights situation in the country including individual cases, labour rights and trafficking in human beings. The EU Delegation to Saudi Arabia – co-accredited to Oman – was in regular contact with resident EU Heads of Mission, coordinating EU positions on human rights matters and liaising with the authorities in Muscat.

3. EU bilateral political engagement: Oman is an important EU partner and there is an on-going political dialogue at many levels, including on sectorial issues. Following the signature in September 2018 of a Cooperation Arrangement between the EEAS and Oman’s MFA, a first senior officials meeting took place in Brussels on 19 September 2019 encompassing an enhanced political dialogue component and sectoral policy cooperation discussions. Due to the global pandemic, the senior official meeting envisaged for 2020 could not take place. In March 2020, the Delegation to the Arabian Peninsula (DARP) of the European Parliament visited Muscat, where consultations on a wide range of issues of bilateral interest, including human rights, took place. The Delegation to the Arabian Peninsula met, also, with the Omani Human Rights Commission.

4. Multilateral context: In April, Sultan Haitham signed a Royal Decree on the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, thereby fulfilling an important commitment made during the last cycle of Oman’s Universal Periodic Review. In June, Oman ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance with two reservations.22 In September, Oman ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), while declaring reservations to two clauses of Article 8, paragraph 1.23 Oman voted against the EU-led Resolution on the moratorium on the use of the death penalty at the UN General Assembly.

Saudi Arabia

1. Overview of the human rights and democracy situation: The human rights situation in Saudi Arabia remained a matter of continued concern in 2020. KSA continued rolling out reforms under Vision 2030, including related to the empowerment of women in public space. The penal system underwent significant modifications marked by the announced abolition of death penalty for juveniles and the abolition of flogging as a form of punishment. 27 persons were executed in 2020, compared to 184 in 2019 (drop of 85%).

However, no political reforms have accompanied these developments and several violations of civil and political rights were reported. The public space for debate and dissent remained curtailed with anti-terrorist bodies used to trial civilians and human rights defenders undergoing prolonged detention.

Progress was achieved during 2020 with regard to women empowerment generally and particularly in the economic sphere.31 In April, a Royal Decree, which has not been officially published, expanded the provisions of a 2019 law setting the age of minors at 18 years and exempting minors from death penalty, but still setting a maximum prison term of ten years to convicted minors, including the possibility to prosecute and convict minors under the Anti-Terrorism Law. In May, KSA authorities announced their decision to replace flogging as a punishment with jail time and fines. According to the Human Rights Commission, 27 people were executed in 2020, marking a sharp decline compared to previous years,32 partially attributed to an informal moratorium on executions for drug related crimes. In November, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development announced the Labour Reform Initiative, which, once implemented, would revise substantially the sponsorship (kefala) system allowing foreign workers to terminate their contract, switch jobs, open bank accounts and get their exit/re-entry visa without the permission of their employer. However, the announced reform would exclude important categories of workers, such as domestic workers.

These reforms were not accompanied by an opening on civil and political space. Detentions of human rights defenders, activists and clerics continued. Alleged cases of ill-treatment and torture of detainees were reported. The Counter-terrorism Law and the Specialized Criminal Court continued to be used to trial civilians. A prominent case of women human rights defenders was that of Loujain al Hathloul. After undergoing prolonged detention since May 2018, hearings took place in early 2020 with her case transferred in November to the Specialized Criminal Court. On 28 December she was sentenced to five years and eight months in jail under Article 43 of the Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing. The Court suspended two years and 10 months of her sentence, and backdated the start of her jail term to May 2018. She was subsequently released although only on probation and with prohibition to travel for five years.

2. EU action - key focus areas: The EU raised human rights issues in various engagements with the Saudi authorities, mainly with the MFA and the Human Right Commission. Recurrent topics in those discussions were the situation of detained human rights defenders including the women activists, the discontinuation of trial monitoring by diplomats, the use of the Specialized Criminal Court for civilian trials, the use of the death penalty as well as the status and protections of migrant workers, especially from the Horn of Africa.

The EU reacted publicly to the sentencing of the Saudi women human rights defender Loujain al-Hathloul by the Specialized Criminal Court, handling terrorism cases, to five years and eight months in prison. The EU regretted this, especially as she had been prosecuted for 182 advocating basic women’s rights, which were part of the very reforms the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had been introducing.33

3. EU bilateral political engagement: The EU regularly engaged with Saudi interlocutors on human rights issues, as part of the overall political relations between the EU and KSA. Such exchanges involved in particular the EUSR for Human Rights and the Chairman of the Saudi Human Rights Commission throughout the year, as well as the visit of the delegation to the Arabian Peninsula of the European Parliament to Riyadh in February 2020. The EU delegation, in close contact with EU Member States’ embassies in Riyadh, continued to coordinate closely locally exchanging information and agreeing positions, which allowed common EU messages to be transmitted bilaterally to KSA authorities at different levels.

In parallel, and in close coordination with EU Member States, the EU sought to strengthen its dialogue with Riyadh on human rights-related matters, including preparatory work for the launching of a regular human rights dialogue. As part of these efforts, the EU engaged with the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs during his latest visit to Brussels,34 as well as with the Chairman of the Saudi Human Rights Commission and the Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs.

The European Parliament held an urgency debate in October on the situation of Ethiopian migrants in detention centers in Saudi Arabia and adopted a resolution.35

4. EU financial engagement: There is no EU financial support provided for human rights-related activities in KSA. However, on the occasion of the International Human Rights Day, the EU delegation funded a human rights workshop, in which the EU Action Plan for Human Rights and Democracy was presented. It was followed by a storytelling workshop and a creative content competition. In the framework of G20, EU Member States Denmark, Sweden, and Finland as well as Norway contributed with a joint Nordic parallel session entitled ‘A Nordic Perspective: The Economic Benefits of Women’s Empowerment’ at the virtual W20 Summit in October 2020. In the framework of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the Belgian Embassy organised a video conference with the Belgian Center for Equality for Men and Women while the Embassy of the Netherlands funded a roundtable discussion on fighting violence against women.

5. Multilateral context: At Human Rights Council in Geneva, the EU called repeatedly for increased protection for civil society, including journalists and activists, stressing the important role they are meant to play in the process of reform, which the Kingdom is pursuing. Issues relating to women's rights, death penalty, ill-treatment and arbitrary and unlawful detention, were also the subject of EU positions and statements. The EU also voiced its concern about a number of those individual cases in multilateral fora, including at 183 the March36 and September37 2020 sessions of the HRC. Majority of the EU Member States signed a Joint Statement on the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia at the September 2020 HRC session. KSA did not ratify any of the international human rights instruments in 2020 to which it is not yet a party (e.g. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).38 KSA voted against the EU-led resolution on the moratorium on the use of the death penalty at the UN General Assembly.








31 According to the General Authority for Statistics, women’s participation in the job market increased, despite the Covid-19 crisis, to 31.4% in 2020/Q2 from 23.2% in 2019/Q2.

32 Number of executions in recent years: 2015: 158, 2016: 154, 2017: 146, 2018: 149, 2019:184.

33 'Statement by the Spokesperson on the case of Loujain al-Hathloul'



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