Human rights in Oman
|This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
Oman is an absolute monarchy in which all legislative, executive, and judiciary power ultimately rests in the hands of the hereditary sultan, and in which the system of laws is based firmly on Islamic sharia. Although a report by the U.S. State Department, based on conditions in 2010, summed up the human rights situation in the country by asserting that the government “generally respected the human rights of its citizens,” the details in the report itself strongly indicate otherwise, and several international human-rights groups have described the state of human-rights in Oman in highly critical terms.
For example, Freedom House has routinely rated the country “Not Free” and an official of Human Rights Watch, in a December 2012 overview of Oman and “five other smaller Gulf states,” stated: “Human rights conditions...are quite poor overall....There is little respect for core civil and political rights such as freedom of expression, assembly and association. Peaceful dissent typically faces harsh repression. The administration of justice is highly personalised, with limited due process protections, especially in political and security-related cases.” A 2012 report by Bertelsmann Stiftung declared that while “Oman’s legal code theoretically protects civil liberties and personal freedoms, both are regularly ignored by the regime. Oman, therefore, cannot be considered free.”
On the other hand, Middle East Concern, in a 2011 report, claimed that Oman's recent human-rights record had been generally good, citing adherence to proper arrest and judicial procedures and acceptable prison conditions, even as it acknowledged the limits on freedom of expression and assembly, academic freedom, and other restrictions.
In reaction to growing public demonstrations by protesters demanding greater freedom and human rights, Oman's already severe constraints on freedom of speech, assembly, and association have been tightened even further since early 2011.
- 1 Democratic Rights
- 2 Basic rights
- 3 Internet rights
- 4 Children's rights
- 5 Women's Rights
- 6 Minority groups
- 7 Disabled rights
- 8 LGBT rights
- 9 Rights of refugees and asylum seekers
- 10 Historical background
- 11 Rights of persons under arrest
- 12 Rights of persons on trial
- 13 Rights of prisoners
- 14 Employees' rights
- 15 See also
- 16 References
- 17 External links
The Omani government is a monarchy. The Sultan, Qaboos bin Said al Said is the self-appointed leader of the country since 1970 and serves as the country's chief of state and head of government. The monarchy is hereditary and the monarch's cabinet is appointed by himself.
Citizens of Oman can vote for members of the Parliament. The members are elected by popular vote to serve four-year terms. The Consultative Assembly of Oman enjoys legislative and audit powers. The country has universal suffrage for people 21 years of age and older, however members of the military and security forces are not allowed to vote.
The Basic Law forbids discrimination founded on “gender, origin, color, language, religion, sect, domicile, or social status.” Oman's government does not commit arbitrary killings, engineer “disappearances,” or engage in torture or other cruel punishments. Laws against corruption are effectively enforced. The public has no access to official information. Since 2006, citizens of Gulf Cooperation Council countries are permitted to own property in Oman; non-GCC citizens can only own tourist properties.
Although Islam is Oman's state religion, the Basic Law guarantees the “freedom to practice religious rites in accordance with recognized customs...provided that it does not disrupt public order or conflict with accepted standards of behavior.” Freedom House declared in 2005 that “Oman is, overall, a religiously tolerant society,” noting that while non-Muslims “are able to practice their religious rites freely, they are required to register with the government and may not proselytize or publish religious materials.” The U.S. State Department's International Religious Freedom Report for 2011 notes that non-Muslim communities in Oman “are allowed to practice their beliefs without interference only on land specifically donated by the sultan for the purpose of collective worship.” While “gatherings of a religious nature are not allowed in private homes or in any location other than government-approved houses of worship,” Oman's government “has not actively enforced the prohibition.”
Freedom of movement within Oman and repatriation are permitted, but it can be difficult to obtain permission to travel abroad or emigrate. Only since 2010 have married women been able to secure passports without their husbands' consent. Citizens require government permission to marry foreigners unless the latter are citizens of Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Permission is not always granted. If a citizen marries a foreigner abroad without approval, the foreign spouse may be denied entry into Oman and any children of the marriage may be denied citizenship of Oman.
There is limited freedom of speech and of the press, and self-censorship by journalists and writers is standard practice. Criticizing the sultan is illegal, as are many other kinds of expression, including those that are viewed as offending personal dignity or violating public order. “The penal code prescribes a prison sentence and fine for anyone who publicly blasphemes God or His prophets, commits an affront to religious groups by spoken or written word, or breaches the peace of a lawful religious gathering,” according to a U.S. State Department report issued in 2012. The contents of all print media are subject to official pre-publication review. As of 2010, three prominent authors were prohibited from speaking in public. In the same year, officials banned the display of a number of historical and literary works at the Muscat International Book Fair.
The country's eight privately owned newspapers generally follow a pro-government line, and the government's many newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV stations are consistently pro-government. Oman's four private radio and TV stations, for which Oman first issued licenses in October 2005, also tend to hew to a pro-government line. Inhabitants of Oman are allowed to watch satellite TV broadcasts from other countries, and this, along with a rapid increase in Internet penetration (from 9% in 2008 to over 40% in 2010) has “allowed the emergence of social, economic and even political debates.”
Oman's government monitors cell-phone conversations, e-mail exchanges, and Internet chat rooms, and restricts free speech on the Internet, blocking access to many websites and posting notices on other sites warning against criticism of the sultan or other officials. In the same way, the government limits the freedom of academics to discuss or write about certain matters, with faculty members engaging in systematic self-censorship. University professors are prohibited from writing about or discussing local politics, and are subject to dismissal if they violate this rule.
To form an association requires a permit, which can take years to obtain; in many cases the government has denied permits. For an association to accept international funding without government approval is a crime punishable by up to six months in prison. All public cultural events and any kind of public meeting must be approved by the government. Religious gatherings are generally permitted, while political gatherings are illegal, as are political parties. Oman first allowed political posters, banners, and TV and newspaper ads in 2007.
In 2011, under the influence of the so-called Arab Spring, the number of persons publicly demonstrating for political reform and for jobs increased significantly, and in response Oman tightened its already severe limits on free speech, with police employing excessive force, arresting hundreds, and causing deaths and injuries. Sultan Qaboos pardoned 234 people who had committed “crimes of crowding in the streets.” The Press and Publications Law was made harsher, with the penalty for the publication of certain types of materials set at up to two years in prison plus a fine. Under the law, the editor-in-chief of the Azzamn newspaper, one of his reporters, and a source working for the Ministry of Justice were sentenced to five months in prison over an article that was deemed insulting to the Minister of Justice.
In the wake of the nationwide demonstrations of 2011, the government promised to institute reforms. Its failure to do so led to further protests, and on May 31, 2012, it began arresting writers and bloggers who had criticized its inaction. On June 11, it took into custody at least 22 persons who publicly protested these arrests. On July 9 and 16, several individuals were found guilty of “defaming the sultan,” a charge stemming at least in part from Facebook postings and Twitter tweets. Human Rights Watch criticized these prosecutions. “Like people throughout the region, Omanis are sick and tired of having no say in the governance of their country,” said Nadim Houry of HRW. “Rather than listening to legitimate demands and peaceful criticism, Omani authorities are jailing people who speak out.”
In 2012, an appeals court affirmed the conviction of 29 human-rights activists on such charges as insulting the sultan and of unlawful assembly, and all but one of them began serving prison sentences. Amnesty International stated its belief “that many, if not all, of those imprisoned are held solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression or assembly and are therefore prisoners of conscience,” and called on Oman to immediately release all of those being “held simply for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression or assembly.” In September 2012, Freedom House criticized the “escalating efforts by the government to tighten its control online and offline following Arab Spring-inspired unrest,” and Front Line Defenders condemned “the ongoing judicial harassment of...human rights defenders and peaceful protesters” and expressed its view that this harassment “is directly related to their legitimate activities in the defense of human rights.”
Oman is engaged in pervasive Internet filtering in the social area, substantial filtering in Internet tools, selective filtering in political, and there is no evidence of filtering in the conflict/security area according to a report by the OpenNet Initiative in August 2009.
Oman engages in extensive filtering of pornographic Web sites, gay and lesbian content, content that is critical of Islam, content about illegal drugs, and anonymizer sites used to circumvent blocking. There is no evidence of technical filtering of political content, but laws and regulations restrict free expression online and encourage self-censorship.
Human Rights Watch reported in June 2012 that according to Omani human-rights activists, the government had been increasingly monitoring their online activity; one of the activists said “that authorities hacked into his email account and deleted all his contacts. Others alleged that authorities hacked the Facebook page of the Omani Group for Human Rights and deleted all the postings.”
A child born in Oman inherits citizenship from its father. Primary-school education is free but not compulsory. Oman is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
Oman is a party to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and has a government committee that monitors compliance. Although discrimination against women is technically prohibited, with women officially enjoying equality in regard to such matters as employment rights, cultural traditions still reject equality of the sexes, and sharia law continues to enshrine discrimination in practice.  (However, the 2012 report by the Bertelsmann Stifting says that “the government passed a law in 2008 stipulating that men’s and women’s legal testimonies should be considered equal.”) Since 2008, women have enjoyed the same property ownership rights as men, and as of 2010, women can marry without parental consent. In accordance with sharia, however, Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslim men, even though Muslim men can marry non-Muslim women.
Rape is punishable by up to 15 years in prison, and for cultural and social reasons many rapes probably go unreported. Domestic violence complaints are generally handled by authorities. Female genital mutilation is permitted and widely accepted and practiced, although doctors are not allowed to perform the procedure in health-care facilities. Women receive decent medical treatment, including prenatal and postnatal care.
In 2005, Freedom House noted that Oman's women had “made steady progress” over the preceding decade, with women constituting a majority of university students level “despite gender-discriminatory practices in the enrollment process” and making up an “estimated one-third of all civil servants.” In 2012, Bertelsmann Stiftung described the status of women in Oman as follows: “Oman has been successful in enhancing the status of women, who – at least in theory – have the same opportunities as men in public and private jobs. Oman’s government has a deliberate policy of inclusiveness regarding all segments of the population. In reality, however, women...still face high barriers to participation in formal economic activities.”
In 2010, Oman celebrated National Oman Women's Day for the first time.
The descendants of servant tribes and of African slaves who are considered to be of non-Arab blood are the objects of widespread discrimination. Freedom House noted in 2005 that the Basic Law “does not apply to or protect noncitizens from discrimination,” meaning that about a quarter of Omani residents “are left without legal protections.” In 2003, Human Rights Watch asked Sultan Qaboos to ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.
Disabled people suffer discrimination in Oman. A U.S. State Department report issued in 2012 states that under Omani law “all buildings must have access for disabled individuals,” but a 2011 State Department report makes a distinction, noting that while new buildings are required to be made handicapped-accessible, old buildings are not retrofitted. Although a law requires large private employers to give at least 2 percent of jobs to disabled people, this requirement is not consistently enforced. There is no law requiring equal educational opportunities for disabled persons. The Ministry of Social Development is charged with protecting disabled people's rights.
There is considerable discrimination against LGBT persons, and individuals engaging in homosexual conduct are subject to prosecution and can be imprisoned for up to three years. In 2009, nine persons were prosecuted for sodomy. Any discussion whatsoever of sexual orientation in Oman is taboo; LGBT content on the Internet is censored.
Rights of refugees and asylum seekers
Oman has a system in place for helping refugees and asylum seekers, but owing to its tight border controls there are few such persons asking for help. Oman is not a party to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, and does not protect persons from being returned to countries where they are in danger. In 2010 alone, hundreds of individuals from nearby countries who tried to enter Oman illegally were returned to their homelands.
Oman, whose current population of 3.3 million includes a million or so non-citizens, has been an independent sultanate since 1650 and has been governed by the Al Bu Sa'id family since the eighteenth century. Its ruler since 1970 is Sultan Qaboos al-Said, who attained power by overthrowing his father, and who “has followed a path of careful and gradual development and modernization,” eliminating many of the “harsh restrictions on various personal freedoms” that had been enforced under his father's regime and granting amnesty to many of its opponents.
In 1996, “Sultan Qaboos issued a royal decree promulgating the basic law, which is considered to be Oman’s constitution.” It guaranteed citizens' basic civil rights and “established a bicameral legislature, the Council of Oman, consisting of an upper chamber, the State Council (Majlis al-Dawla), the 75 members of which are appointed by the sultan and have only advisory powers, and a lower chamber, the Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura),” which is elected by the people. Both chambers, however, are ultimately advisory in nature, with sole legislative, executive, and judicial power still resting entirely in the hands of the sultan.
Rights of persons under arrest
Authorities do not make arbitrary arrests. The police academy program includes training in human rights. Police do not have to secure a warrant before taking a suspect into custody, but within 24 hours of such an action the public prosecutor must either make a formal arrest or release the individual, who cannot be held in pretrial detention without a court order. These rights are respected, although foreigners who are suspected of being in Oman illegally are occasionally held without charge until their immigration status can be ascertained. There is a bail system, and defendants can choose their own lawyers, or be provided with public defenders if necessary.
Rights of persons on trial
Oman's courts are not guided by sharia law. Although the judiciary generally acts independently, the sultan has the power to overrule decisions and grant pardons. Defendants are presumed innocent. There are no juries. Defendants enjoy all the usual rights, including the right to present evidence and appeal decisions, although some judges ask that the fathers or husbands of female defendants accompany them to the courtroom.
Rights of prisoners
As a rule, prisons meet international standards. Prisoners are allowed to receive visitors and practice their religion. Prison conditions are monitored, and complaints of abuse are addressed by the national human-rights commission.
Government employees and domestic workers cannot join unions, but most others can. The government must be notified a month in advance of union meetings. The right to strike is subject to several conditions, one of them being that employers must be informed of planned strikes three weeks in advance. Collective bargaining is allowed. Forced labor is illegal, although some foreigners are apparently engaged in involuntary servitude. Children under 15 are not allowed to work, and there are limits on work by those under 18, although some children work in small family businesses. There is a low minimum wage that does not apply in a number of sectors, and there are various restrictions on working conditions that are not uniformly enforced. Occupational health and safety codes are generally enforced, however.
- "2010 Human Rights Report: Oman". US Department of State. Retrieved January 18, 2013.
- "Oman". Freedom House. Retrieved January 18, 2013.
- Stork, Joe. "Human rights in the smaller Gulf states: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and UAE". NOREF. Retrieved January 18, 2013.
- "Oman Country Report" (PDF). Retrieved January 18, 2013.
- "Oman: General Human Rights Situation". Middle East Concern. Retrieved January 18, 2013.
- "Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa - Oman". UNHCR. Retrieved January 18, 2013.
- "Oman" (PDF). Retrieved January 18, 2013.
- "Oman: General Human Rights Situation". Middle East Concerns. Retrieved January 18, 2013.
- "Oman Annual Report 2012". Amnesty International. Retrieved January 18, 2013.
- "Oman: Drop Cases Against Online Activists". Human Rights Watch. Retrieved January 18, 2013.
- "AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC STATEMENT" (PDF). Retrieved January 18, 2013.
- "Oman: Update – Sentencing of several human rights defenders and trials of others adjourned". Frontline Defenders. Retrieved January 18, 2013.
- "ONI Country Profile: Oman", OpenNet Initiative, August 2009
- "Oman: Assault on Freedom of Speech". Human Rights Watch. Retrieved January 18, 2013.
- Oman - U.S. State Department's 2005 Country Report on Human Rights Practices
- "Oman: General Human Rights Situation". Middle East Concern. Retrieved January 19, 2013.
- "Gulf Cooperation Countries to test, detect then ban gays from entering their countries". San Diego LGBT Weekly. October 8, 2013. Retrieved October 9, 2013.
- Oman - U.S. State Department's 2005 Country Report on Human Rights Practices
- Oman at Human Rights Watch
- Censorship in Oman - IFEX