Qatar has finally joined two of the key international treaties on human rights: the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR) and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR).
It is the third Arab Gulf state to join, following Kuwait (which did so more than 20 years ago) and Bahrain (more than 10 years ago). Meanwhile, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have still neither signed nor ratified.
This might seem a welcome (if long overdue) step forward, though Qatar has already taken much of the shine off it by announcing that it won't fully comply with either treaty. It plans to ignore parts of them and apply its own interpretations to other parts.
What the conventions say, and what Qatar says:
CCPR: "The States Parties ... undertake to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all civil and political rights set forth in the present Covenant." (Article 3)
Qatar does not consider itself bound by this since the constitution says Qatar's ruler must always be male.
CCPR: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In particular, no one shall be subjected without his free consent to medical or scientific experimentation." (Article 7)
Qatar says it will interpret the word "punishment" in accordance with "the applicable legislation of Qatar and the Islamic Sharia". The main effect of this is to allow corporal and capital punishment.
CCPR: "No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice." (Article 18.2)
Qatar says it will interpret this "based on the understanding that it does not contravene the Islamic Sharia".
CCPR: "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests ..." (Article 22)
Qatar says it will interpret the term "trade unions" in line with its own labour laws.
CCPR: "The right of men and women of marriageable age to marry and to found a family shall be recognised." (Article 23.2)
Qatar says it will interpret this "in a manner that does not contravene the Islamic Sharia".
CCPR: "States Parties ... shall take appropriate steps to ensure equality of rights and responsibilities of spouses as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. In the case of dissolution, provision shall be made for the necessary protection of any children." (Article 23.4)
Qatar does not consider itself bound by this since it "contravenes the Islamic Sharia".
CCPR: "In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language." (Article 27)
Qatar says it will interpret this as meaning that professing and practising one's own religion does not "violate the rules of public order and public morals, the protection of public safe[t]y and public health, or the rights of and basic freedoms of others".
Qatar has also made similar points regarding sections of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which refer to gender equality and trade unions.
One of the problems with international conventions of this kind is that they lack effective enforcement mechanisms – which means countries can gain an aura of respectability by signing up to them without needing to bother much about compliance.
Qatar, as will be seen from the list above, is citing Islamic law, national law and its constitution as grounds for excluding itself from some of the treaties' provisions. In a press release today, Human Rights Watch explained the background:
"Qatar’s personal status law discriminates against women by requiring a male guardian to approve their marriage. The law gives men a unilateral right to divorce while requiring women to apply to the courts for divorce on limited grounds and women are required to obey their husbands.
"Qatar also provides that fathers retain guardianship over their children following divorce even if the mother has custody. In most cases, boys live with their mother until age 13 and girls until age 15, when they automatically move to their father’s custody unless the court rules otherwise or extends the custody in the best interest of the child. Women, but not men, lose custody if they remarry. Under inheritance provisions, female siblings receive half the amount their brothers get.
"Qatar also said it will interpret the right to profess and practice one’s own religion so that it 'does not violate the rules of public order and public morals, the protection of public safe[t]y and public health, or the rights of and basic freedoms of others.' While people of other faiths can practise their religion in Qatar, the penal code prohibits proselytising."
Qatar's insistence on defining "trade unions" in its own way relates to Article 116 of the Labour Law which allows only Qatari nationals to form trade unions. "As a result, migrant workers, who make up over 90 percent of the workforce, cannot exercise their rights to freedom of association and to form trade unions," Human Rights Watch says.