The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed satisfaction on "encouraging level of governmental activity to improve human rights" in the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States, especially in the area of economic and social rights, children's rights and human trafficking, but she said concerns remain about women's rights, migration, statelessness, and freedom of expression, association and assembly.
The High Commissioner was speaking at the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, at the start of a ten-day six-country mission which is intended to improve cooperation between the UN human rights system and the GCC nations.
Ms. Pillay praised the fact that women now have the right to vote and have access to public office in several GCC countries.
However, she pointed out that women are still not able to fully enjoy their human rights all across the region.
"Discriminatory barriers continue to hamper women's right to shape their own lives and choices, and fully participate in public life," she said.
"...These barriers must be removed. It is also time to put to rest the concept of male guardianship... Positive developments for women's civil and political rights are still patchy and uneven in the region."
However, the High Commissioner said she was encouraged to see that more States in the region have adopted, or are enacting, laws to combat human trafficking.
Pointing to the important role migrant workers play in making society function, Ms. Pillay also expressed concern about their treatment, which she said reflected problems facing migrants elsewhere in the world. Reports "consistently cite ongoing practices of unlawful confiscation of passports, withholding of wages and exploitation by unscrupulous recruitment agencies and employers," she said.
"The situation of migrant domestic workers is of particular concern..." She drew attention to their often inadequate living and working conditions and to the fact that they are sometimes "unable to obtain access to judicial recourse and effective remedies for their plight."
She noted the positive trend that has led to some GCC countries abolishing or reconsidering the sponsorship system - known as Kafala - that "rigidly binds migrants to their employers, enabling the latter to commit abuses, while preventing workers from changing jobs or leaving the country." She urged those States that had not yet done so to replace the Kafala system "with updated labour laws that can better balance rights and duties."
The High Commissioner also stressed the importance of "a vibrant press and committed civil society able to operate freely and alert the State to issues and problems as they arise."
"It is crucial for States to ensure the enjoyment of freedom of association, assembly and expression," she said. "These rights underpin the very existence of civil society and the press everywhere.
They include freedom of the press and the right of human rights defenders to document, report and present legal cases on behalf of victims of human rights violations." In many countries "a worrisome trend is emerging or re-emerging," she said, referring to laws that aim at curtailing civil society's scope of action, and restrictions on some media organizations.
Ms. Pillay spoke of the importance of national human rights institutions (NHRIs) - an internationally supported system of official institutions that work independently from governments to protect and promote human rights at the national level.
She pointed to the "growing effectiveness" of the NHRIs in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which were the first to be created in the Gulf region (in 2002 and 2005 respectively), congratulated Bahrain and Oman for their recent establishment of NHRIs, and called on the remaining countries to follow suit.