THE TIMES KUWAIT REPORT
Last week, the US State Department submitted its annual report on Human Rights Practices of UN member states to the United States Congress. The report, which has been published faithfully every year for the past five decades, provides an in-depth look at the status of human rights worldwide.
The ‘2021 Country Report on Human Rights Practices’ covering 198 countries and territories, comes at a time when human rights abuses and violations are escalating in many places. Pointing out that the stability, security, and health of any country depends on the ability of its people to freely exercise their human rights, the report underlines the need to revitalize democracy, which is crucial to building a world where respect for human rights is truly universal.
The US State Department’s 2021 report on Kuwait cites several failings in human rights practices in the country, including credible reports of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by security presonnel; arbitrary arrest; political prisoners; serious limitations on freedom of expression and media, including censorship and defamation laws, as well as other restrictions and interference that curtail the freedom of people.
Although the document acknowledges that the government has intensified efforts to overcome many of the shortcomings in human rights practices, the report also highlights the increase in cases of corruption and public embezzlement in recent years. It would be facile on our part to brush aside the report with probably a snide remark that it was a case of the pot calling the kettle black. However, on closer examination, the report sadly proves to be a factual and objective record of what are regular happenings in Kuwait.
The US State Department’s assessment of probity in Kuwait public life is buttressed by the 2021 Corruption Perception Index (CPI), published annually by Transparency International. Though Kuwait fared marginally better in the 2021 index than a year earlier, the country still ranked 73rd out of 180 countries and territories evaluated in last year’s index. With a score of 43 out of a possible 100, Kuwait scored poorly, especially in comparison to its peers among Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.
Kuwait ranked lower than the other six GCC states with the exception of Bahrain, which scored one point less than Kuwait and ranked 78th on the global index. The CPI, published by the German registered international non-profit, non-governmental organization, seeks to fight the injustice of corruption worldwide by promoting transparency, accountability and integrity in personal and public spheres.
Among other countries in the GCC, the UAE was the top scorer, notching 69 points and ranking 24th worldwide. In second spot was Qatar with a score of 63 and a rank of 31, followed by Saudi Arabia with a score of 53 and a rank of 52, and Oman with a score of 52 and ranking 56th in the global listing.
In response to the poor CPI standing, Kuwait Anti-Corruption Authority (Nazaha), released a statement saying that failure to enact relevant legislations in a timely manner was among the reasons why Kuwait scored and ranked so low in the annual corruption index. The Authority pointed to delays in enacting requisite legislation, including on conflict of interests, right to information, and information gathering, as well as the lack of legislation on regulating appointments in top posts and on organizing electoral campaigns. Despite Kuwait signing the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) in 2004 and ratifying it in 2007, a key requirement under the sixth article of the UNCAC — which calls for each State Party to the Convention to ensure the existence of an entity to prevent corruption — was fulfilled only in 2016, with the establishment of Nazaha.
The Authority was set up with the main goal of promoting transparency and integrity in economic and administrative transactions to ensure good governance of funds, resources and state property, and their optimal use. It was mandated to fight corruption, prevent its risks and effects, prosecute its perpetrators, confiscate and recover funds and proceeds that resulted from such practices, in accordance with the law. Additionally, it was charged with protecting state entities from bribery, trading in influence and abuse of power for personal benefits, as well as preventing patronage and nepotism.
The Authority was also assigned to cooperate and participate with state and international entities in the fields of anti-corruption, and to encourage and activate the role of local civil society organizations in the fight against corruption, educate society on the harms and risks that arise from corruption, and raise awareness on the means and methods to prevent dishonesty in public life, as well as ensure protection for whistleblowers. Although the tasks assigned to the Authority are comprehensive and far-reaching, unfortunately it has not been provided with the necessary legal and regulatory authority to effectively and efficiently curb corruption.
Currently, Nazaha can receive and analyze complaints and forward these to the appropriate authorities in either the Public Prosecutor’s Office for legal action, or to the police for further investigation. The authority is not empowered to conduct covert surveillance to gather information on corrupt practices, execute search warrants, arrest suspects, or enforce compliance with investigatory demands. Moreover, while it can promise to protect whistleblowers, the authority lacks the regulatory regime to provide them with enhanced legal protection. And it does not have the resources to guard the identity of whistleblowers, or indemnify them for potential loss in earnings or revenues.
The US State Department document also revealed that individuals reported having to pay intermediaries to receive routine government services. There were numerous allegations of police corruption, and the media frequently noted that police often favored citizens over noncitizens, especially when one party to a dispute had a personal relationship with a police official involved in a case. There were also credible reports of corruption in the procurement and bidding processes for lucrative government contracts.
Additionally, the report pointed to serious weaknesses in stemming corruption in the country and underscored the lack of transparency in government. It pointed out that although the law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, the government generally did not implement the law effectively. Laxness on the part of authorities encouraged officials to engage in corrupt practices with impunity, leading to an increase in cases of government corruption during 2020, the year under review in the 2021 State Department report.
The report highlighted several cases of serious corruption and embezzlement of public funds that implicated high profile figures in the government, senior officials in ministries of interior and health, as well as in the judiciary. In many of these cases, Nazaha received information of these activities through third-parties and whistleblowers, as it lacked the resources and legal framework to conduct independent surveillance of corruption. The Authority was limited to referring the government officials involved in corrupt practices to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which then initiated legal proceedings against them.
The US report citing official records noted that as of November 2020, Nazaha had received 431 reports of corruption and, following examinations and analyzes of these incidents, referred 13 cases to the Public Prosecutor’s Office. The Public Prosecutor’s Office was investigating 11 of the 13 cases as of November, with one case referred to the courts, and another case being dropped. Though all judicial officers received training on corruption and transparency obligations, as part of the Judicial Institute’s official curriculum, there were not enough officers and resources to undertake effective investigation and follow up on the many pending cases.
Moreover, although the right of access to information is a crucial tool for promoting the fight against corruption, it was only in March 2020 that a new law on the right of access to information (ATI) came into effect. The law allows nationals to request information, decisions, and documents from government entities. However, Majid al-Mutairi, chairman of Kuwait Transparency Society, a leading Civil Society Organization committed to implementing and monitoring provisions of UNCAC, said that many government agencies still did not comply with the law in letter and spirit.
The US report also referred to a study by the Kuwait Economic Society, which found that the country lost approximately KD1.2 billion annually to corruption. But, it needs to be added that measuring corruption accurately is difficult if not impossible due to the illicit nature of the transaction, and the challenges brought on by imprecise definitions of corruption due to its existence in myriad forms. Nevertheless, regardless of its size, definition, or form, corruption remains the biggest obstacle to progress and development of a country. It extends its tentacles into all aspects of life, including economic, political and social.
On the economic level, corruption leads to hindering development of the economy; wasting of state resources, and discouraging local and foreign investments. At the political level, corruption leads to eroding the government’s role in implementing public policy and development plans, as well as spreading mistrust in the rule of law and state institutions, and undermining the monitoring of public and private sectors’ activities. Socially, corruption has a debilitating effect on the cohesiveness of society, impairing equitable distribution of resources, and breeding distrust in the functioning of the government.
In 2018, Nazaha, in partnership with the General Secretariat of the Supreme Council for Planning and Development (GSSCPD) and UN Development Programme (UNDP), and in collaboration with other UN agencies, launched a joint program. The program aimed to support Nazaha in developing its internal strategy and governance framework, as well as to draw up a national anti-corruption strategy.
In an interim report on the project in December 2020, UNDP Resident Representative in Kuwait Hideko Hadzialic, highlighted the government’s efforts to tackle corruption, and praised resulting strategies aimed at enhancing transparency and promoting integrity. She said that the project resulted in the formation of the Kuwait Integrity and Anti-Corruption Strategy 2019-2024 to enhance the principles of transparency, accountability, and the rule of law in the public and private sectors.
However, a proposal by the UNDP to conduct an evaluation of the Nazaha project over a five year period from 2020 to 2024 was politely turned down by the government. In its response to the proposal, the GSSCPD said budgetary constraints brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the five-year period of the evaluation process, impeded Kuwait from signing on to the project. The Secretariat requested either suspending or terminating the project. The state’s response raises a pertinent question, why conduct an exercise to tackle corruption, if you are not willing or wanting to measure your progress and rectify any likely drawbacks?