BY Yazan al-Saadi
Al-Akhbar: Kuwait continues to be the last bastion against the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Internal Security Pact, first proposed in 1982, revised in 1994, and finally signed by all the GCC interior ministers in 2012. At the heart of the matter are concerns by Kuwaiti policymakers and citizens alike towards the pact contravening rights enshrined within the Kuwaiti constitution.
Kuwait has recently marked celebrations for its 53rd National Day and 23rd anniversary of liberation from the Iraqi occupation. Millions of dollars were spent on the festivities, which included elaborate fireworks and countless exhibits showcased successes by its citizens over the years.
The lavish celebrations this year come on the heels of a passionate public and political debate over Kuwait’s ratification of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) Internal Security Pact. Out of the six GCC states, Kuwait is the only country yet to ratify the agreement.
In a rare moment of unity, liberals, independents, Islamists, and pro- and anti-government politicians came together and released a joint statement on February 19th voicing concerns about the agreement. Most of the public as well was opposed to the pact once its details were leaked by the local press.
Of greatest concern were articles within the security pact that directly clashed with Kuwait’s constitution.
Fear of a united police state
The security pact states in Article 2 that “States parties shall cooperate with each other to hunt down those who are outside law or the system, or who are wanted by states, whatever their nationality, and to take necessary action against them.”
Article 3 states that “Each state party can take legal action in regards to a crime, according to their domestic legislation, against the intervention of citizens or residents of any other state parties.”
As one Kuwaiti blogger, Mohammed al-Mutawa, briefly outlined on his blog, Project: Nation, the security pact does not adequately define key terms in regards to criminality, nor sufficiently address questions of who exactly can be extradited, and seemed to negate sovereignty of the signatures.
More so, the pact does not take into account the varying degrees of freedom of expression and press within the differing Gulf countries.
“Kuwait is bound by its constitution. It has to confirm any agreement through the parliament. The other GCC states do not have the same processes since they lack any strong legislative representation and therefore can pass such laws with ease and no discussions. The discussions in Kuwait are varied, but most see it as against constitution,” Ghanim al-Najjar, a Kuwaiti academic and political commentator, said to Al-Akhbar.
“This [agreement] is being portrayed as an act of unity in the region, but there are concerns and Kuwaitis fear that this will lead to restrictions on their freedoms,” he added.
For her part, Kuwaiti writer-activist Mona Kareem noted, “I really did not see anyone in support of it, even regime loyalists refuse the idea of cooperating with Saudi Arabia. The opposition and many independent groups have expressed that this will be a blow to freedom of expression and dissent. It’s like having one united police state.”
“In 1994, the pact was presented and its initial articles were even more authoritarian. It has been changed in terms of language since, but still there are persistent problems like the issue of sovereignty,” Najjar said.
“Many people are worried. I’m talking about MPs, the public, and even constitutional experts within the National Assembly. These concerns are not secret but widely publicized in the Kuwaiti media,” he added.
A long history of unease
Kuwait has had a long history of objecting to the security pact since it’s inception back in 1982.
The initial pact came after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the onset of the Iran-Iraq War. For the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, the regional changes and challenges – political and religious – arising from a resurgent Islamic Republic were extremely worrying.
Yet, at the same time, smaller Gulf countries were not wholly comfortable with Saudi Arabia flexing it’s hegemonic muscles.
Nevertheless the creation of the GCC in its own right was considered a means to protect these countries from any threat – whether external or internal.
“For a long time there was defense cooperation in the Gulf. In fact, the creation of the GCC itself was a military pact as a result of the Iran-Iraq war, which developed over time into a somewhat economic and political union,” Riad Kahwaji, head of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said to Al-Akhbar.
“Closer security cooperation was a major thing [for the GCC]. But ultimately issues and disputes arose in regards to clauses related to the handover of terrorist or criminal suspects,” he added.
For Kuwait in particular, the clause that allowed other nations to pursue suspects as far as 20 kilometers into another country’s’ territory was a deal-breaker, chiefly because it violated the Kuwaiti constitution. In comparison, the 2012 version’s article in regards to pursuit does not clearly define the extent of which security forces can enter another signatory’s territory, rather it would only be defined by private agreements between the states.
Effectively, Kuwait’s opposition in 1982 ended any moves for a unified security agreement in the Gulf for almost a decade.
In December 1994, three years after the end of the first Gulf War, the security pact was announced during a GCC Summit in Bahrain. It was endorsed only by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar signed years later, and Kuwait followed suit during a GCC Summit in Riyadh in November 2012.
“The security pact will empower each GCC country to take legal action, based on its own legislation, against citizens,residents, or organized groups that are linked to crime, terrorism or dissension,” GCC Chief Abdul Latif al-Zayani had said at the time.
The timing of the announcement, and the final signing by all GCC states, cannot be ignored.
Security under the shadow of Bahrain’s uprising
“The fact of the matter is governments in the region like Iran, Iraq, Syria, GCC, and others are facing internal strife,” al-Najjar said when asked why there was a change in the Kuwaiti authorities’ position towards the security pact.
Indeed, the Arab uprisings of 2011 was seen as one of the biggest threats to the various rulers who dominated power for decades in what seemed like a perpetual status quo.
For the GCC, the uprising in Bahrain especially brought the threat to their very doorsteps. The protests in the Bahraini capital sent tremors to each of the neighboring countries. Saudi Arabia witnessed massive protests in its eastern province and calls for reform. Oman, Qatar, and the UAE each experienced labor protests and gradual calls by it’s citizens for more representation.
And in 2012 Kuwait witnessed massive popular protests from all sectors of society, which focused on corruption, rights for stateless Arabs residing in the country, and modifications to the voting law.
Through a combination of crackdowns and financial hand-outs, each Gulf ruler was able to delay and deter the protests from reaching a turning point, while in Bahrain it required an aggressive approach in the form of an armed intervention by GCC states spearheaded by the Saudi army that ended up keeping the Bahraini monarchy in place.
In this regard, Kareem pointed out that while Kuwait was hesitant to actively join the intervention, and only sent a symbolic naval force to Bahrain, but it was a game-changer for the authorities.
In an article she wrote for Al-Monitor, Kareem noted:
“Since the Bahraini uprising…the outlook has changed among Kuwait’s rulers. The regime felt threatened throughout 2012 after mass demonstrations by youth activists and the opposition. In November 2012, after a decree changing the voting law triggered popular protests, Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah delivered a speech in which he emphasized fellow Gulf states’ support for him.”
Kahwaji, for his part, said, “Kuwait has an active parliament with strong legislative powers; they feel that this pact could negatively affect the country in terms of clauses that give more power to the executive branch. ”
“They can be a massive barrier to this pact, despite what the authorities wish,” he added.
During the past few weeks, debates and discussions were at an all-time high in Kuwait in regards to the pact, especially as pressures mounted by other GCC countries to ratify the agreement.
For a brief moment it seemed that the pact would be transferred from the parliamentary committee charged with discussing foreign affairs to the National Assembly for a final vote, but then the government decided to shelve discussions on the agreement until October.
“The regime is hesitant and afraid [the pact] will be a mobilizing point for the opposition,” Kareem suggested. Similarly, Najjar echoed Kareem’s sentiments.“The government was not motivated to push it through this time. It could have technically and legally push the pact for a vote, but there didn’t seem to be this urgency in the end by the authorities,” he said.
Najjar also added another wrinkle to the story.
“We must remember too that there are conflicts and disputes between the GCC countries. Even back in 1994, when certain governments signed the pact, nothing really changed and nothing new was enacted because of these conflicts,” he said.
But, he was quick to warn that concentrating on the security pact alone was problematic.
“There are worse security agreements between Kuwait and other countries, and here I mean anti-terrorism agreements that can infringe on our rights,” he argued.
For now, the security pact is on hold until the debates once again are sparked off in October. Until then, as Najjar concluded to Al-Akhbar, what happens is “unknown and uncertain