Human Rights in the Gulf Region and Neighbouring Countries: 2021 Annual Report of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights




The main objective of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) is to foster a vibrant and safe civic space in which human rights defenders (HRDs) and other civil society actors are free to work for the protection and promotion of human rights. To this end, GCHR supports HRDs, independent lawyers, journalists, academics and online activists across the Gulf region and neighbouring countries through its core activities of documentation and research, monitoring and publicising cases of HRDs at risk, capacity building and protection and assistance. 

In 2021, GCHR issued 6 urgent actions, and over 170 appeals (an almost 59% increase on 2020), joint statements and letters relating to hundreds of WHRDs and HRDs in Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as Palestine and Egypt. Over the course of 2021, GCHR published a total of 16 reports, either alone or jointly with partners. The reports covered a wide range of themes and countries including the persecution of Ahmed Mansoor, tackling cultures of impunity that encourage and facilitate torture, the impact of lockdowns and COVID-19 restrictions on human rights in the Gulf region, surveillance and tracking and the persecution of online expression. Furthermore, in 2021, GCHR published 12 Periodic Reports on violations of freedom of expression and assembly in Iraq, and seven on Iraqi Kurdistan.

In its joint work with local partners and international allies, GCHR plays a vital role in ensuring that cases that might otherwise not receive the attention they deserve are brought to the fore in predominantly English-speaking media and advocacy circles. GCHR cases and reports are publicised on GCHR’s website (with a reach of over 52,000), Facebook (5200+ followers) and Twitter (11.4K+ followers). GCHR’s subscriber list is over 2900. GCHR is now on YouTube, where it livestreams events, and has a library of videos about journalists and HRDs. Furthermore, GCHR’s work has been covered in dozens of worldwide media including BBC, AFP, Reuters, MiddleEast Eye, Politiken, Global Voices, Al-Jazeera, Al-Araby, L’Orient le Jour, Fanack, The UK Times and The Guardian, as well as many local Arab media outlets. 

In 2021, GCHR worked in coalition with partner organisations on campaigns for imprisoned HRDs including its co-founder Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja in Bahrain and Board member Ahmed Mansoor in UAE, using hashtags #FreeAlKhawaja and #FreeAhmed, along with general campaigns to #FreeBahrainiPrisoners and #FreeEmiratiActivists as part of the #AltExpoHumanRights campaign. 

As the Dubai Expo opened in the UAE in October 2021, GCHR and partners endeavoured to counter the narrative of “tolerance” and “openness” that the UAE claims to uphold in an event dubbed theAlternative Human Rights Expo, with its own dedicated website created by the Innovation for Change MENA Hub. Furthermore, ahead of Bahrain’s Independence Day on 16 December 2021, GCHR coordinated a public campaign and intensive advocacy with over a dozen human rights NGOs to work together to #FreeBahrainiPrisoners, including creating an Instagram account

GCHR and partners also organised events and advocacy efforts around key dates such as World Press Freedom Day, the International Day to End Impunity, International Women Human Rights Defenders Day and International Human Rights Day.

Supporting and amplifying the crucial work undertaken by women human rights defenders (WHRDs) across the region remains a core priority for GCHR. Highlights of 2021 include the release of Saudi WHRD Loujain Al-Hathloul in February after 1001 days in prison, WHRD and journalist Nouf Abdulaziz and prominent Saudi WHRDs, Nassima Al-Sadah and Samar Badawi, on 27 June 2021, and GCHR’s reports were widely picked up by partners. However, as they are all under travel ban and their speech and ability to work is restricted, GCHR will continue to advocate for the lifting of these restrictions and freedom for remaining Saudi W/HRDs in prison.

Throughout 2021, GCHR has continued to be a committed and engaged presence at international human rights bodies and mechanisms, including the UN and the EU. For example, at three sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in 2021, GCHR organised eight online side events on freedom of expression online, torture in Bahrain, its Annual Report, torture, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE’s efforts to take the Presidency of Interpol, Iraq and the use of Pegasus to target MENA HRDs; and a Consultation with 31 HRDs and 4 UN Special Rapporteurs in Istanbul.

As the global COVID-19 pandemic pushed a large amount of human rights activism online and made it more difficult for HRDs to access direct, in-person support, GCHR continued to invest in capacity building for HRDs and journalists and grants. In 2021, with the support of UN and EU protection mechanisms, GCHR facilitated over 30 emergency grants to W/HRDs and local NGOs at risk and organised a mixture of in-person and remote trainings and workshops on digital security, advocacy and documentation. GCHR also increased its work with investigative journalists in the MENA region, including through training and support for investigations to counter impunity in the murder of journalists.

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