The Legal Frame of Oman

  1. Introduction:

The Sultanate of Oman is one of the countries that remains distant from the global media spotlight, largely due to its limited international role, both economically and politically. Despite being relied upon by major world powers for international mediations, such as the Iranian’s nuclear programme and hostage negotiations, Oman’s modest role has, for the most part, kept it away from the global media lens, particularly concerning its domestic human rights situation. Omani authorities have, thus far, excelled in maintaining a positive international reputation, primarily built upon non-contentious international relations, both with its Gulf Arab neighbours and countries worldwide.

In 2011, Oman witnessed a significant wave of protests, which can be described as substantial, spreading across several Omani cities, including the capital, Muscat, as well as Sohar (in northern Oman) and Salalah (in southern Oman). This protest movement revealed the discrepancy between the image the authorities consistently presented to the outside world and the internal situation. The authorities responded to the protests with severity, deploying security and military forces to swiftly quell the demonstrations. This intervention resulted in casualties, including fatalities and injuries, as these forces employed weaponry against the protesters.

Another adverse outcome of this protest movement was the enactment of laws and regulations by the authorities, often through royal decrees, leading to a significant regression in the state of human rights and civil liberties. This regression was notably manifested in the amendment of Oman’s penal code and the addition of supplementary laws, which restricted and criminalized intellectual activity, freedom of opinion, and expression. Additionally, the issuance of the Cyber Crime Law served as a supplementary legal framework to further restrict freedom of opinion and expression by monitoring electronic activities, particularly on social media platforms, of individuals.

Despite the optimism expressed by many activists regarding the current Sultan, Haitham bin Tariq, who assumed the reins of power in Oman in January 2020, the situation has remained largely unchanged. Despite Oman’s signing of several international agreements related to human rights, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the International Convention for The Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, the current Sultan has also initiated the updating of existing laws and the creation of new ones. These include laws like the Internal Security Service Law and the Cyber Defence Centre, both of which solidify repression and grant extensive powers to the domestic security apparatus and intelligence agencies, often infringing on individuals’ privacy under the pretext of security and safety concerns.

Furthermore, women’s rights in Oman currently face significant challenges due to discriminatory laws, including those found in personal status laws and the Omani penal code. These laws not only perpetuate male dominance but also exhibit discrimination against women concerning the transmission of nationality to their children in cases of marriage to non-Omanis. Additionally, issues related to guardianship and custody rights for children arise in the event of a spouse’s death or divorce. Despite the ongoing efforts by authorities to polish their external image by presenting women as having equal rights to men, such as their appointment to high political positions, discrimination against women in certain rights remains one of the most contentious issues to date. Furthermore, the persistent inadequacy of authorities in providing necessary protection for women against domestic and spousal violence, along with delays in implementing effective legal measures, adds to the complexity of the situation.

Another aspect that must be highlighted is that individual freedoms in Oman face a formidable challenge to the extent that any activity deemed as an exercise of individual freedom is at risk of being classified as dangerous. Several activists have faced imprisonment and defamation due to their atheistic activities on social media platforms like X (formerly Twitter). Harsh sentences have been issued against them. Additionally, the LGBTQ+ community faces significant challenges due to laws criminalizing same-sex relationships, imposing restrictions, and enforcing severe penalties.

Moreover, there is a systematic and harsh crackdown against any criticism of the Sultan, who himself serves as the head of state and prime minister, or criticism of the government, especially ministries that could be described as sovereign. All these violations are followed by severe judicial sentences and fines, which will be addressed in more detail later.

  1. The Executive Summary:

Oman is an authoritarian state characterized by the absolute rule of a monarch, operating without a formal constitution but instead governed by the Basic Statute of the State, commonly referred to as the White Book. The current monarch, a cousin of the late monarch who passed away in January 2020, wields unchecked authority. Oman commemorates its national day on November 18th each year.

Despite the recent appointment of a crown prince to assist in governance and broaden participation in decision-making, Oman remains distant from achieving democratic status. Majles Oman serves as the parliamentary body, comprising the elected lower chamber, A’Shoura, and the upper chamber, A’Dhawla, whose members are appointed by the monarch. However, Majles Oman primarily provides advisory recommendations, with its members’ perspectives seldom influencing executive decisions. The monarch concurrently holds the positions of chief of state and head of government and retains the authority to appoint the cabinet. Succession to the throne follows a hereditary process.

Despite the current Sultan’s decision to appoint a crown prince to assist him in certain tasks and broaden the scope of decision-making, Oman is not a democratic state. The Oman Council, which serves as the parliament, consists of two chambers: the lower and the upper. Members of the lower chamber, the Consultative, A’Shoura, Council, are elected by the people, but members of the upper chamber, the State, Council, A’Dhawla, are appointed by royal decree. The State Council possesses more authority than the Consultative. Furthermore, Oman Council in its two chambers functions merely as an advisory body, not a legislative authority as commonly understood. It is rare for the opinions of Oman Council members on laws and legislation to be considered by the executive authority, headed by the Sultan himself, who appoints ministers and forms the government through royal decrees. The governance system in Oman is not only absolute monarchy but also hereditary, with the concept of power transitioning to the Sultan’s eldest son or the crown prince after the Sultan’s death.

In accordance with the Basic Statute of the State Law, Islam is designated as the state religion, granting non-Muslims the right to worship but prohibiting proselytization. Religious organisations are required to register with the government, and mosque sermons are expected to adhere to standardized texts distributed by the authorities.

The centralisation of power within an absolute monarchy has led to a deteriorating human rights situation and limited civil liberties. Authorities persistently detain and prosecute critics, activists, and peaceful protesters. Migrant workers remain vulnerable to exploitation, lacking sufficient safeguards. Gender discrimination persists both in legal provisions and daily practices, and the death penalty remains in effect.

In conclusion, Oman’s political landscape is characterized by absolute monarchical governance, a limited democratic framework, and significant human rights concerns, including constraints on freedom of expression and gender disparities.

  1. Legal Framework and The International Conventions:
    • Domestic Laws:

In the era of the current Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, 2020 – present, Omani laws have witnessed numerous updates and additions that can be considered a threat to individual rights and freedoms. At the outset of his rule, the Sultan issued Decree No. 4/2020, which established the Internal Security Service Law. The danger of this law lies in the fact that the Internal Security Service, or intelligence agency, operates outside the scope of oversight and accountability, with no scrutiny of its actions or the behaviour of its personnel. For decades, and still to this day, the agency has been implicated in numerous human rights violations, such as enforced disappearances, unlawful detentions, arbitrary arrests, and other violations.

The Decree granted absolute authority to the head of the agency to enact regulations and laws necessary for the implementation of the decree. Additionally, it includes several articles that pose a threat and challenge to activists and writers in Oman. Among the notable provisions are:

Article 5: This article considers everything related to the agency, its employees, and its documents as national security secrets, potentially exposing anyone who criticizes the agency, its role, or its arbitrary arrests. Furthermore, this article shields the agency from any oversight or accountability by competent authorities.

Article 6: This article empowers members of the agency to exercise police powers, particularly concerning arrests and searches.

Article 7: Terms such as terrorism, national security, public funds, and values are not adequately or clearly defined. As a result, the Internal Security Service has, since 2011, often arrested activists and journalists based on vague similar terms.

Article 8: This article allows the agency to engage in surveillance of individuals’ devices and use their private information. This surveillance without proper monitoring and accountability can negatively impact individuals’ public freedoms.

Article 9: The security clearance has become a tool used by security authorities to control individuals and prevent them from engaging in any activities or expressing any opinions that could be interpreted as opposing the authorities. Security clearance typically leads to delays in individuals’ employment opportunities.

Article 10: In addition to allowing surveillance of individuals’ privacy, this article also enables the agency and its members to blackmail citizens and use the leverage of legal consequences if necessary.

To further enhance the role of the Internal Security Service in monitoring individuals and their privacy, which often leads to human rights violations, the Sultan issued Decree No. 64/2020 to establish the Cyber Defence Centre. According to Article 1 of its regulations, this centre is headed by the head of the Internal Security Service. Despite presenting itself in its regulations as a national strategy for electronic defence, this centre, in conjunction with the Internal Security Service law, possesses the authority to penetrate individuals’ personal devices or even institutions under the pretext of protecting the country’s security and its system, as stipulated in Article 6 of the second chapter titled “Objectives and Functions of the Centre.”

Moreover, there are several other laws contributing to the reinforcement of individuals’ self-censorship regarding their communication with others or their online publishing through various social media platforms or the internet in general. Several activists, tweeters, and writers have been convicted due to their posts or articles based on provisions of The Penal Code law, such as Articles 97, 102, 108, and 115, or Article 19 of the Cyber Crime Law. Many of those who have been summoned or investigated have been questioned about their communications with individuals or entities based on the monitoring of their devices and the electronic applications found on these devices.

  • The International Conventions/Treaties:

Oman has signed and ratified a total of five international agreements and covenants related to human rights, in addition to two protocols associated with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Despite the government’s commitment to several international agreements, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, human rights, individual and public freedoms, as well as personal security, are continuously deteriorating. Examples of these violations include:

  • Omani laws criminalize freedom of opinion and expression, leading to the arrest of numerous activists, writers, and journalists for expressing their opinions on social media platforms or in journalistic reports.
  • Many activists are arbitrarily detained or subjected to enforced disappearances. Typically, when a person is subjected to enforced disappearance, they are prevented from communicating with their family members or legal representatives and disclosing the location of their detention. The Internal Security Service Law has granted security authorities broad powers in arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances.
  • Establishing political parties or human rights associations/organizations is considered a crime in Oman, punishable by imprisonment for a period ranging from 3 to 10 years according to Article 116 of the Omani Penal Code.

In general, the state of human rights and individual freedoms in Oman has significantly regressed since 2011. There is intense surveillance exercised by security agencies and official institutions over any content published on the internet and social media platforms. Consequently, individuals have resorted to self-censorship in various aspects of their lives, including their social media accounts, workplaces, and even within the broader public sphere, in order to evade accountability or arrest.

In spite of Oman’s ratification or adherence to numerous international treaties and covenants pertaining to human rights, the local legal framework has not undergone revisions or adjustments to align itself with these international agreements or to ensure the integration of their fundamental principles into domestic legislation. The OCHR-Oman, while regarding the country’s endorsement of certain international human rights treaties and covenants as a positive measure that holds the potential for two potential outcomes—namely, the ratification of additional treaties and the translation of the principles outlined in these covenants into domestic laws—has observed that there have been no significant developments in the legal landscape since 2020. In contrast, instances of human rights violations and harassment persist unabated. Legislative provisions that are incongruent with human rights and freedoms, as well as those that endorse practices such as forced disappearances or the surveillance of electronic devices and telecommunications, have remained unaltered.

In addition, Oman has included several reservations in these ratifications, often citing conflict with Islamic law across various agreements and conventions. For instance, in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Oman maintains reservations on specific articles. Notably, it retains reservations on Article 9, paragraph 2, which addresses equal rights for women regarding the transmission of nationality to their children. Additionally, Oman maintains reservations on sub-paragraphs A, B, and F of Article 16, which affirm equal rights for women in marriage contracts, the right to choose a spouse, and related rights and responsibilities concerning guardianship, custody, and adoption of children. It also expresses reservations on Article 29 of the convention related to dispute referral to the International Court.

Regarding the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, Oman has declared reservations on sub-paragraphs A and D of the first paragraph of Article 8, concerning the ability to establish labour unions and the entitlement to engage in strikes, particularly with regard to government unit employees.

In the context of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Oman has reservations on Articles 20 and 30, indicating its non-recognition of the Committee against Torture’s authority and its non-commitment to paragraph 1 of Article 30, related to international arbitration.

Concerning the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, Oman does not recognise the Committee’s authority in cases of enforced disappearance, as stated in Article 33. It also considers itself not bound by the provisions of Article 42, paragraph 1, regarding international arbitration.

In relation to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its optional protocols: Child involvement in armed conflicts, the Sale of Children, child prostitution and child pornography, Oman expresses reservations on various articles. Notably, Oman does not consider itself bound by the content of Article 14, granting the child the right to choose their religion until reaching maturity.

It’s worth noting that Oman has not signed or ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to date. The integration of agreement provisions into national or local laws remains a subject of debate, with Oman yet to commit to this step concerning many agreements.

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