Celebrations to mark Kuwait’s 53rd National Day and the 23rd Liberation Day. Kuwait has been against the security agreement since the GCC ’s inception in 1981. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: A security agreement signed by Gulf Cooperation Council states has become the subject of controversy in the region, escalating into a fierce public debate in Kuwait that has divided the public.

The agreement focuses on cooperation in the exchange of information and tracking down of criminals and those who violate the law.

It recently came under the spotlight after reaching the Kuwaiti parliament, where lawmakers vowed to fight it by all means, citing that it infringed on freedoms guaranteed by the country’s constitution. Unlike other Gulf countries, Kuwait has a vibrant political scene and a parliament which enjoys legislative powers that allow it to veto such agreements.

For now, lawmakers have shelved debate on the agreement until the next term of parliament that starts in late October.

While some have said that the agreement violates basic human rights, others believe that the controversy it has caused is exaggerated,

“There are some objections to some of the clauses, but this objection doesn’t explain the attention it has received in the media and all this fuss,” said Abdul Aziz Al Saqr, chairman of the Gulf Research Centre, from Saudi Arabia.

After all, “the main purpose of the agreement is to protect the security of the Gulf States,” he told Gulf News.

“We are not against a security agreement that would, for example, prohibit money laundering or terrorism and anything of that sort,” said Omani writer Mohammad Al Shehri in an interview with Gulf News. “We as Gulf citizens do care that these countries are safe. But safety wouldn’t come if the freedom of expression is oppressed,” he added, reflecting concerns among opponents that the agreement would be used as a pretext to restrict freedoms.

All members of the GCC have ratified the agreement with the exception of Kuwait, despite the fact that the country’s Interior Minister joined his Gulf counterparts at the signing ceremony in Riyadh in November 2012. The agreement was later endorsed by the leaders of GCC states at the bloc’s summit in Manama in December 2012.

Abdul Hamid Da’as, editor in chief of the Kuwaiti Arabic daily Alam Alyawm, said: “We [Kuwaitis] support cooperation among GCC members, but we are sensitive on issues of freedoms and individuals’ rights.”

Kuwaiti opponents of the agreement stressed that some of its clauses violate the country’s constitution.

As an example, if any Gulf state accused a Kuwaiti citizen of being involved in political activities against that state or threatening a member state’s security, the agreement calls for his or her extradition. But according to the Kuwaiti constitution, Kuwaitis can only stand on trial in their country.

“We are very sensitive to these issues,” said Da’as, noting that the opposition to the GCC security agreement is more of a “popular opposition” than a “parliamentary opposition”.

As a result of opposition pressure, Kuwait’s speaker of parliament, Marzouk Al Ganem, announced recently that no decision will be taken on the pact in the current parliamentary term that ends in June. He added that he had asked parliament’s constitutional experts to prepare a comprehensive legal study on the security pact.

Kuwait has been against the security agreement since the GCC’s inception in 1981, Kuwaiti analysts noted. The agreement resurfaced in 1994 and later in 2012. But all the GCC countries with the exception of Kuwait endorsed the “amended version” of the agreement last year.

Some analysts say that the security agreement formalises pre-existing security cooperation among GCC members.

“When it is legal, it will be harder to dispute,” said Wafa Al Sayed, research analyst at the Bahrain office of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“What the agreement doesn’t say makes it open for interpretation,” she added to Gulf News, referring to the lack of some definitions in the pact.

Few websites published the text of the security agreement and many Gulf citizens were unaware of the basic facts of the pact.

“Protecting the security and peace in the Gulf is very important. We have to keep the general clauses of [the security pact] when it comes to tracking criminals, organised crime and exchange information of groups proved to be terrorists,” said Ali Shawi, a political scientist at Qatar University.

But when people hear about the sharing of citizens’ personal information between member states, they ask “what kind of personal information and what is the purpose of sharing it?” he added to Gulf News. People need to be assured that the agreement will not infringe their human rights, analysts noted, suggesting the addition of annexes to the agreement to “assure” citizens of respect for their rights, as well as the formation of a joint authority to validate charges before extraditing people.

Al Shehri believes that “this agreement will form an obstacle in the face of popular calls for political reform, but it won’t stop them,” he added.

Asked about timing of the endorsing the agreement, Al Saqr said “I believe it is all related to fighting terrorism and extremist groups.”

Commenting on the fact that many believe Saudi Arabia is the leading player seeking to bring the pact into effect, Al Saqr said “it is because Saudi Arabia is the biggest country and has borders with all five of the remaining member countries of the GCC.”