Qatar's new supreme court has potential to force modernization of legal system

Louay Bahry [Professor of Political Science, University of Tennessee]: "The new Supreme Constitutional Court in Qatar, established by Law No. 12 of 2008 was supposed to start functioning on October 1, 2008, but was postponed for "administrative" reasons. On September 27, 2009 it finally came into being when its head, Mr. Mubarak al-Asiri, Head of the Judiciary Supreme Council, was nominated by Amiri decree. Six other members have yet to be nominated. All must be at least 40 years old and have 15 years legal experience.

The main purpose of the court is to make sure that existing laws in Qatar comply with the provisions of the constitution issued in 2005. It will also function as a court of last appeal in Qatar. Either the defense or prosecution in lower court cases can appeal to the Supreme Court if they feel that the decision of such a court is not in keeping with the law or has misinterpreted the law. Qatar sees the court as a big step forward in the modernization of its institutions.

It is worth noting how "law" is currently made in Qatar. While the constitution provides for a 45 member elected assembly (two thirds elected; one third appointed) to participate in making law, no such election has been held or announced, four years after the constitution was promulgated. For the time being, the country has a "consultative body" of 35 members, all appointed by the Amir. It will be interesting to see how the new court will handle any challenges to the existing laws.

Article 6 of the Qatari constitution also specifies that "the state shall respect and strive to implement all international agreements, charters and conventions it is party thereof." This may open the possibility of some challenges to Qatari law and practice to accord with international standards, particularly if a local plaintiff challenges a lower court ruling. For example, Qatar is a member of the International Labor Organization and has, presumably, agreed to its rules. Human rights organizations and the ILO have criticized the sponsorship (kafala) system under which most foreign laborers (now 800,000) work in Qatar (and the rest of the GCC countries). Under this system every foreigner who works in the country is sponsored by a national who has control over visas for his entry, the duration of his work, conditions, salary, dismissal and even expulsion. The system has been compared to slavery. The ILO has asked the six GCC countries to abolish or modify this system. While Bahrain just announced in April that it would end the system, and other GCC countries are considering modification, Qatar is still holding onto it. Could a worker in Qatar use this new court to challenge his or her status (belonging to a sponsor or kafeel) by claiming that parts of Qatar's labor laws do not accord with ILO standards or rules? If so, the potential for future modernization of Qatar institutions could become real."

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