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UN begins Gulf human rights tour in Saudi Arabia

19 April 10 12:00 GMT

The UN high commissioner for human rights has begun a visit to Saudi Arabia, a country much criticised by human rights organisations.

High Commissioner Navi Pillay said countries in the region need to address the issues of abuse against foreign workers and improve women's rights.

But the government has improved its co-operation with the UN rights body, the high commissioner said.

Saudi Arabian law does not grant equal rights to women or foreign workers.

The high commissioner is on a 10-day trip to the Gulf region, in which she will visit six countries.

"Some countries are reconsidering the sponsorship system that rigidly binds migrants to their employers, enabling the latter to commit abuses, while preventing workers from changing jobs or leaving the country," Mrs Pillay said in a speech at a university near Jeddah.

There are an estimated 12 million foreign workers in the Gulf region.

They are admitted into Gulf countries under a system known as Kafala, where the employee, labourer or servant must surrender their travel documents to a guarantor, which in effect renders them bonded labour human rights groups say.

Domestic workers are often subject to abuse, and in 2008 the government began an awareness campaign to combat the abuse of domestic workers.

'Patchy'

Much more needs to be done by Gulf states to improve women's rights, the Ms Pillay said.

"Discriminatory barriers continue to hamper women's right to shape their own lives and choices and fully participate in public life. These barriers must be removed."

It was also time to "lay to rest" the concept of "male guardianship" which bestows control over women to their male relatives.

There is an "encouraging level of government activity" around women's rights in recent years, Mrs Pillay said.

"[But] positive developments for women's civil and political rights are still patchy and uneven in the region," she added.

Women continue to face severe discrimination and are inadequately protected against domestic and other violence, according to Amnesty International.

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