Horrible laws often follow major terrorist attacks. After 9/11, the U.S. Congress passed the Patriot Act. After the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris last year, European powers contemplated sweeping, strikingly bold internet surveillance laws. Following a July attack in Nice, French officials have passed laughably absurd laws against Muslim women wearing burkinis at public beaches.
But after an ISIS-linked man ignited a bomb in a Shiite mosque in Kuwait last year, killing 27, the mother of all troubling laws was rushed through the country’s Parliament. The law requires that all citizens, residents and visitors to the country submit DNA samples to enter or stay in the country. It was passed in the name of national security and in helping identify victims of large scale attacks.
Only recently are we starting to understand just how powerful and potentially intrusive the new DNA law, which is expected to fully go into effect late this year, will be. In a wealthy nation where citizenship is passed down by bloodline and is extremely restricted, officials have been letting on about a mission creep that will give citizenship enforcement an unprecedented scientific grounding, and possibly leave thousands stripped of their nationalities.
“This is deeply, deeply disturbing because citizenship should be based on people’s ties to a society and a country,” Julia Harrington-Reddy, head of equality and inclusion at the Open Society Justice Initiative, told me. “Genetics is not valid grounds for citizenship, and it is certainly a terrible distortion of the whole idea of citizenship to say that genetics could be the sole determinant of citizenship.”
But in recent days, Kuwaiti officials have been suggesting that the DNA database will be used to do just that.
“I think that we reserve the word ‘draconian’ for instances such as this one.”- Wafa Ben Hassine, Tunisia-based legal expert
A piece in the local paper Al-Qabas quoted First Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Sheikh Mohammad Al-Khalid as saying the government will use the DNA database “to aid in the verification of Kuwaiti citizens,” while another official said the data will help “arrest forgers and others who falsely claim their lineage.” Senior officials at the Ministry of the Interior told the newspaper Al-Shahed last week that they expect 200,000 people to refuse DNA testing, fearing that their true bloodlines will be exposed. Officials then said that this could lead to citizenships being revoked, in addition to criminal charges being filed.
Kuwaiti citizenship is restricted to families that have been there since 1920, and is passed down through fathers’ bloodlines, with few exceptions. Out of a population of about 3.3 million, just over a third are citizens. Being an oil-rich country, Kuwaiti citizenship comes with a long list of benefits, including free education through college, free healthcare, grocery subsidies, unemployment benefits, and monthly government checks per child.
Also living in Kuwait, though, is a significant Bidoon minority–descendants of nomadic Arab tribes that for some reason or another didn’t apply for, or didn’t qualify for Kuwaiti citizenship after independence from Britain in 1961. The Kuwaiti government considers the Bidoon (meaning “without” in Arabic) illegal residents. Officially, many are stateless people, but over the years some have acquired citizenship through a tangled web of sham marriages and Kuwaiti men claiming Bidoon children as their own in exchange for money.
The Kuwaiti government has gone as far as flirting with the idea of moving its entire stateless Bidoon community to Comoros, a remote African island, as a way to rid itself of the generational problem. (Recently the Kuwaiti government reached a deal with the Comoros to grant stateless Bidoons citizenship of the island, and has started issuing Comoros passports. Human rights groups fear this might be a precursor for mass deportations, since nations can’t deport officially stateless people under international law.)
Now, with the DNA database, the government will be able to map the populations’ genes going back across generations, determining who might have gotten citizenship through one of these plots. Essentially, the law will allow the government to restrict access to citizenship based on verifiable bloodlines, while punishing those who skirted the system to get citizenship. The benefits that come with citizenship would be stripped.
“I think that we reserve the word ‘draconian’ for instances such as this one,” Wafa Ben Hassine, a Tunisia-based legal expert and former Electronic Frontier Foundation fellow, told me. “They went from violating the right to privacy to violating a human being’s right to an education and healthcare.”
Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which every nation but the U.S. has ratified, children should be granted citizenship of the country they were born in. For generations, Kuwait has ignored these international norms when it comes to its Bidoon population.
“As the law was being passed, people who knew the intricacies of the Bidoon issue were saying, ‘This law has nothing to do with terrorism and criminal activity, but it has more to do with the state at a moment when oil prices are down and the state has to suddenly talk about taxing its own citizens and cutting all sorts of benefits,'” Belkis Wille, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, told me. “This might actually be an attempt to significantly cut the benefits to this community.”
“Part of the reason the committee is very concerned about it is because of the prospect of copycat laws by other countries.”- United Nations Human Rights Committee member Sarah Cleveland
A United Nations Human Rights Committee urged the law to be amended last month, asking that DNA only be collected following specific court orders, for specific investigations. The law “imposes unnecessary and disproportionate restrictions on the right to privacy”, the committee said.
“Part of the reason the committee is very concerned about it is because of the prospect of copycat laws by other countries,” panel member Sarah Cleveland said at a briefing, according to Reuters. “It’s certainly the first time our committee has seen such a law.”
The law itself has provisions outlining criminal penalties for people who publicly release data, but it doesn’t give any specific details about how government bodies can get access to it, or how judicial oversight might work.
“The problem is that the law was passed very quickly,” said Wille.
Some experts have suggested that the prospect of mapping family trees might be more a scare tactic than actually carrying out a grand plan.
“The intention is extraordinarily troubling, but on top of that, it’s important to call into question the science they claim underlies it,” Dr. Debra Mathews, PhD, the Assistant Director for Science Programs at the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University, told me. “I’m pretty convinced that they can’t do what they say they can do. You can’t look at someone’s DNA and tell definitively whether they are a member of an ethnic group.”
“They might be using the idea of genetic testing as some sort of smokescreen, and actually they’re just going to test people who are from Bidoon families and take their citizenship away,” added Harrington-Reddy.
Visitors and tourists will also be affected by the law. A station is being set up at the airport which will require all new arrivals to submit their DNA through cheek swabs or blood samples. An official from the State Department told me that the department is “aware” of the law, but declined comment on whether it has raised concerns with the Kuwaiti government. An official from the Pentagon told me that military staff on the many U.S. bases and camps in Kuwait “are not currently affected by this requirement,” and declined further comment.
Officials at the Kuwaiti embassy and Ministry of the Interior did not respond to requests for comment.
The exact timetable for when DNA collection will fully go into effect has been changed a few times, but the first step in the process is imminent. The country’s first batch of its new e-passports are expected to be received as early as this week, reported the Arab Times, and issuing DNA samples will be mandatory in order to receive them. Centers for residents and citizens will soon be set up around the country. Newborn babies will also be tested.
“DNA will be a condition to register babies older than six months, be born in or outside Kuwait in order to prevent unlawfully adding anybody to citizenship files,” Major General Mazen Al-Jarrah, the Ministry of Interior’s Assistant Undersecretary for Citizenship and Passports, told the Kuwait Times.
I’m sure it’s going to have unintended consequences.”- Julia Harrington-Reddy, head of equality and inclusion, Open Society Justice Initiative
Another way that the law might stand to be a game changer is that it will likely expose adulterers and women who have had children outside their marriage–crimes that carry severe punishments in the country, which closely abides by Islamic law. The Islamic Organization for Medical Sciences, a Kuwait-based religious/medical policy group with broad influence in the Muslim world, has endorsed DNA evidence as a way to establish genealogies in the context of Islamic family courts.
“In the long run it could have very damaging implications, because people who they want to be Kuwaiti will end up not being Kuwaiti,” said Harrington-Reddy. “I don’t know what Kuwait really thinks they’ll end up with, but I’m sure it’s going to have unintended consequences.”
For instance, what if the Bidoons are more closely related to “official” Kuwaitis than anticipated? What if DNA testing reveals improprieties within the ruling families?
“How many stories of fathers finding out their child isn’t theirs are we going to hear about soon?” asked the blog Life in Kuwait, which is maintained by an anonymous American woman who lives in the country.
“A giant can of worms is about to be opened,” she wrote.