Current Evidence of the Generalized Regression of Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa

by Wissam al-Saliby

As I was going through Facebook a few days ago, I saw the following post by an Egyptian friend.

Facebook Disappearances 2

This seeming human rights violation by Egyptian authorities is symptomatic of a greater and general regression with respect to fundamental human rights in the stable States in the Middle East and North Africa.

In Turkey this month, the United Nations and Human Rights Watch accused Turkish security forces of committing serious human rights violations against Turkish civilians and Syrian refugees. Media, freedom of speech and of opinion is threatened amid political and security tensions.

In Tunisia, Egypt and Israel human rights activists risk prosecution and the freezing of their assets. Earlier this month, Egypt arrested members of a satirical street troupe for their improvised street films, critical of the Egyptian president, which went viral. Even the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah followed suit this month and detained a 27-year old for his Facebook posts.

This month, Israel jailed a Palestinian beautician over her Facebook post. Israel had also detained a circus trainer and performer. A Palestinian journalist was sentenced to 9 months in Israeli jails for “Facebook incitement”, while Israelis were freely shouting “Death to the Arabs” in a Tel Aviv rally during the same period. In April 2016, Amnesty International condemned Israeli statements calling for violence and harm against peaceful activists demanding the boycott of Israel until it complies with international law. While Israel has killed nonviolent peace activists[1] in the past, public threats against boycott movement activists are new.

This week, after 25 years of bringing cases to Israel’s military court and supporting investigations into the killings of Palestinians, B’Tselem, a foremost Israeli human rights group has said “there is no longer any point” to submitting complaints.

“B’Tselem’s cooperation with the military investigation and enforcement system has not achieved justice, instead lending legitimacy to the occupation regime and aiding to whitewash it,”

their report noted.

In March, Bahraini security forces arrested prominent Shiite human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja and her 15-month-old son. Bahrain’s population consists of a majority of Shiites ruled by a Sunni minority, who remain in power with the military support of the Arab Gulf States.

Morocco is currently objecting to a damning report by the United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor on Human Rights Practices for 2015. This report mentions widespread disregard for the rule of law by security forces who are infringing on freedom of speech and press, limiting freedom of assembly and association, and restricting the right to practice one’s religion.[2]

And one of the longest standing human rights issue in the Gulf States, migrant rights, is nowhere near a solution. Last year, a BBC team was invited by Qatar’s prime minister’s office to see improvements for foreign workers in Qatar. Qatari police arrested the BBC team soon after they went off independently “gathering additional material for their report.”

This increase in oppression and violations of human rights is taking place with a backdrop of severe regional crises:

  • Iranian-Saudi cold war.
  • Bombings, killings and war crimes in Syria, committed by all warring parties. (One month ago, hospitals were bombed by both government forces and opposition forces.)
  • The Arab Gulf States’ attack on Yemen, led by Saudi Arabia, with a heavy toll on the civilian population and large-scale destruction. (US Congressman Ted Lieu wrote that either the coalition is grossly negligent in its targeting or is intentionally targeting innocent civilians.)
  • Israeli occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights.
  • Instability and fighting in Libya with ISIS becoming a bigger threat.
  • Renewed tension over the Western Sahara, between Morocco and the ethnic Sahrawi people who inhabit the disputed Western Sahara territory.
  • Iraq is in effect divided into three parts and terror suicide bombings are taking place in Baghdad and elsewhere.
  • South Sudan, following its widely celebrated and Western-backed independence, has become embroiled in a gruesome civil war.
  • The international community is failing to protect Syrian refugees, and it seems that the asylum system set up after the Second World War is falling apart.

To further understand the dynamics behind this generalized regression of human rights in the MENA region, we need to understand the West’s collusion with human rights violations in this region.

This is not a new assertion. Western States are led by their (perceived) foreign policy interests in the Middle East and North Africa, which include energy concerns, natural resources, military presence, business interest, Israel, and recently, stemming the flow of asylum seekers. This Western collusion can range from political support at the UN Security Council to the provision of weapons and police equipment used to violate human rights.

Shadi Mokhtari, Managing Editor of the Muslim World Journal of Human Rights, wrote the following about the 2011 Egyptian Revolution:

“Tahrir Square was as much of a challenge to the United States and its seemingly unshakable political support for the Mubarak regime as it was a direct challenge to the regime itself. In effect, Egyptians impelled the United States to shift from a foreign policy that undermines human rights to one that is more consistent with its human rights rhetoric.”[3]

Today, the same holds true for Egypt’s ruling party and president Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. NPR’s May 10th coverage asserts that “some U.S. lawmakers and activists have called on the government to suspend military aid to Egypt over its violent crackdown on dissent.” However, “Washington views President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi as an important partner in maintaining stability in the region.”

In recent years, Sudan has slowly made the move from being an ally of Iran to an ally of Saudi Arabia, who in turn is an ally of the West. Consequently, could Sudan be making its comeback to the international community at the expense of the ongoing pursuit of Sudanese president Al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against humanity? On May 13, German newspaper Der Spiegel broke the (scandalous) news that the EU will be working with the Al-Bashir government to stem the flow of refugees from African nations. All the while, the Sudanese government persecution of its Christian minority is ongoing, without any high profile cases to make international headlines.

In Bahrain, Maryam al-Khawaja, sister of detained human rights advocate Zainab al-Khawaja, said that continued US silence over the regime’s human rights abuses is helping to facilitate her sister’s and father’s continued detention.

“Until there is international accountability, especially from close allies like the United States, we’re never going to have local accountability in Bahrain,” says al-Khawaja. Nicholas McGeehan, a Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that:

“Her imprisonment should cause heads to hang in shame in Washington. Where the Gulf States are concerned, the U.S., the U.K., and the EU have not taken the side of brave and intelligent reformers like al-Khawaja, but with anti-democratic, rights-abusing monarchs.”

The US and the UK have military bases in Bahrain.

The US also supports the Saudi-led War in Yemen, the latter having conducted air strikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of International Humanitarian Law. This Foreign Policy article, from April 25, 2016, asserts that:

“Working through its military allies — principally the United States, Britain, and Egypt — Saudi Arabia has succeeded in blocking actions to restrain its military conduct and highlight humanitarian costs of the conflict.”

When it comes to the choice between peace with the Palestinians and land, Israeli leadership has opted for land: more settlement, more expropriation of Palestinian property, more destruction of Palestinian homes, an ongoing colonial enterprise, the ongoing siege of Gaza and oppression of any form of resistance by Palestinians. Why wouldn’t they? Last April, President Obama proposed granting Israel the largest package of military aid ever provided by the United States to another nation. And the Palestinians are so dispossessed that they have nothing to offer at the table of negotiations.

Russia‘s bombing campaign in Syria, as well as its diplomatic efforts, have supported President Bashar al-Assad. This support stems from – but not limited to – Russian interests in maintaining military naval bases in a key and influential area.

As I was writing this blog, the world’s first humanitarian summit took place in Istanbul. Hundreds of humanitarian NGOs, including Geneva Call (with whom I have worked), and Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian non-profits that I support, invested time and effort in this summit. However – out of skepticism or maybe out of realism – I tend to believe Doctors without Borders, who pulled out of the World Humanitarian Summit, stating that “the summit has become a fig-leaf of good intentions, allowing these systematic violations, by states above all, to be ignored.” One critical issue that I believe the summit avoided is an arms embargo on culprit States. How can you address humanitarian concerns without addressing the weapons at the root of these concerns? One additional skeptical point of view is this Foreign Policy article: “The U.N.’s World Humanitarian Summit Is a Total Mess” (May 19, 2016).

Where do we go from here? Is there a global crisis of values? What role, if any, can the churches in the West play to foster the respect of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa? Inshallah (God willing), I will soon write a follow up post to attempt to answer these questions. For now, I leave you with these questions to ponder on.

_________________

[1] Nonviolent peace activists and organizers killed by Israel include Basem Abu Rahme in Bil’in, Hashem Azzeh in Hebron, and Mustafa Tamimi in Nabi Saleh.

[2] In a Google search on May 21, 2016, I found a reference to a seemingly fabricated article on this website: www.moroccoworldnews.com. This article said that the US apologizes to Morocco for ‘mistakes’ in its human rights report. The article could no longer be found online nor could I find any corroboration of it elsewhere.

[3] Shadi Mokhtari, The Middle East and Human Rights: Inroads Towards Charting its Own Path, 10 Nw. J. Int’l Hum. Rts. 194 (2012). http://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/njihr/vol10/iss4/2

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