Today, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) issues its third annual report on the state of human rights in the Arab world in 2010, with a special focus on 12 countries: Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Iraq, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Yemen.
The report is entitled Roots of Unrest, speaking to the distinctive popular revolutions sweeping across the Arab world, which have thus far toppled two of the most entrenched police dictatorships in the region, in Egypt and Tunisia, and is striking at the seats of other dictatorships in Libya and Yemen. The uprising is also compellingly imposing the need for serious, far-reaching reforms in several states, particularly Morocco, Bahrain, and Algeria, and is having repercussions in Syria, where people are living under a tyrannical regime that barely permits its citizens to breathe.
A thorough review of the report reveals that the primary roots of unrest in the Arab world are:
• A large-scale deterioration in the state of human rights, even in those countries that were, or still are, characterized by a level of ostensible political “stability.”
• A lack of political will among the Arab regimes to advance the status of human rights in their countries.
• Stagnant legislatures: Arab regimes have preserved an endless supply of legislation hostile to human rights, that is used to discipline and harass their opponents and prosecute reformists, human rights defenders, and advocates. This report notes some developments on the legislative front in 2010, mostly introduced to further restrict and suppress liberties, particularly in Egypt, Tunisia, and Sudan.
• The perpetuation of an authoritarian approach to entrench impunity and immunity for gross human rights violations.
• The use of states of emergency and counterterrorism laws to justify serious crimes, including extrajudicial killings, abductions and involuntary disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, and unfair trials, particularly in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia.
• The continuation of policies that cement and perpetuate absolute rule or hereditary succession, such as in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen; or secure systematic ethnic or sectarian social and economic discrimination and political exclusion, such as in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.
• The falsification of citizens’ will through rigged general elections. This report documents the contemptible practices of the Mubarak regime in administering the so-called parliamentary “elections” for the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council that were to precede the presidential elections of 2011. In the run-up to elections, the regime launched an unprecedented campaign of suppression that included incitement to kill demonstrators, the abduction of political activists, and a crackdown on media and new technologies for information dissemination. The situation differed little in Bahrain, where parliamentary elections were preceded by the widespread detention of hundreds of people, among them prominent political opposition figures and human rights defenders. Many of the detainees were brutally tortured before being referred to trial under the counterterrorism law.
General elections in Sudan were also conducted in a repressive climate that continued even after the vote. Election outcomes in Sudan were rigged by manipulating the census and gerrymandering electoral districts. There was open voter fraud, and the population of South and West Darfur were unable to vote, while violence and chaos prevented elections from taking place at all in several districts.
• Blocking outlets for peaceful expression by placing pressure on freedom of expression and the media, both traditional and new, especially in Yemen, Egypt, Sudan, and Bahrain. Morocco continued its policy of stifling the press, especially on issues relating to the King, the royal family, Islam, or the Western Sahara conflict.
• As for the regime of the now deposed Ben Ali in Tunisia, it continued its absolute confiscation of media freedoms and deployed the capacities of the police state to harass journalists and prosecute them on false charges. Various human rights defenders and political activists, as well as trade unionists, were placed under close surveillance and endured various forms of harassment and physical assault. Indeed, the media, totally dominated by the state, launched smear campaigns against many of these activists.
In Syria, the regime maintained its hostility and intolerance for freedom of expression and towards political activists and human rights defenders in general. The regime’s hostility was also particularly apparent when it came to the rights of the Kurdish minority. Yet, the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen surpassed even the Syrian regime over the course of last year, sending dozens of journalists to trial, where most of them received harsh prison terms and had their professional credentials revoked. Newspaper offices were stormed by state security, and several journalists were targets for physical attacks or assassination attempts. Both journalists and human rights defenders faced abductions, temporary disappearances, and torture, while some were then referred to exceptional courts lacking all due-process guarantees.
• The grave assault on the right to equality and freedom from religious or ethnic discrimination; especially in Bahrain against the Shiite majority; and in Egypt against Copts, Nubians, and the Bedouin residents of Sinai.
• The international community’s fading concern with human rights and democracy in the Arab region. Indeed, both the United States and the European Union increasingly allowed expediency and interests with authoritarian regimes trump the protection of human rights and the push for progress on democratic reform.
Human rights in armed conflicts
Following the methodology and logic of the first two annual reports, this report devotes special attention to the status of human rights during occupations or armed conflicts.
The report notes that Palestinians remain the targets of egregious abuses, both due to the Israeli occupation and the Fatah-Hamas conflict. Israeli crimes, most notably the use of collective punishment the siege of the Gazan population as well as the imposed blockade on Gaza continued. Last year, Israel attacked the Freedom Flotilla, a convoy ship attempting to bring in humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. Israel also continued to implement measures to Judaicize Jerusalem, further entrench settlements, and enforce apartheid, as well as maintain its policy of extrajudicial killings.
The ongoing conflict between Fatah and Hamas was accompanied by the politicization of rights and liberties, which were routinely violated on the basis of political affiliation. Authorities in both the West Bank and Gaza were involved in wide-ranging abuses against their perceived opponents, including arbitrary detentions, torture, crackdowns on freedom of assembly, NGOs, and human rights organizations, in addition to harassment of journalists and media workers.
Iraq remained the theater of the most lethal violence in the Arab world, which claimed nearly 4,000 lives in just ten months. Religious and ethnic minorities were constant targets for violence and random killing as a result of the dominance of extremist religious discourses and groups in Iraqi political and cultural life.
Hundreds of civilians were killed in military operations against Houthis in Saada, in northern Yemen, as Saudi Arabia joined combat operations on the side of the Yemeni army. The report also documents how the Yemeni authorities have used the war on terror as a pretext to launch military campaigns against the southern provinces, whose residents are involved in widespread protest against the policies of marginalization and exclusion and the ongoing repression of southern citizens.
The report further discusses the political crisis in Lebanon, as well as the sectarian divisions and the parallel power structure of the country, which has eroded significant elements of the rule of law. The institutions of governance and the judicial and security apparatus are unable to assume their responsibilities under pressure from Hizbullah, which uses its “weapons of resistance” to intimidate internal opponents in order to block justice in the case of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and the subsequent series of assassinations and bombings.
As for armed conflicts in Sudan, they continued to exacerbate human suffering and humanitarian crises in several areas and entailed the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and the death of many. As grave human rights abuses continued to go unpunished in many Arab states, the Sudanese regime was able to successfully circumvent the demands of international justice for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Darfur. At the same time, the international community failed to assume its responsibility for supporting the execution of arrest warrants issued by the International Criminal Court for President Omar al-Bashir and others accused of gross human rights violations.
In the same context, Israel practiced impunity for its crimes last year, not only due to the immunity afforded by the unwillingness of the US and Europe to hold the Israeli state accountable, but, as documented in the report, due to common interests and political calculations between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas. These common interests obstructed the referral of crimes committed during the Israeli attack on Gaza in December 2008 to the International Criminal Court.
Finally, the CIHRS hopes, as it releases its third annual report at this decisive moment for the peoples of this region, that the report can shed additional light on the paths that the Arab people took in order to deepen the gains of the revolutionary moment and make a clean break with authoritarianism, the monopolization of power, and the lack of accountability for violations of human dignity. CIHRS also hopes that Roots of Unrest will sound a warning for some states and encourage their ruling elites to take the initiative – before it is too late -to adopt far-reaching reforms that meet popular aspirations for freedom and human dignity and a secure transition to democracy.
This post is also available in: Arabic