Friday, February 20, 2009


By William Fisher

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama must take a leadership position in championing human rights in the Middle East and North Africa by using U.S. economic and trade leverage and confronting the growing global threat of authoritarianism being promoted by Arab regimes.

This is the view of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), whose recent annual report concludes that the region has witnessed a “grave deterioration of human rights while reform faces a dead end,” fuelled by increasingly repressive actions by many Arab countries acting in concert with the Arab League.

Moataz El fegiery, CIHRS Executive Director, told us, “Arab governments are turning the United Nations and the Arab League into platforms for exporting repression. The Arab League supports war criminals, anti-democratic coups, and restrictions on freedom of expression.”

In its first annual report, “From Exporting Terrorism to Exporting Repression”, CIHRS finds that “the status of human rights in the Arab region in 2008 has increasingly worsened. Attacks on the limited public and political liberties that exist have escalated in most countries in the region.”

“Advocates of reform and respect for human rights are the primary targets of repression” while “liberators have become executioners and weapons of resistance increasingly used against innocent civilians,” the report concludes.

It notes that while Islamists are no longer the central targets of repression, there is “rising religious extremism” triggered by ruling regimes allying with Salafis. Salafism is a movement that believes Islam was perfect and complete during the days of Muhammad and his companions, but that undesirable innovations have been added over the later centuries due to materialist and cultural influences. It seeks to revive a practice of Islam that more closely resembles the religion during the time of Muhammad.

The report says that, while “Islamists are less frequently targeted, there is an increase in repression of reformists, human rights defenders and activists, the independent press and electronic media, leaders of protest movements, and of other forms of political action in Arab countries. This has been accompanied by earnest attempts to export increasing domestic repression outside the Arab region through the international mechanisms of the UN and the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership Initiative.”

“Arab governments have made large individual and concerted efforts to silence independent non-governmental organizations or erase them from public visibility completely” while simultaneously “undermining their ability to promote human rights and provide protection for victims of rights violations,” the report charges.

The report documents the situation in 12 Arab countries and territories: Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Sudan, Lebanon, and Yemen.

It notes that in 2008 the Arab League “has become more expressive of authoritarian tendencies than any time in the past.”

The League “joined the leaders of the military coup in Mauritania in undermining the right of the Mauritanian people to democratically choose its leaders, and it rose in support of the Sudanese regime as the latter sought to evade accountability for the ongoing massacres in Darfur and in preventing Sudanese officials from appearing before the International Criminal Court. It has also become a platform from which to launch attacks on freedom of expression, particularly attacks on satellite and electronic media.”

The report states that “The Palestinian people have been a target of grave abuses, carried out in the shadow of the continuing criminal practices of the Israeli Occupational Forces and the bloody internal conflict between Hamas and Fatah.”

For the first time, the report adds, “the number of Palestinians killed as a result of internal fighting has exceeded the number killed as a result of Israeli attacks. Fatah and Hamas have outdone one another in their maltreatment of prisoners from the other side, engaging in the worst types of abusive practices.”

The report says that “Iraq remains the site of the gravest human rights abuses, which have led to the deaths of thousands of civilians, whether killed by American occupation forces, the Iraqi authorities, ongoing terrorist activity, or as part of the continued ethnic and communal violence and conflict.”

“Iraq is facing even further deterioration: Political and security arrangements are not standing on a firm foundation and rules for an equitable distribution of power and oil wealth have not been agreed upon. This may open additional fronts in the war or lead to the partition of Iraq.”

The report charges that “the Sudanese regime has shown a blatant disregard for the lives and suffering of the Sudanese people and for relevant international and regional resolutions, continuing its brutal attacks on villages and refugee centers in Darfur -- practices which have continued even after the President was indicted by the International Criminal Court.”

The regime in Sudan has also “continued to terrorize every national citizen or organization that refused to remain silent about the ongoing massacres in Darfur,” the report states.

The report notes “increased ethnic, religious, and sectarian tensions in several countries, especially in light of systematic discrimination against Shiites in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and confrontations with Kurds in Syria. It also points to rising sectarian tension in Egypt due to growing religious bigotry, fostered by a climate in which religion is exploited politically by both the government and Islamist groups.”

At the same time, the Egyptian government “refuses to address long-standing problems that intensify discrimination against Copts and other groups. The report also notes that religious freedoms are also subject to repressive measures in Saudi Arabia and Algeria.

The report notes that “political and civil rights in Egypt have been greatly eroded after the authorities used all possible means, legal and illegal, to disqualify the majority of candidates from the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition parties from running in local elections, and to prevent them from filing out their candidacy papers.”

“The elections themselves were carried out amid a broad arrest campaign targeting the Muslim Brothers and their candidates.”

The report points to “a general lack of independence and guarantees of justice in judicial systems throughout the region, as well as the plethora of exceptional courts. Democracy advocates, human rights defenders, minorities, bloggers, and journalists have all been subject to unfair trials in most countries.”

In addition, it claims that “those responsible for torture and grave police abuses are usually not subject to any form of judicial accountability and punishment.”

The report states that “the majority of ruling Arab regimes are gradually losing their political legitimacy as a result of their long-standing failure to resolve development problems and advance Arab societies, and for their refusal to base their legitimacy on free democratic choice. In fact, they are seeking to repair their tattered legitimacy by allying with Salafis, a move which only strengthens religious extremism and portends to the further erosion of human rights.”

Asked by this reporter what the Obama Administration could do to improve the human rights situation in Arab states, CIHRS Executive Director El fegiery voiced four priorities:

The U.S. should “mainstream human rights issues in any American diplomatic dialogue with the Arab states; use U.S. economic and trade leverage to encourage Arab States to step forward in human rights; promote international justice and civilian protection in the whole region without double standards; and be aware of the growing threat of global authoritarianism that is promoted by Arab Regimes in coalition with other famous hard abusers like China and Russia.”