Sunday, December 13, 2009


By William Fisher

Human rights abuses in Arab countries have increased throughout the Middle East and North Africa during 2009, according to the Annual Report of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

The report, entitled “Bastion of Impunity, Mirage of Reform,” reviews “deteriorating” human rights developments during 2009 in 12 Arab countries: Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Yemen.

In a separate chapter, the report addresses what it calls the “limited progress” made to advance women’s rights and gender equality. It says that Arab governments “use the issue of women’s rights to burnish their image before the international community while simultaneously evading democratic and human rights reform measures required to ensure dignity and equality for all of their citizens.”

The report says that while Iraq is still the largest arena of violence and civilian deaths, “the country witnessed a relative improvement in some areas, though these gains remain fragile.” It added that “the death toll has dropped and threats against journalists are less frequent. In addition, some of the major warring factions have indicated they are prepared to renounce violence and engage in the political process.”

In Egypt, as the state of emergency approaches the end of its third decade, the Report charges that “the broad immunity given to the security apparatus has resulted in the killing of dozens of undocumented migrants, the use of lethal force in the pursuit of criminal suspects, and routine torture.”

It also observes that “other signs of deterioration were visible in 2009: the emergency law was applied broadly to repress freedom of expression, including detaining or abducting bloggers. Moreover, the Egyptian police state is increasingly acquiring certain theocratic features, which have reduced some religious freedoms, and have lead to an unprecedented expansion of sectarian violence within the country.”

In its blatant contempt for justice, the report says, the Sudanese regime is “the exemplar for impunity and the lack of accountability.” The Bashir regime “is hunting down anyone in the country who openly rejects impunity for war crimes, imprisoning and torturing them and shutting down rights organizations.” Meanwhile “the government’s policy of collective punishment against the population of Darfur continues.”

The report says that the deterioration in Yemeni affairs “may presage the collapse of what remains of the central state structure due to policies that give priority to the monopolization of power and wealth, corruption that runs rampant, and a regime that continues to deal with opponents using solely military and security means.”

In Lebanon, the report says, the threat of civil war that loomed last year has receded, but “the country still suffers from an entrenched two-tier power structure in which Hizbullah’s superior military capabilities give the opposition an effective veto.” As a result, the report says, “the state’s constitutional institutions have been paralyzed.”

In Tunisia, the report finds that “the authoritarian police state continued its unrestrained attacks on political activists, journalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, and others involved in social protest.” At the same time, it notes, “the political stage was prepared for the reelection of President Ben Ali through the introduction of constitutional amendments that disqualified any serious contenders.

In Algeria, the report says, “the emergency law, the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, and the application of counterterrorism measures entrenched policies of impunity, grave police abuses, and the undermining of accountability and freedom of expression. Constitutional amendments paved the way for the installment of President Bouteflika as president for life amid elections that were contested on many levels, despite the lack of real political competition.”

Morocco, the report concludes, has seen “a tangible erosion of the human rights gains achieved by Moroccans over the last decade. A fact most clearly seen in the failure if the government to adopt a set of institutional reforms within the security and judicial sectors intended to prevent impunity for crimes.”

The report finds that, as Syria enters its 47th year of emergency law, it continues to be distinguished by “its readiness to destroy all manner of political opposition, even the most limited manifestations of independent expression.” It notes that the Kurdish minority “was kept in check by institutionalized discrimination, and human rights defenders were targets for successive attacks.” The report says the president of the Sawasiyah human rights organization was arrested and tried, and his attorney, the former chair of the Syrian Human Rights Association, was referred to a military tribunal. “The offices of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression were shut down, and Syrian prisons still hold dozens of prisoners of conscience and democracy advocates,” the report charges.

In Bahrain, the report says, the “systematic discrimination against the Shiite majority was accompanied by more repression of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Human rights defenders increasingly became targets for arrest, trial, and smear campaigns. Some human rights defenders were even subjected by government agents to threats and intimidation while in Europe.”

In Saudi Arabia, the report notes that the Monarch’s speeches urging religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue abroad have not been applied inside the Kingdom, where “the religious police continue to clamp down on personal freedom.” The organization says “repression of religious freedoms is endemic, and the Shiite minority continues to face systematic discrimination.” Counterterrorism policies were used to justify long-term arbitrary detention, and political activists advocating reform were tortured. These policies also undermined judicial standards, as witnessed by the prosecution of hundreds of people in semi-secret trials over the last year, the report says.

In tandem with these abuses and “lack of accountability for such crimes” within Arab countries, the report notes that “various Arab governments and members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference have been working in concert within UN institutions to undermine international mechanisms and standards for the protection of human rights.

“On this level, Arab governments have sought to undercut provisions that bring governments to account or seriously assess and monitor human rights. This is most clearly illustrated by the broad attack on independent UN human rights experts and NGOs working within the UN, as well as attempts to legalize international restrictions on freedom of expression through the pretext of prohibiting ‘defamation of religions’,” the report says.

The report also condemns what it terms “the grave and ongoing Israeli violations of Palestinian rights, particularly the collective punishment of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip through the ongoing blockade and the brutal invasion of Gaza at the beginning of 2009 which resulted in the killing of more than 1,400 Palestinians, 83 percent of them civilians not taking part in hostilities.”

It notes that “The plight of the Palestinian people has been exacerbated by the Fatah-Hamas conflict, which has turned universal rights and liberties into favors granted on the basis of political affiliation. Both parties have committed grave abuses against their opponents, including arbitrary detention, lethal torture, and extrajudicial killings.”

The report is also critical of the Arab League and its summit forums for offering ongoing support for the Bashir regime in Sudan despite charges of war crimes, and members of the organization used the principle of national sovereignty as a pretext to remain silent about or even collaborate on grave violations in several Arab states. The report says, “Little hope should be invested in the Arab League as a protector of human rights regionally.”

Good News 2009

By William Fisher

OK, OK. I know. It’s time for my annual good news column.

It’s a deal I made with a friend to make up for all the depressing news stories I had to write this year.

This was no easy task. Aside from the end of the Bush era, and the election of Barack Obama, there wasn’t all that much good news to be had. But perseverance paid off: My discovery of a fitting subject came during a session of the U.S. Senate on C-SPAN, that exciting channel sponsored by the cable industry.

Amidst the hollow echo of a totally empty Senate chamber (did you know the C-SPAN cameras are only allowed to focus on whoever is speaking, and never allowed to pan the whole chamber, full of empty seats?) stood a Republican senator, voice quivering, arms flailing, face reddening, railing against our National Security Enemy Number One, the American Civil Liberties Union.

Now, what was this legislative grandstander getting so apoplectic about? The ACLU’s activities in coordinating defense teams for detainees at Guantanamo.

But why he should have been surprised – or acting surprised – is a mystery. The ACLU has been doing this kind of unpopular stuff for almost a century.

Let’s go all the way back to World War I. Then, the National Civil Liberties Bureau, the ACLU’s predecessor, defended the First Amendment rights of antiwar dissidents in the face of massive government repression. The administration of President Woodrow Wilson (winner of the Nobel Peace Prize!) banned anti-war literature from the mails and prosecuted individuals for merely expressing opposition to the war, or criticizing the President. Just like some Third World dictatorship!

People were convicted and sentenced to ten-year prison terms for allegedly interfering with the draft, even though they had said nothing about the draft itself.

These prosecutions were initially upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. But later the Court affirmed the principle that the First Amendment protects the right to criticize the government – even during wartime.

A generation later, the ACLU was the only national organization to challenge the government's World War Two evacuation and internment of the Japanese-Americans while organizations of every political stripe, fearful of alienating the government, pretended not to notice.

Today all of us except the truly delusional acknowledge that this was one of the darkest chapters in American civil rights history.

Then, just a few years after the war, in 1949, an ex-Catholic priest named Arthur Terminiello delivered a racist and anti-Semitic speech to the Christian Veterans of America. The Chicago Police Department was present, but was unable to completely maintain order. Terminiello was charged with violating Chicago's breach of peace ordinance and fined a hundred dollars.

Terminiello appealed and the ACLU successfully defended him before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case, known as Terminiello v. Chicago, established the legal precedent for the ACLU's successful defense of the civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s and '70s.

Many other unsavory characters have been defended by the ACLU. Like the Neo-Nazis who claimed the right to march in Skokie, Illinois, in 1979. At the time, the ACLU’s Executive Director was Aryeh Neier, whose relatives had died in Hitler's concentration camps during World War II. Neier said: "Keeping a few Nazis off the streets of Skokie will serve Jews poorly if it means that the freedoms to speak, publish or assemble any place in the United States are thereby weakened."

I wish the folks we send to Congress to represent us knew more American history – or chose to remember it. But, after ACORN, there is arguably no easier target for a rabble-rousing, demagogic lawmaker than the ACLU.

And these icons of good governance lose no opportunity to go the floor of the House and Senate to inveigh against it.

But they might be well advised to remember that the ACLU is an outfit to which they might one day find themselves having to reach out to defend their First Amendment rights to speak their mind – including the right to say stupid things.