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|“Embrace diversity, end discrimination”
Human Rights Day 2009“A man spends his first years learning how to speak and the Arab regimes teach him silence for the rest of his life”
Algerian writer Ahlem Mosteghanemi, Memory in the Flesh
Bastion of Impunity, Mirage of Reform
Today the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies released its second annual report on the state of human rights in the Arab world for the year 2009. The report, entitled Bastion of Impunity, Mirage of Reform, concludes that the human rights situation in the Arab region has deteriorated throughout the region over the last year.
The report reviews the most significant developments in human rights during 2009 in 12 Arab countries: Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Yemen. It also devotes separate chapters to the Arab League and an analysis of the performance of Arab governments in UN human rights institutions. Another chapter addresses the stance of Arab governments concerning women’s rights, the limited progress made to advance gender equality, and how 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 observes 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. The report 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 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. As such, Yemen is now the site of a war in the northern region of Saada, a bloody crackdown in the south, and social and political unrest throughout the country. Moreover, independent press and human rights defenders who expose abuses in both the north and south are targets of increasingly harsh repression.
In its blatant contempt for justice, the Sudanese regime is the exemplar for impunity and the lack of accountability. President Bashir has refused to appear before the International Criminal Court in connection with war crimes in Darfur. Instead, his 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, as well as its evasion of responsibilities under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the north and south, making secession a more likely scenario, which may once again drag the country into a bloody civil war.
In Lebanon, 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 state’s constitutional institutions have been paralyzed.
In this context it took several months for the clear winner in the parliamentary elections to form a government. Now, even after the formation of a government, the unequal military balance of power between the government and the opposition will prevent serious measures to guarantee all parties accountable before the law, and greatly undermine the possibility of delivering justice for the many crimes and abuses experienced by the Lebanese people over the last several years.
Although Iraq is still the largest arena of violence and civilian deaths, it witnessed a relative improvement in some areas, though these gains remain fragile. 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 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. 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 Tunisia, 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, 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 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, unfortunately, 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. Morocco’s relatively improved status was also undermined by the intolerance shown for freedom of expression, particularly for expression touching on the king or the royal family, or instances of institutional corruption. Protests against the status of the Moroccan-administered Western Sahara region were also repressed and several Sahrawi activists were referred to a military tribunal for the first time in 14 years.
As Syria entered its 47th year of emergency law, it continued to be distinguished by its readiness to destroy all manner of political opposition, even the most limited manifestations of independent expression. The Kurdish minority was kept in check by institutionalized discrimination, and human rights defenders were targets for successive attacks. Muhannad al-Hassani, the president of the Sawasiyah human rights organization, was arrested and tried, and his attorney, Haitham al-Maleh, 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.
In Bahrain, 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. Indeed, 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.
In tandem with these grave abuses and the widespread 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.”
In the same vein, the Arab League and its summit forums offered 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. Little hope should be invested in the Arab League as a protector of human rights regionally. Indeed, the Arab Commission on Human Rights, created by the Arab Charter on Human Rights (a weak document compared to other regional charters), is partially composed of government officials, and the secretariat of the Arab League has begun to take measures to weaken the Commission, including obstructing the inclusion of NGOs in its work, intentionally undermining its ability to engage in independent action, even within the stifling constraints laid out by the charter.
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