Securitization of foreign policy produces
a false dichotomy of stability versus democracy
While addressing state representatives at today’s Summit for Democracy, Mohamed Zaree, the director of the Egypt Program at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), emphasized that “Respecting human rights walks hand in hand with stability. It therefore comes as no surprise that the most unstable region in the world is also one of the least democratic, and does not respect human rights.”
In his intervention before the Summit, Zaree, the 2017 Laureate of the Martin Ennals Award, said that “we must ask ourselves why” the democratic transition in the Arab region has failed.
One of the primary causes behind this failure, he asserted, is the international community’s preoccupation with “restoring order” over “supporting democratic transition.” The acute acceleration of foreign policy securitization in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks and the global war on terror, Zaree explained, “has produced a false dichotomy of stability versus democracy” which “still guides the international community’s approach towards the region till today.”
Mohamed Zaree was only able to participate online in the Summit for Democracy. He has been banned from traveling since 2016 by an investigative judge in Case 173 of 2011for his work with CIHRS; in 2019 his assets were frozen by another judge in retaliation for his human rights advocacy throughout the last decade. As Zaree noted “If we were required to travel, I wouldn’t have been able to be part of this gathering.” Yet he considers himself fortunate in comparison to the fates of many his peers in the human rights community: “My director has been sentenced to 18 years in prison for his work; my other colleagues are wasting away in prison for more than two years in pretrial detention. Some has been labeled as terrorists just because they have established human rights NGOs defending the rights of Egyptian citizens.”
CIHRS contributed to the Summit for Democracy by dedicating its 25th Forum for the Human Rights Movement in the Arab Region towards the preparation of recommendations for the heads of state attending the summit. With the participation of democracy and human rights advocates from Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen, the Forum identified the over-securitized counter-terrorism approach of the past two decades as a foremost challenge to the international community’s engagement on democracy in the region. Accordingly, the Forum’s recommendations called for the adoption of a fundamentally different approach to the international community’s engagement on both counter-terrorism and democracy promotion.
Despite the vital role of the Arab region in the promotion of global democracy and peace, it was considerably underrepresented at the Summit, a disheartening reality underscored by Bahey eldin Hassan, Director of CIHRS: “Only one state from the Arab region was invited to participate in the December 2021 Democracy Summit, this in itself is enough to summarize the reality of human rights and democracy in the Arab region.”
Mohamed Zaree is the only Egyptian and Arab human rights defender to participate in the Summit. He directly intervened in a main public discussion panel at the Summit, on “Expanding Civic Space: Empowering Human Rights Defenders and Independent Media Within and Across Borders.” The session was led by Samantha Power, Administrator of the US Agency for International Development and moderated by Damon Wilson, President and CEO of the National Endowment for Democracy. Speakers included heads of state Luis Rodolfo Abinader Corona, President of the Dominican Republic and Lazarus Chakwera, President of Malawi. Other prominent civil society and media representatives from the international community who spoke at the session were Irene Khan, the United Special Rapporteur on Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Opinion and Expression; Swe Win, Editor-in-Chief of Myanmar Now, and Sherrilyn Ifill, the President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Thank you Mr. Wilson.
I am only able to participate today, because this summit is virtual. If we were required to travel I wouldn’t have been able to be part of this gathering. My human rights work throughout the past decade has resulted in an arbitrary travel ban against me and a freezing of my personal assets. Yet I consider myself lucky. My director has been sentenced to 18 years in prison for his work, my other colleagues are wasting away in prison for more than two years in pretrial detention. Some has been labeled as terrorists just because they have established human rights NGOs defending the rights of Egyptian citizens. From this tragic personal story, you can draw the nexus between failed counterterrorism strategies and democracy. Short sighted policies supported by some of the governments gathering around the screens today have contributed to this bleak reality.
Respecting human rights walks hand in hand with stability. It therefore comes as no surprise that the most unstable region in the world is also one of the least democratic, and does not respect human rights. Even Tunisia’s promising transition is now backsliding, while Sudan’s transition is in yet another crisis as a result of the military’s interference in civilian governance.
Democratic transition in other countries across the region failed miserably in the wake of mass protests and movements calling for dignity and justice. And we must ask ourselves why? In my opinion, the international community was obsessed with restoring order more than supporting democratic transition. The securitization of foreign policy, which accelerated acutely in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the global war on terror, has produced a false dichotomy of stability versus democracy. This false dichotomy still guides the international community’s approach towards the region till today.
Thus in countries throughout the region, the international community has unequivocally supported authoritarianism, often in the name of counterterrorism cooperation or other military and security cooperation, or in the name of controlling irregular migration.
This international support has assumed the form of direct political backing through recognition, praise, and whitewashing authoritarian policies and human rights crimes; direct and indirect financial assistance, including through international financial institutions (IFIs); and through the selling of arms or military/police equipment and cyber espionage technology — often used against peaceful dissidents, democracy advocates, and human rights defenders in countries like Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
This approach has overlooked how terrorism is being used in the Arab region as a pretext to crackdown on peaceful dissent and consolidate power. In doing so, authoritarian governments effectively erode political and social spaces that act as a buffer against radicalization and civil conflicts; take for example Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, and Israel.
Two weeks ago, the organization that I represent – the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies – hosted a parallel regional forum to this summit. More than 20 HRDs from across the region gathered to discuss what this summit for democracy should do. Their message is clear and simple, and I would like to take this opportunity to convey it.In order for the Summit for Democracy to genuinely foster the growth of democracy and successfully stand against the global resurgence of authoritarianism, states dedicated to the promotion and protection of democracy and a rights-based global order must adopt a different approach to their foreign policies. This approach must move beyond treating democracy as a rhetorical tool, and instead place it within a framework that is interdependent and equal in importance to issues of stability and security. You still have the chance to implement this through new targeted policies towards Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Sudan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
MENA participants in the parallel summit emphasized that the de-securitization of foreign policy is an essential first step toward making a shift to policies that genuinely support democracy and encourage greater respect for human rights. Such a step would include downsizing military assistance in favor of assistance directed towards human rights, education and development.
Additionally, all forms of assistance must be subject to strict adherence to international human rights standards. Economic and developmental assistance must come under greater oversight and be tied to transparency obligations from recipient states. This would ensure that such assistance achieves its intended goal and is not lost to corruption and misuse. To this end, independent civil society and media, and a free and open public space, must be fundamental preconditions to any assistance.
Finally, the international community should mobilize its efforts to put an end to the misuse of counter-terrorism policies to target peaceful political opposition, crush independent society, and consolidate authoritarian power. States should take measures to adopt recommendations issued by the current and previous Special Rapporteurs on Promotion and Protection of Human while Countering Terrorism, including establishing a global definition for the crime of terrorism and a set of criteria for what constitutes terrorism.
To end, both democracy and stability are possible in the Arab region. Not only are they possible, but they must both be present for the other to exist. By supporting authoritarian governments in the name of democracy, the international community has not only closed the door to democracy in the region, but it has also accelerated even greater instability and decline in the region, which represents a danger to all of us. Stability walks hand in hand with human rights, and one without the other leads to the destruction of both. Thus I urge you, the international community, to genuinely center human rights in policy towards the region, for the sake of the people living there and the global community as a whole.
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