Issues for the human rights movement in volatile political and social contexts Seventy years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The CIHRS organized the 21st Regional Forum in Tunisia on November 3–4, 2018, bringing together a group of human rights defenders, researchers, academics, and journalists and media workers, as well as representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Some 50 participants from 13 countries attended, coming from Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Germany, Iran, and the US. The forum’s inaugural session was presided over by Kamel Jendoubi, the head of the UN international and regional expert team in Yemen, and included speeches from Bushra Belhaj Hamida, the president of the Committee for Individual Freedoms and Equality in Tunisia; Andrew Gilmour, the UN assistant secretary-general for human rights and the head of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York; and Bahey eldin Hassan, the director of the CIHRS.
Rowaq Arabi previously published papers discussed during the 21st Regional Forum of the Human Rights Movement in the Arab World
The following are the conclusions of the 21st Regional Forum:
- Rights groups in the Arab world need to build an integrated, long-term vision for defending human rights, preserving the human rights movement itself, and confronting the crackdowns that followed the Arab Spring. It is therefore necessary to strive to articulate a strategic vision for rights work that goes beyond local borders and engages with new regional and international challenges. This also requires strengthening alliances and networking with rights organizations in the region; aspiring to collective action with local, regional, and international partners; and developing modes of actions, discourse, and approaches to enable the movement to constructively meet the challenges and new developments it faces.
- The challenges after the Arab Spring are not only external – in the form of repressive regimes or major shifts in the international community – there are also profound problems within the rights movement that it must courageously confront and address. These include at times inconsistent stances due to shortsightedness or the influence of political and ideological affiliations; a poor professional culture; a lack of appreciation for the work and a failure to coordinate with other organizations; or a failure to appreciate the importance of developing a strategic vision for change and the achievement of goals. This requires a frank, honest, and probing discussion of internal issues and problems. Such discussions may not necessarily produce immediate solutions to internal crises, but it is important for them to first pose the necessary, correct questions. This is what the 21st Regional Forum attempted to do.
- The unprecedented waves of repression launched by counterrevolutions in the region have weakened or split some independent local rights coalitions that had previously successfully cooperated with positive impact. Many human rights defenders in more than one Arab country emigrated to find a relatively safer work environment. Disputes arose between some organizations that had different responses to the crackdowns, and these disputes went beyond an assessment of the political landscape and the setting of priorities, to sharply polarize movement members in more than one country. Human rights defenders who are determined to preserve their independence and continue working must learn from the previous experience of other rights groups that lived through similar conditions, such as the Chilean movement under Pinochet or the Tunisian movement under Ben Ali. Both movements were extremely active abroad and were vocal in exposing human rights violations and defending activists at home. Most rights groups currently operating outside their countries have partners and cadres in their countries of origin. They also enjoy advantages unavailable to Chilean defenders in the diaspora in the 1970s, such as the communications revolution and the capacities it offers for outreach, research, publication, and extensive expertise in international advocacy and networking. This offers the movement strong opportunities to have an influence, which must be exploited.
- The rights movement is accommodating a new generation of defenders and organizations, some of them in exile, whether involuntarily or chosen in search of security and freedom to act, in light of authoritarian regimes’ hostility to human rights defenders. Some of these new organizations enjoy flexibility and an ability to have an impact through international advocacy, which could be useful for organizations still based in their countries of origin. Some of these groups have also managed to establish new alliances and coalitions abroad, but coordination and networking is limited to organizations from the same country. It would be useful to extend this networking to organizations from different countries and to devise a strategy for the defense of human rights and the support of the movement throughout the region.
- Over the last decade, due to the suppression of political parties, many political activists in the Arab region, with diverse ideological commitments, have founded human rights organizations as an alternative way to engage in politics. Many of them have adhered to the values and standards of human rights, as demonstrated in their performance over many years. Others, however, have tended to defend human rights selectively using double standards. For these groups, rights work has not changed the ideas of their members—whether nationalist, Islamist, liberal, or leftist—or influenced their assessment of political developments from a human rights perspective. On the contrary, these groups have attempted to bend human rights discourse to serve their parties or ideologies. This has been seen in recent years in the divergent stances of civil society organizations in the Arab region on the humanitarian disaster in Syria, demonstrated either in public statements and stances or silence when faced with ongoing grave abuses of a kind not seen in decades. While rights groups in Arab states based their discourse on the demand for regional and international solidarity, some of these groups have remained totally silent on the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria while others were silent for years about the killing, displacement, and imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and have spoken only to support the regime responsible for these crimes. Rights groups must undertake a serious reconsideration of the rights discourse in Arab organizations and examine how to prevent rights platforms from being used to serve political ends, through debates that involve every interested rights group. This could mean that the movement needs to engage in a new type of advocacy effort that seeks not to influence governments, but rather the discourse and practices of rights groups themselves, to make them more consistent with international human rights standards.
- Human rights organizations and political Islamist groups have had a fraught relationship for decades due to the sharp differences in their ideological premises. A broad segment of the rights movement was able to move beyond the old debate about whether rights organizations should support victims of human rights violations affiliated with political Islam. The response of independent organizations was to defend all victims without distinction, even though human rights defenders themselves have been victims of some Islamist regimes. As rights groups affiliated with Islamists have been formed in recent years, the debate within the independent rights movement today is how to deal with these groups and whether they should be treated as a partner or ally in the defense of human rights. Independent rights organizations adopt divergent positions on these new arrivals: some approach them cautiously, seeing their establishment as a tactical response to the suppression of Islamist groups in the region rather than a genuine belief in the human rights system; others assess the situation and monitor the performance of rights defenders affiliated with political Islam, considering the possibility of cooperation on some campaigns and issues.
- Accountability or civic peace? This is a contentious question because civic peace seems incompatible with justice, accountability for perpetrators of violations, and restitution for victims. But it must be kept in mind that local and international instruments are not effective enough to bring justice, and require further development. Rights organizations that wish to pursue accountability must consider how to approach the dilemma they face; for example, if the victims’ priority is peace, even at the expense of justice.
- The Arab Spring uprisings were a striking manifestation of the accumulating economic crises in recent years. The burgeoning social movements in more than one Arab state merit the attention of the human rights movement; they can be treated as an ally in the protection of economic and social rights and in support of the human rights movement against authoritarian regimes. A regional approach is also important to confronting the economic and social challenges facing the region.
- The human rights movement in the Arab region must closely examine the impact of regional and international shifts on its existence and sustainability. It must understand the implications of the debate currently underway about “the endtimes of human rights.” The international community’s moral and political support of human rights issues has declined markedly following the Arab Spring. After the uprisings failed to reach their goals, Western capitals chose to throw their support behind oppressive, autocratic regimes in fear of state collapse, the rise of terrorist groups, and increasing migrant flows. This coincided with political and social changes and increased economic pressures in the West, where elites have increasingly embraced far right forces, and isolationist, racist tendencies have come to the fore. All of these developments work to the benefit of authoritarian regimes in the Global South. In addition, the dictatorships in the Gulf monarchies have acted to stifle the impact of the Arab Spring uprisings by supporting counterrevolutions or launching barbaric wars with massive casualties undeterred. This is what the rights movement must grapple with. It must begin to explore new allies to be able to continue the defense of human rights and the battle for its own existence, as eliminating independent rights groups is a goal of regimes in the region.
- In some Western states, the rise of a new elite and far right forces opposed to democratic and human rights values does not mean that Western societies are free of voices or institutions that support victims of human rights violations and the rights movement in the South. Some Western legislatures—for example, the European Parliament and the US Congress—at times take pivotal positions in support of human rights victims in the Arab region. The rights movement can build on this and take advantage of the opportunities it offers to support human rights issues.
- The human rights movement in the Arab region must examine how to cooperate with and benefit from international media, whose freedom gives it the ability to influence decision makers in the West and the region on human rights issues in Arab states. As governments in major states tried to ignore the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey, permitting the Saudi regime to escape punishment, the Western media played an important role in spotlighting the case, refusing to let it be forgotten, until Saudi Arabia ultimately confessed to the assassination. The media continued to expose Saudi Arabia’s record of rights violations against its citizens and its war crimes in Yemen, campaigning to end Western support for the kingdom’s war in Yemen and arms sales. Human rights movements should learn from this experience, seeking to strengthen cooperation with Western media outlets, particularly given the systematic destruction of freedom in local media, the absence of any dissident or opposition voice, and the keen desire to subordinate media in the region to the security establishment.
- There must be a recognition of the importance of a regional approach to the human rights movement in the Arab world: a common debate on issues and challenges facing the movement in the region and a regional working strategy are needed. The goals of joint regional action should not be limited to analyzing external and domestic challenges to the movement and articulating plans to address these. The movement should also have the goal of contributing to the global discussion on the end of human rights. After all, the movement does not seek to improve the human rights situation solely in the region, but is a basic component of the global movement for human rights everywhere.
 Academic Stephen Hopgood predicts the coming end of human rights, arguing that the transition to a multipolar world will push the Security Council to focus on issues of peace and security and abandon human rights issues. In turn, interest in human rights will be confined to ineffectual discussions, perhaps in the UN Human Rights Council. This shift is occurring due to the absence of a global hegemonic force that acts to promote human rights values, whose influence is fading in international relations. In this context, Hopgood points to the weak role of the International Criminal Court and the repeated failure of the international community to protect civilians in conflicts like Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. Hopgood believes that the world is entering a phase in which each state gives primacy to its international affairs and prioritizes the principle of non-interference in other states’ affairs, which will have an impact on the protection of human rights. Ultimately, the concept of human rights itself will become contentious or be rejected by certain influential parties in various communities, and the international human rights movement will be weakened and its influence will decline with time. For more details see Stephen Hopgood (2013), The Endtimes of Human Rights, Cornell University Press.
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