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Human Rights in the Arab World: Reflections on the Challenges Facing Human Rights Activism

Hanny Megally

As we enter the twenty-first century, human rights activists in the Arab world are looking back at more than twenty-five years of activity and reflecting on their achievements and their failures. Successes have been few and far between, progress—when it has come—has been painstakingly slow, and human rights violations remain widespread across the region. During the same period human rights organizations have grown, diversified, and mushroomed across the region. These developments have led some activists to question the overall effectiveness and impact of their work. The future is full of challenges, ranging from the nondemocratic nature of the ruling regimes to the lack of legislative safeguards protecting rights, the preponderance of restrictive laws hindering free expression and association, and the need to develop new and more effective techniques. Yet the greatest challenge they face has to do with the perception that human rights is a foreign concept and that their activism lacks support and legitimacy in the region. If activists and their organizations have any chance of improving the human rights situation in the region they must urgently address these perceptions as they raise fundamental questions about the nature and effectiveness of their work.

Historically, human rights groups in the Arab world have developed in a seemingly hostile environment in which they have lacked political, legal, religious, cultural, or social legitimacy. In the 1970s and early 1980s the organizations’ founders—many of them leftist political activ- ists—turned to human rights activism after becoming disillusioned with the limited space for active political participation, with the one-party systems and rigged elections, and with the rigidity of the existing opposi-

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tion parties, which themselves lacked legitimacy or popular support. The founders had begun to see human rights as a tool to critique the policies of the existing regimes and a way of mobilizing local and international pressure to defend themselves and their colleagues against arbitrary reprisals by governments. Though some human rights activists were quick to shed the vestiges of their political past—and as the organizations developed they were joined by activists from other walks of life— governments nonetheless saw them as political opponents and not as independent, impartial advocates of universally held values and principles. They were also viewed with suspicion by many Islamists who, among other things, saw in the message of free expression, tolerance, and equality a threat to their own rigid interpretations of Islamic laws, customs, and practices. Even their erstwhile colleagues in the secular opposition viewed them as potential competition—an alternative movement and message—and cold-shouldered them.

Human rights organizations in the Arab world are under attack from all sides, while at the same time their discourse has been seized upon and used opportunistically by political parties, religious groups, and governments. The irony seems to be that the strengths of the movement are also its weaknesses. Islamist groups are resorting to human rights concepts and terminology in seeking to defend and protect their supporters in detention, at risk of unfair trial, torture, or execution. Yet these very Islamists appear to pose the biggest threat to the spread of human rights values and the growth of an activist rights movement in the region. Secular political opponents are raising the banner of human rights and the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet they have undermined those very principles by using human rights discourse as a tool for political gain in an environment where outright political opposition has not been tolerated. It is politics by proxy. Governments have also learned to pay lip service to human rights principles by constantly referring to such values in their public manifestations and by establishing human rights commissions, advisors, ministers, or departments in ministries.1

Hostility from the political establishment—governments and opponents alike—is not an insurmountable obstacle if counterbalanced by support among the masses. Yet there is little evidence of popular support in the region for human rights activism or for the principles and values that the activists espouse. Equally there is much information to suggest that human rights groups are still relatively unknown, their principles and motivations are widely misunderstood, and their activities continue to be viewed with suspicion. Admittedly, given the overall lack of freedom of expression and association across the region, it is difficult

to support this perception with empirical evidence. There have been no

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opinion polls, no mass rallies or demonstrations, and no membership bases to help measure the level of support for human rights activism.2 Nonetheless, in reviewing the historical development of the human rights movement in the Arab world there are some interesting clues that may shed light on its ability to muster support and legitimacy in the region.

The first lies in the character of the relationship between local and international human rights groups and how this has impacted the growth of the national or regional movement. Over the past four decades international human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have developed specific techniques and strategies for monitoring, reporting, and carrying out protection work. These have included campaigns involving global solidarity with the victims and direct international pressure on the violating governments; reliance on international fora, such as the United Nations, for putting violating governments in the dock; utilization of the international media as away of giving international public opinion a voice to mount external pressure; and emphasis on the principle of the universality of human rights as a way of preventing governments from reneging on their obligations by dishonestly pleading cultural or religious reasons. In the Arab world these tried and tested techniques were initially replicated by the local or national human rights organizations—often at the prompting and with the active encouragement of activists in international organizations—with spectacular effect. For example, in a region where governments appear immune to any internal pressures, many Arab governments showed themselves to be highly sensitive to international pressure. In a region where the media are tightly controlled by the state and often declines to publish the tracts and appeals of the local human rights groups, reliance on the international media and the support of the international human rights movement enabled them to broadcast their message. Often such publicity gave the domestic organizations international recognition and prestige, which they may have lacked at home, and afforded them some protection from arbitrary retaliation by governments.

However, by totally or overwhelmingly focusing on the international arena many domestic human rights groups neglected the process of developing their domestic constituency. In appreciating the relative success of the techniques used at the international level local groups sought to emulate them. However, the reliance on mobilizing outside pressure has proved to be a double-edged sword in the hands of activists in the Arab world. While this technique has often been used to good effect— especially by regional or international groups—when employed by local groups it brought into question their own patriotism and their loyalty to

the state and to national causes. Governments in the region were quick

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to recognize this Achilles heel and depicted human rights activists at best as unwitting tools in the hands of outside powers, or at worst as traitors to the national cause. These accusations have been repeated over the years by critics of the movement from all sides of the political spectrum and have found resonance in both the popular and the state- controlled Arab media. Although local activists endeavored to counter this deliberately misleading propaganda, they did not put the necessary resources into developing grassroots support or a human rights movement at home. Without a groundswell of domestic support activists were too easily portrayed by governments and other critics as puppets being manipulated by external forces.

By seeking to emulate the relative success of the international movement, the local human rights movement was also drawn more and more into activities at the international level. This necessitated attending annual meetings at the United Nations in Geneva, New York, or Vienna; participating in other international fora to ensure that local agendas were being heard; espousing international declarations, treaties, and conventions; and lobbying foreign governments. Such activities, legitimate as they are, did not exactly endear these organizations to their constituents back home, many of whom viewed the governments of Europe and the United States, if not the United Nations itself, as having shown time and time again that national self-interest, which ultimately defines their foreign relations, always comes first even at the price of turning a blind eye to human rights violations.3 Arab intellectuals were quick to point out that Iraq’s appalling human rights record—including the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds—was ignored by most governments while Iraq was an ally of the West and a bastion against the threat posed by Khomeini’s Iran. Once Saddam Hussein began asserting his independence by invading Kuwait and threatening Saudi Arabia’s oil fields, human rights violations that had previously been ignored or carefully shielded from public debate were suddenly highlighted and used to justify military action against Iraq. Double standards of this kind were and are recited all over the Middle East and North Africa with the overall effect of calling into question the motivations of the governments and institutions with whom the activists communicated and undermining the values contained in the human rights message.

The perception that the movement is too concerned with the international arena or that it is too influenced by agendas set abroad, and less with developing mass support or with responding to local needs, was further exacerbated by the near total dependence of a growing number of organizations on foreign funding. The acceptance or not of foreign funding has been a highly divisive issue within the human rights movement in the Arab world. Some avoided the risks associated with accept-

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ing such funding—risks that are often ones of perception rather than reality—and took clear-cut positions in refusing it. Others recognized that the benefits outweighed the risks and sought to ensure that their own plans or agendas were not compromised. Whatever the merits of the two positions, the reality has been that groups who accepted such funding grew spectacularly fast and were able to establish and expand their programs, often to great effect. Those who did not clearly struggled. This should come as no surprise in an environment where fundraising at the local level remains a difficult task and where human rights work has attained neither the popularity nor the respectability to make it a safe place for individuals or corporations to make donations. However, by accepting foreign funding groups provided further ammunition to those who sought to attack them, to question their integrity and loyalty, or to raise suspicions about who really controlled their agendas.

The availability of foreign funding may also have had an indirect but fundamental impact on the institutional development of human rights groups. In an era when such funds were not easily available, and in countries where this remains the case today, organizations have relied more heavily on a voluntary workforce and have focused more on local projects. Those who accepted such funds were less dependent on voluntary workers and placed more emphasis on national or international projects. The debate in the region about the strengths and weaknesses of what has been termed the “professionalization of human rights work’’ has not ended. Some lament the loss of the spirit of volunteerism while others point to the greater opportunities for effective work that have come with trained professional staff and greater resources. It is certainly clear from the reaction of those in power in Egypt and in the Palestinian Authority—two examples of areas where human rights groups have mushroomed in recent years and where many of them are dependent on foreign funding—that they feel threatened by the impact of such funding and will do everything to ensure that they can control the availability of such funds in the future.

A final key in understanding how human rights groups are perceived locally relates to how successful they have been in two areas—in adapting the message of universal human rights and making it relevant to their own communities, and in overcoming the seemingly widespread belief that human rights is a foreign, Western concept that has no roots in Arab/Islamic culture. The human rights movement at large has long debated issues surrounding the universality and cultural relativism of rights. This debate was fully played out in Vienna in June 1993 at the World Conference on Human Rights, when some governments tried to use arguments of cultural differences to undermine the universal application of human rights standards. Fortunately, they did not succeed.

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The discussion, however, was also about the different methods used by international and local groups to explain the message and to elicit support. While international organizations have tended to focus on commonality and standard setting, they have relied on their local and national counterparts to make the connections with their own communities. Human rights are universal; of that there is no doubt. It is, however, important to show how this links with the culture and history of a given nation or people in order to make these universal standards relevant for them and to be able to elicit their support in ensuring their local application. That task cannot be carried out by international organizations; it has to be initiated from within a given community. The global human rights movement has a responsibility to assist in the process but not to initiate or organize it. In the context of the Arab world one cannot discuss human rights without being confronted with everyday issues of religion and culture.

Initially, local human rights groups in the Arab world avoided tackling such sensitive issues and focused on the internationalist line of universality. Tactically this was necessary since they were relying on international standards in reporting on their own governments’ human rights records. Furthermore, it enabled them to establish their own credentials within the global movement. It also appeared to be the safer option in a no-win situation. With the rise of political Islam there was little or no room for publicly debating interpretations of Islamic law or codes of conduct. Individuals who sought to do so risked the wrath of unforgiving violent Islamists or the ire of regimes seeking to legitimize their own positions by taking on the mantle of defenders of the faith.

For a while this approach seemed to work as local groups set about establishing themselves, refining their techniques, and gaining some recognition for their work. However, it meant that for a long time opponents and critics of the human rights movement were allowed to argue with near impunity that human rights standards were not compatible with the precepts of Islam or with Arab culture and customs. The result was that many human rights groups failed to penetrate more deeply into their own communities and found themselves isolated and lacking essential local support when they fell victim to government repression. In recent years Arab activists have come to the conclusion that they can no longer cede this ground to a few extremists or a dominant minority, particularly if they are aspiring to build grassroots support. They have come to recognize that by looking into their own culture and religion for the same values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights they are not undermining but strengthening the principle of universality. They have also realized that in order to succeed in raising

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awareness about rights issues they need to adapt the message so that it is understood within their own societies.

This brief review seeks to suggest that in addressing the challenges lying ahead, human rights groups in the Arab world need to give primary consideration to the development of a strong local constituency. This need is not new and has been identified in previous discussions and meetings, including the momentous April 1999 First Arab Human Rights Conference in Casablanca conference, which brought together over one hundred activists from around the region to address the challenges facing the movement. Yet this need is almost always overshadowed by other needs, such as the need for greater solidarity and coordination among the groups, for developing more effective techniques of interventions, for strengthening institutional capacities, for expanding outreach, and so forth. The past quarter of a century of activism has been a time of trial and error and of learning from successes and failures alike. Human rights activists have come to understand that real long-term change can only come through pressure from within and through the existence of a strong and supportive constituency on the ground. If they grasp the moment, they can transform themselves from a collection of dedicated and committed individuals and organizations into an irreversible movement for change.

 
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