For decades, "human rights in the Middle East" was a subject of scrutiny, debate, and mobilizations spearheaded from outside of the region. Western governments including successive U.S. administrations frequently took up the region’s dire human rights conditions and funded a variety of human rights initiatives to remedy them, in many ways as a substitute for forgoing economic and military alliances with highly repressive regimes. These foreign governments’ human rights talk was heavy in its emphasis on women’s rights and other violations for which backward cultural and religious belief were designated as the key culprits and light on its emphasis on civil and political rights violations. During the post-9/11 era, as highlighting the Middle East’s deplorable human rights conditions added a veneer of moral purpose to military interventions in the region, the "human rights in the Middle East" line of inquiry took on a life of its own and created a cottage industry of Western-driven human rights assessments and prescriptions. All the while, local voices promoting human rights were largely silenced by authoritarian rulers simultaneously paying lip service to human rights and undermining it by arguing that it served foreign, Western, imperialist agendas. Cumulatively, there dynamics resulted in minimal Middle Eastern agency in defining the nature and scope of its own predicament vis-à-vis the human rights paradigm.
Today, the region’s myriad of human rights mobilizations and contests are increasingly being spurred from within the Middle East, not abroad.
Domestically, where there have been uprisings (not facing crippling state violence) human rights have emerged at the fore of calls for political change and local human rights activists long relegated to the realm of the out-of-touch Westernized elite, have gained considerably in their legitimacy, numbers, and influence. These strengthened human rights forces now insert their voices into virtually every unfolding political contest — openly bringing past and present abuses to light and pushing human rights stances into constitutions-drafting processes, parliamentary agendas, and socio-economic policies. Where they have not been able to substantially realize their demands, they have often compelled authoritarian rulers to go to increasingly greater lengths to showcase purported commitments to rights, the most notable examples being the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) and the prosecution of Hosni Mubarak.
At the same time more meaningful human rights engagements are taking shape at the regional level. Using Cairo and Tunis as venues for considerably less fettered activism, protesters and an expanding cadre of activists are posing human rights challenges across borders within the region. For instance, Egyptian NGOs put out statements on Saudi abuses, an NGO banned in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) moves to Tunisia, activists and ordinary citizens protest in front of Syrian embassies throughout the region, and Tunisian activists hold a "Friends of Bahrain" conference to show support for the Bahraini revolution in reaction to the "Friends of Syria" conference in Tunis, while Yemeni activists gather to support the hunger strike of a prominent Bahraini activist.
Shaken by the unexpected power of the flurry of human rights claims and discourses of the era, Middle Eastern governments new and old are being forced to shed their unspoken pact to steer clear of criticism of each other’s repression, and reluctantly enter the fray of regional human rights politics. As a result, at the same time that the Arab League has taken the unprecedented step of publicly rebuking two of its members (Libya and Syria) on human rights grounds and even organizing a human rights observer mission, it has been dabbling in new under-the-radar human rights processes, such as a periodic reporting for signatories of the Arab Charter of Human Rights, an experiment for which Jordan and Algeria were slated to go first. Similarly, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s defense of the plight of Syrians challenging the Assad regime at the Non-Aligned Movement Summit with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sitting to his right as host could be labeled as a human rights foreign policy stance of sorts, complete with its own mix of moral conviction, political expediency, and inconsistencies. Such developments produce new avenues for contestation, including local activists waging the same charges of "human rights double standards" against Middle Eastern governments long waged against Western governments.
As popular and civil society forces are pushing human rights to the fore of domestic and regional politics, they are also taking on the international dimensions of the Middle East’s human rights predicament. First, they are putting forth their own priorities and prognosis of the region’s human rights ills. Second they are challenging what they consider to be international powers’ insincere treatment and violations of human rights in the region, in effect reversing the traditional West to East flow of human rights discourses and mobilizations. Middle Eastern challenges to Western human rights positions are longstanding, not new. What is new however, are increased efforts by Middle Eastern activists to use their strengthened position to make their voices heard by world powers.
A prime example of diverging conceptions of human rights is the emphasis placed on political rights by Middle Eastern human rights forces who contend that it is neither culture and religion, nor the discussions of torture and detentions that have arisen since the Arab uprisings began, that lie at the heart of the region’s human rights ills. Instead, the key to addressing the Middle East’s human rights crises lies squarely in dismantling its authoritarian political structures. This is because concessions in areas such as women’s rights can too easily be used as a substitute for or distraction from political rights by Middle Eastern rulers. By the same token, pressure to end torture or release a particular detainee can provide only temporary respites from repression, which will inevitably reemerge because it is so vital to these leaders’ survival. Thus, the Middle East’s protesting populations and human rights activists are increasingly defining the right to political participation as not only a core human right, but one that in the authoritarian contexts in which they live, must precede others.
This position stands in clear contrast to the Western disposition which de-emphasizes political rights, treating them as noble, but nonetheless long-term aspirations for which local populations must patiently wait. The prime example of the persistence of this approach is seen in the U.S. treatment of human rights in Bahrain where the Obama administration pushed for the creation of the BICI and subsequently the implementation of the BICI’s recommendations, including human rights trainings, surveillance cameras at police stations where torture was reported to have taken place, reparations, etc. Nearly a year after the report was released, the ruling al-Khalifa family has conspicuously implemented many of the recommendations, yet neither popular demands for political participation rights, nor the suppression of dissent have subsided. The latter point has been emphatically demonstrated by the steady stream of repression by the Bahraini authorities including the recent three year prison term handed to activists Nabil Rajab and the upholding of the life sentences issued against Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and other less internationally celebrated activists.
In addition to insisting on a meaningful right to political participation, Yemeni human rights forces are also continuing challenging the West’s contingent view of human rights in the counterterrorism realm. For years, Yemeni human rights activists, media, and popular consciousness have focused on the injustices of the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where over 100 Yemenis were held with the very real prospects of indefinite detention without the most basic due process guarantees, (one of the remaining detainees died in Guantanamo last month after having repeatedly been cleared for release during his 10 year detention). In the last few years, Yemeni human rights forces have also turned their attention to U.S. targeted killings and drone strikes.
Not surprisingly, they take issue with higher U.S. thresholds for Yemeni "collateral damage" and the employment of lax margins of error as with the alleged "signature strikes" policy which allows for the killing of individuals based primarily on their demographics and physical location. Popular and human rights forces rightly assert that the drone attacks speak to a conception of human rights which is highly contingent — more than willing to take liberties in carving out exceptions to human rights when it comes to Middle Eastern populations whose rights it treats as more dispensable than those of Americans and prone to using terrorists’ aversion to human rights as a means of dehumanizing them to such an extent that they can readily be excluded from the sphere of "universal human rights" protections.
The dynamic is apparent in a fascinating exchange between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a Yemeni activist at the State Department’s Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society 2012 Initiative. Posing the first question, Shatha al-Harazi asks, if it was serious about human rights, when the U.S. government would begin working with Yemeni Civil Society on counterterrorism, pointedly adding that, "Yemenis are not less important than American(s)." In her response, Clinton reproduces the Bush administration assertion that those deemed to be terrorists can be denied human rights because they deny others’ including women’s rights, once again invoking women rights violations to justify U.S. military interventions.
There are also people who are trying to kill Americans, kill Europeans, and kill Yemenis; who are not going to listen to reason; who don’t want to participate in a political process; who have no interest in sitting around a table and hearing your view because, with all due respect, you’re a woman. And so they cannot be given the opportunity to kill their way to power, so we will support governments who are trying to prevent that from happening while we also try to build up civil society, help move a country like Yemen on a path to true democracy with representative government.
The exchange goes some lengths toward shedding light on fundamental differences in contemporary American and Middle Eastern conceptions of human rights, not to mention the misguidedness of attributing relativism to the Middle East and universalism to the West in the human rights context.
Of course, challenges in the realm of women’s rights, religious or sexual minority rights, or limits on freedom of expression rights stemming from religious discourses should not be overlooked (even if recent statements regarding rape by U.S. politicians demonstrate that they are hardly unique to the Middle East). Given the way human rights discourses and Western foreign policy in the region have been historically entwined, rights gains in these symbolically loaded areas will be most effective when fought primarily in the domestic realm. There are promising signs that this is beginning to happen. The real story behind the in many ways problematic essay on women’s rights by Mona Eltahawi published in Foreign Policy magazine last summer was the sheer number of rebuttals that emerged from other Middle Eastern and Muslim women. The response demonstrated that women’s rights contests can increasingly be waged and shaped by diverse Middle Eastern and Muslim women’s voices in a space that is less dominated by sensationalist "oppressed, victim" narratives from abroad and reactionary internal responses to it.
Similarly, even before, the September "Innocence of Muslims" video protests, Egyptian human rights activists I interviewed were deeply absorbed with finding ways to link marginalized areas of rights such as freedom of religious expression to the civil, political, social, and economic rights areas being widely embraced. At the same time, Egyptian and Tunisian human rights forces have been increasingly engaging with Islamists who now sit on parliamentary human rights committees and head human rights ministries, find themselves navigating human rights demands from disparate constituencies, and continue to weave human rights discourses into evolving political stances — impelled both by political calculations and the raised rights consciousness of the era.
There is of course a place for the international eye on human rights violations in the Middle East as elsewhere and there are no doubt times in which Western pressure on governments or support for NGOs have produced human rights gains. However, the big picture and net effect of Western and particularly U.S. policies in the region hardly support Western governments’ claims to being on the side of human rights in the Middle East. Funding NGOs and taking up select human rights causes can have a positive impact if done correctly, but such measures do not erase the glaring contradictions of the Western treatment of human rights in the Middle East. Policies such as designating Bahrain as a case in which Western governments’ "strategic interests" precede over Bahrainis’ rights claims — what one Egyptian activist termed creating categories of "untouchable" countries in the region, or issuing arbitrary verdicts of "kill lists" in the name of counterterrorism in Yemen and elsewhere — fly in the face of not only the core principles of the human rights paradigm, but also the rights consciousness of the Middle East today. After all, Egypt too, was by and large not long ago designated "untouchable."
In the final analysis, the Middle East’s engagements with the human rights idea are increasingly being shaped by Middle Eastern actors and the Middle East’s lived experience of injustice and repression. Conscious of the role played by domestic, regional, and international power dynamics, these engagements are deeply political and they promise to render human rights claims a more formidable, meaningful, and emancipatory force in Middle East politics.
Shadi Mokhtari is assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service specializing in human rights, Middle East Politics, and Political Islam and author of After Abu Ghraib: Exploring Human Rights in America and the Middle East.