An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Abdication of Moral Responsibility

Massacres in Egypt, a rampant Islamic State, and war crimes in Palestine and Israel: How Western inattention to the human rights abuses in the Middle East has given rise to a culture of violence and impunity.

By , a former executive director of Human Rights Watch.

The Middle East, so recently the focus of optimistic talk about the Arab Spring, is today dominated by new strongmen, brutal conflict, and atrocities perpetrated by Islamist extremists and militias. In these tough times, Western leaders seem more comfortable falling back on familiar relationships with autocrats than contending with the uncertainty of popular rule.

The Middle East, so recently the focus of optimistic talk about the Arab Spring, is today dominated by new strongmen, brutal conflict, and atrocities perpetrated by Islamist extremists and militias. In these tough times, Western leaders seem more comfortable falling back on familiar relationships with autocrats than contending with the uncertainty of popular rule.

Leaders in the United States and Europe who have downplayed or abandoned human rights in their diplomacy may justify their actions by claiming that today’s security threats are so dire they must take precedence. This thinking is not only morally wrong, but also short-sighted and counter-productive. While not the exclusive factor, human rights violations have played a major role in spawning or aggravating most of today’s Middle East crises. Protecting human rights and enabling people to have a say in how their governments address the myriad problems in their region will be key to their resolution.

No challenge in the past year has exploded more dramatically than the self-proclaimed Islamic State. With its mass executions of captured combatants and civilians, sexual enslavement of Yazidi women and girls, and videotaped beheadings of journalists and aid workers, the extremist group has rightfully engendered widespread revulsion and opposition.

Yet the Islamic State did not emerge in a vacuum. In Iraq, in addition to the chaos that ensued after the U.S. invasion, it owes much to the abusive sectarian rule of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the resulting radicalization of the minority Sunni population. With Iranian backing, Maliki took personal control of Iraqi security forces and supported the formation of Shiite militias, many of which brutally persecuted the Sunnis. The militias rounded up and arbitrarily detained Sunnis under vague laws and — along with official counterterrorism units — summarily executed many. Meanwhile, the Iraqi air force indiscriminately bombed predominately Sunni cities.

The severity of the persecution fueled the growth of the Islamic State. The group’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), was defeated with the help of a military coalition of Sunni tribes in western Iraq known as the Awakening Councils. But many of the tribes that defeated AQI became so fearful of slaughter and persecution by pro-government forces that when conflict broke out in 2014, they welcomed the Islamic State. Western governments, eager to put their own military involvement in Iraq behind them, largely shut their eyes to this sectarian regime in Baghdad — and even plied it with arms.

Today, there is wider recognition that this indifference to atrocities under Maliki was a mistake. Maliki’s replacement as premier, Haider al-Abadi, has pledged more inclusive governance. He has dropped charges against the media, vowed to release prisoners held without warrant, and made some effort to stop the air force’s indiscriminate bombing. But abusive sectarianism in Iraq has not ended, even as Western military aid continues to flow. Maliki still serves as one of Iraq’s three vice presidents, and the weak government has vastly increased its reliance on Shiite militias, which remain the lead ground forces fighting the Islamic State — despite their ongoing killing and cleansing of Sunnis from entire villages and neighborhoods. Until these atrocities end, the Shiite militias are likely to do more to aid the Islamic State’s recruitment than to defeat the jihadi group on the battlefield.

In Syria, the Islamic State portrays itself as the force most capable of standing up to President Bashar al-Assad. There’s no denying Assad’s extraordinary brutality: Since the Syrian government turned over its chemical weapons, its most notorious weapon has been the barrel bomb — an oil drum or similar container filled with high explosives and metal fragments. Syria’s air force typically drops these bombs from a helicopter hovering at high altitudes, to avoid anti-aircraft fire. From that height, it is impossible to target with any precision. The barrel bomb simply tumbles to earth, making its dreaded swishing sound as its contents shift back and forth, until it hits the ground and detonates.

Barrel bombs are so inaccurate that the Syrian military does not dare use them near the front lines, for fear of hitting its own troops. Rather, it drops them on areas held by rebel groups, knowing that they will destroy apartment buildings, hospitals, schools, and other civilian institutions. Some civilians who have not fled the country have moved their families near the front line, preferring to brave snipers and artillery rather than the horror of the barrel bombs.

This, then, is the new banality of evil. When the Syrian government attacked civilians with chemical weapons, the United Nations Security Council pressured Assad to stop and to surrender his weapons. But as the Syrian government kills countless more civilians by indiscriminate attacks with conventional weapons, the Security Council, blocked by Russia, has largely stood on the sidelines. A number of states have condemned the slaughter, but have done little more to generate pressure to end it.

This selective concern is a gift to extremist recruiters who portray themselves as the only ones willing to stand up to Assad’s atrocities. Simply attacking the Islamic State is not going to end its appeal — a broader concern with protecting Syrian civilians is required.

In Egypt, meanwhile, General-turned-President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has sought to crush the democratic aspirations of Tahrir Square. While the government of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, was far from perfect, its abuses never came close to those now being visited upon the Egyptian people by the military-dominated government that took power in a coup on July 3, 2013.

In just 12 hours on Aug. 14, 2013, Sisi and Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim led a violent and ruthless crackdown against the Brotherhood and its supporters, as security forces shot dead at least 817 mostly peaceful protesters in Cairo’s Rabaa Square. It was the most deadly massacre of protesters since China’s repression of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989.

Contrary to overwhelming evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch and other groups, a fact-finding committee established by Sisi’s presidential decree assigned primary blame for the bloodshed on the leaders of the Brotherhood — concluding that security forces had responded with violence only when met by gunfire from protesters. The committee also contended that security forces had taken sufficient steps to minimize casualties and provide safe exits, again contrary to Human Rights Watch’s evidence and to government officials’ own statements prior to the massacre, where they predicted a death toll in excess of 3,500 people.

The Rabaa Square massacre is only the most deadly example of increasing repression under Sisi as he has solidified his grip on power. Security forces have imprisoned tens of thousands of suspected Muslim Brotherhood members, in many cases without charge or trial, as well as many secular activists. Egyptian courts have handed down death sentences by the hundreds after mass trials that make no pretense of providing a meaningful opportunity for a defense. The number of deaths in detention is increasing, as prisons and police stations overflow with these new detainees.

The Western response to this unprecedented repression has been shamefully inadequate. Washington has resumed military aid to Cairo, and no Western government has shown much appetite for examining the military government’s abuses. Secretary of State John Kerry keeps speaking as if Egyptian political reform is just around the corner: For him, the military coup was about “restoring democracy,” and the election that the military then engineered while excluding the Muslim Brotherhood was “transitioning to a democracy.”

The support for the repressive Sisi government is not only a disaster for Egyptians’ hopes of a democratic future, it sends an appalling message to the region. The Islamic State can now credibly argue that violence is the only path for Islamists, because when they won power through fair elections, they were ousted with little international protest. The effect may already have been felt in the Sinai, where Egypt’s leading insurgent group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. At least 900 civilians, suspected insurgents, and members of the security forces were killed in the North Sinai governorate, where Ansar Beit al-Maqdis is strongest, in 2014.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the past year brought another round of deadly violence in Gaza, with war crimes regularly committed by both sides. Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups in Gaza fired thousands of indiscriminate rockets and mortars toward Israeli population centers, while endangering Palestinian civilians by fighting from populated areas. At the same time, tens of thousands of Israeli rockets, bombs, and artillery attacks — as well as an expansive definition of legitimate military targets, attacks without any evident military target, and lax concern for civilian casualties — left an estimated 1,500 civilians dead in Gaza and resulted in unprecedented destruction of civilian homes and infrastructure.

Israel has a poor record of holding its own forces to account for serious violations of the laws of war, while Hamas has not even claimed to investigate violations by Palestinian fighters. The involvement of the International Criminal Court (ICC) could help deter both sides from committing war crimes, and potentially offer victims a modicum of justice. With its U.N. observer state status, Palestine joined the ICC last December. The court will now have jurisdiction over war crimes committed in or from Palestinian territory — that is, its mandate will apply to both sides in the conflict. And unlike intergovernmental organizations where politics often intrude, the ICC is led by a professional prosecutor, Gambia’s Fatou Bensouda, who has earned a reputation as a sober, dispassionate, no-nonsense lawyer, with no evidence of anti-Israel animus.

Despite this promise of impartial justice, Western governments have taken precisely the wrong tack when it comes to the ICC. They mistakenly pressured Palestine not to join the court — and the U.S. Congress is now contemplating sanctions for its having done so. They argue that ICC involvement will impede the peace process — moribund as it has been — even as they take the opposite position in virtually every other situation, recognizing that curbing war crimes is a prerequisite to building the trust needed for productive peace talks. No one has credibly explained why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be an exception to this rule.

Western governments’ real motive here is to protect Israelis from possible prosecution. That kind of selective approach to the rule of law does no favor to Israelis or Palestinians who continue to be victimized by war crimes. It also undermines the power and legitimacy of international justice around the world, by emboldening critics who argue that international justice is reserved for weak nations that are not close allies of the powerful.

In all of these cases, policymakers inevitably claim to have good reasons for downplaying human rights. They argue that these concepts impose restraints that are antithetical to a “do what it takes” attitude, which often prevails in the face of serious security challenges. But the last year in the Middle East shows how short-sighted that reflex can be.

Human rights are not just arbitrary restraints on governments. They reflect fundamental values that are widely shared and deeply held, and essential for safeguarding human dignity and autonomy. The short-term gains of undermining those values are rarely worth the long-term price that must inevitably be paid for violating them. Rather than treating human rights as a chafing restraint, policymakers would do better to recognize them as moral guides. The results are likely to be both the right — and the most effective — thing to do.


Kenneth Roth is a former executive director of Human Rights Watch, which he led from 1993 to 2022. Twitter: @KenRoth

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