On 17 September 2016, an Egyptian court approved a freeze on the assets of five prominent human rights defenders and three leading civil society organisations (CSOs) as part of larger legal procedures taken against 37 CSOs charged with illegal foreign funding and operating without licences. In Syria, Bassel Khartabil – a peaceful online freedom of expression activist – has been held in incommunicado detention since March 2012, and has reportedly been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. On 27 December 2015, Naji al-Jourf – a Syrian film maker and journalist who exposed ISIS atrocities in Aleppo in a documentary produced by Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) – was shot dead by an unknown person in the southern Turkish province of Gaziantep. In Bahrain, Abdulhadi Al Khawaja – a leading human rights figure and the founder of Bahrain Centre for Human Rights – remains in jail since his incarceration in June 2011, serving a life sentence following an unfair trial and politically motivated charges. These are just a sample of dozens of distressing stories about the high price paid by human rights defenders in Middle East and North Africa (MENA) who are caught between authoritarian regimes and the proliferation of intractable domestic and international conflicts.
The region, whose popular uprisings were a source of inspiration to the world six years ago, has now become a fertile ground for civil conflicts and violent extremism, and stands as the world’s fastest machine for civilian killings, torture, forced disappearance, and refugees. With the exception of Tunisia which remains the only country offering hope of a successful transition to democracy, political transitions in the Arab region have followed dramatic and contradictory trajectories. In Egypt, the military regime of President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi seeks to consolidate the exclusionary authoritarian order using all available security, legislative, and judicial means, exploiting the fear of chaos and violence among the public. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad remains in power, turning the national armed forces and its weapons against his own people. Political elites in Yemen and Libya failed to manage the political transition. This, combined with regional and international military and political interventions, has fuelled sectarian and political polarisation in these countries and led to the increased influence of extremist religious groups and the growing militarisation of various politico-social entities.
Human rights defenders in MENA continue to be largely targeted by state agents. However, increasingly, abuses and crimes have been committed by insurgent movements and militant Islamist groups active in several countries in the region. Over the past two years, killings of human rights defenders occurred in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Almost half of them were perpetrated by militant Islamist groups. Human rights defenders were subjected to torture and ill-treatment by state agents in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Morocco, Sudan, Emirates and Western Sahara, and by state and non-state actors in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. In Saudi Arabia they have also faced harsh corporal punishment, as in the case of blogger Raif Badawi. Human rights defenders have been held in incommunicado detention in Egypt, Iran, Oman, Syria, Sudan and Emirates.
The right to form and maintain independent associations has also been seriously curtailed in most countries. Stigmatisation and the dissemination of false and defamatory accusations have been used by state-owned and private media in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. Authorities have imposed travel bans against CSOs’ members and leaders in Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Emirates, in many instances without following t required legal procedures. Human rights defenders who tackle sensitive issues such as the rights of LGBTI find themselves under regular pressure from state and non-state actors. The criminalisation of homosexuality continues in place in most countries in the region.
Human rights defenders are critical actors in the region in the promotion and realisation of human rights, peace, democracy, and the rule of law. They are crucial to countering extremism and promoting pluralism, tolerance, and peaceful change. However, for the very reason that they are effective, they are targeted by authoritarian governments and extremists. What has been provided for their protection and security is still not enough to confront the ongoing crackdown on civil society in the region.
Key Western governments continue to relentlessly empower notorious repressive regimes in the region. Much of the weaponry used by human rights violators like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Bahrain is imported from Western nations such as the US, France, Britain, and Germany. In August 2013, the European Council on Foreign Relations recommended a ban on the export of arms to the Egyptian authorities that could be used to violate human rights, but many European states have disregarded this recommendation and conducted arms deals with Egypt in 2014 and 2015.
Proactive political support for persecuted human rights defenders in MENA is needed more than ever; International donors should allocate more resources to provide for emergency assistance and protection and help rights groups to maintain their work under difficult circumstances. Celebrating the fact that many Western governments have adopted national and regional guidelines on the protection of human rights defenders is meaningless if it is not matched by tangible measures and real commitment to the protection of individual human rights defenders at risks and their CSOs.
This blog is the fourth in our series on the future of civic space. Do you want to help secure the rights of citizens across the globe? Sign the Civic Charter today!