Hafez Abu Sa'da, a lawyer and secretary-general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) A Human Rights Watch Backgrounder

Human Rights Defenders in the Barcelona Era
November 2000
On December 1, 1998, the Higher State Security Prosecution Office ordered the detention for fifteen days of Hafez Abu Sa'da, a lawyer and secretary-general of the internationally respected, Cairo-based Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR). The case against Hafiz Abu Sa'ada has yet to be formally closed.  More..

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The five years since the inauguration of the Barcelona process has witnessed a considerable dynamism in the area of human rights activism. The indicators of this dynamism are numerous, and include:

  • The number of groups monitoring human rights generally or campaigning on specific issues--whether these be violence against women or investigating the fate of the "disappeared"--have grown in number and sophistication.

  • Across the Euro-Mediterranean region, activists, lawyers, writers, jurists, artists, health professionals, youth organizers, and others have integrated human rights issues into their professional work.

  • From Morocco to Syria, from Turkey to Tunisia, human rights activists and organizers have displayed extraordinary courage in challenging the repressive and abusive practices of governments, and confronted the intolerance of non-governmental social forces, especially in the press and some professional associations. Such space as they have managed to occupy in any given society is invariably the result of their continuing struggles to do so.

  • This period has also seen the development of regional human rights networks. The large and very public meeting of Arab human rights activists in Casablanca in April 1999 was one sign of this. Specialized regional networks such as the Center for the Independence of Judges and the Judiciary, and the Arab Program for Human Rights Activists is another. So is the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN), linking groups in the Middle East with international and European counterparts, or the meeting sponsored by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) bringing together groups working on the issue of "disappearances." Other informal networks--their informality compelled by continuing governmental hostility--provide further opportunities for sharing concerns and strategies.

One could perhaps argue, to keep this picture in perspective, that such signs of growth and dynamism were a reflection of a similar flourishing globally. The human rights movement in the Middle East is arguably the youngest in the world. Its higher visibility and greater presence today is laudable but its presence and influence remain proportionately behind those in other regions.

One thing that has changed very little in the five years since Barcelona is the extremely low tolerance of governments in the Euro-Mediterranean region for the monitoring and public reporting activities of human rights defenders. Four of the Barcelona partner governments--Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria--co-signed a statement of reservations to the U.N. Human Rights Defenders' Declaration effectively declaring themselves unbound in any practical way to the protections it specifies and proclaiming that domestic legislation supersedes any obligation to uphold international standards in this regard. The practice of other Euro-Mediterranean partner states has shown similarly little intent on their part to uphold the standards of the declaration. Unfortunately this low tolerance of the "southern" partners appears to have been matched by a high tolerance of their "northern" counterparts for such behavior, reflected in the failure of the European Council to address the systematic assaults on the work of human rights defenders in the region.

Back in 1995, the year of Barcelona, Hasan al-Alfi, then Egypt's Minister of Interior, crudely lambasted Egyptian human rights groups in no uncertain terms. "Unfortunately, these organizations obtain their information from offenders, wierdos, and people who have a vested interest," he said. Specifically with reference to a series of Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) studies on different prisons, he dismissed them as "sheer lies and fabrications...aimed at tarnishing Egypt's image." A year later President Mubarak sounded a similar note, charging that rights groups "interfere in the internal affairs of the country.... They are just defending terrorists and criminals."

While one does not usually come across such unvarnished official animosity today, at least in public fora, the fundamental attitude appears to have changed little. Consider, for instance, Algerian President Bouteflika's dismissal of the calls of human rights groups--Algerian as well as international--for inquiries to establish responsibility and accountability for mass killings. "Intellectual coquetry," he snorted when he was asked about this on a visit to Canada in April. The disdain President Bouteflika expressed on that occasion is expressed every day by officials in the ministries of justice and the interior when they respond--or more to the point do not respond--to the families of individuals who have not been seen from the time four or five or six years ago when they were picked up by one branch or another of the security forces. The same disdain marks the demeanor of the Algerian generals who wield power behind the presidency and who have yet to be called to account for their failure to protect thousands of ordinary Algerians massacred in towns and hamlets, some of them nearly adjacent to military posts.

In no Euro-Mediterranean country have human rights defenders paid a higher price than Syria. No locally-based human rights organizations are allowed to operate freely and with the protection of legal status. Of the ten activists associated with the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights (CDF) who were imprisoned in 1992, three--Nizar Nayouf, Muhammad Ali Habib, and Afif Muzhir--remain in detention, Nayouf disabled from years of torture under interrogation and reportedly in solitary confinement in Mezze military prison. Syria has dismissed the concerns Human Rights Watch and other organizations have raised about Nayouf's poor health, and in the process repeated charges that the CDF activists had "deliberately fabricated lies against Syria and caused her harm, under the pretext of defending human rights."

Tunisia takes a different approach from that of Syria. The government boasts incessantly of its commitment to human rights, but there are few countries where the gap between such claims and the actual record is so vast. When independent Tunisian activists, at great risk to themselves, attempt to set the record straight, the authorities display no tolerance for such views. Consider President Zine Abidine Ben Ali's response to demands of Tunisian activists to register the Conseil Nationale des Libertés Tunisienne (CNLT) and allow it to carry on its monitoring activities as a recognized, legally protected organization. "It is out of the question that in the name of public liberties illegal structures are set up claiming for themselves the status of associations, organizations, or committees," he ranted at a July rally for ruling party cadre, with unmistakable reference to the CNLT. In that same speech he denounced as "traitors" those who spoke openly about Tunisia's awful human rights record, especially those who spoke abroad, and the next day Dr. Moncef Marzouki, the CNLT spokesman who had just returned from a visit to Paris, London, and Washington, was fired from his position at the school of medicine of the University of Sousse. Last month, in October, Dr. Marzouki was prevented from leaving the country (for a meeting in Barcelona to discuss the Barcelona process). He is presently under investigation and has been summoned for interrogation in connection with a paper he authored and circulated privately at a meeting of Arab human rights defenders in Morocco in late September.

It is well known that one of the few areas of inter-Arab government cooperation, real cooperation, is among the ministries of interior and the security apparatuses that are answerable to them. In a January 1997 interview in An-Nahar, Lebanon's Minister of Interior Michel Murr described a meeting of interior ministers of Arab League member states in Tunis a few months earlier. The ministers, he said, "were complaining of the human rights organizations in their countries." "The work of these organizations and their movements do not aim to protect human rights but to paralyze security operations and countries' security policies," he added. Murr indicated that the ministers decided to contact Western governments funding these organizations and ask them to cease this support.

We do not know if the interior ministers came up with an agreed-upon plan of action at this or subsequent meetings, but we can discern clear trends in the way that Arab governments have been dealing with NGOs generally and human rights organizations in particular. Here Tunisia and Egypt have been the unmistakable trendsetters:

  • Appropriate the discourse of human rights.

  • Establish high profile but low-impact human rights offices in key ministries such as foreign affairs, justice, and the interior.

  • Draw up restrictive legislation governing the activities of NGOs.

  • Allow some groups to function legally but undertake surveillance and harassment at levels that make it impossible for them to function effectively.

  • Punish those who challenge these limits "within the law"--the laws in this case being penal code provisions against "spreading false information," "defaming public order," or the like.

  • Encourage or sponsor the establishment of organizations representing themselves as independent but whose main function is to defend the government's human rights practices and disrupt efforts of genuine human rights defenders to carry out their activities.

It is difficult to find tangible evidence that the Euro-Mediterranean process initiated at Barcelona has to date brought any improvement or improved protection to the human rights defenders in the region. Any effort to evaluate the situation of defenders after five years of Barcelona must take note of the March 1999 evaluation of the "MEDA Democracy Program" prepared for the European Commission, which explained that Syria and Tunisia received the smallest amount of grants owing to "the severe political obstacles to directly assisting NGOs in these countries without agreement by the governments and the totalitarian nature of the political system."

Two observations are in order with regard to this unusually candid and accurate characterization of political reality. One is the fact that these two countries--Syria and Tunisia--represent the opposite ends of the Barcelona process. Tunisia has for several years had an operational Association Agreement--indeed, it was the first "partner" country to complete the process of signing and fully ratifying the agreement. With Syria, by contrast, there have been only several rounds of apparently inconsequential exploratory negotiations. Perhaps the process will accelerate under the rule of the new president Bashar al-Asad, but even so the expectation in all quarters is that Syria will be the last of the potential Euro-Mediterranean partners to sign and ratify an Association Agreement, probably not before 2010. The authoritarian character of the Syrian regime is long-established and well-recognized. What is remarkable, and what stands as an indictment of the Barcelona process as it pertains to human rights, is the fact that essentially the same characterization--in the words of the MEDA evaluators, "totalitarian"--applies also to the country that has committed itself, under Article 2 of the Association Agreement, to respect human rights and democratic freedoms, and that has emerged from ministerial-level association council meetings without sanction for its persecution and suppression of human rights defenders.

The point is not that the situation of human rights defenders in Tunisia--where there is a narrow margin for operation--is equivalent to that in Syria--where persons who have identified themselves as human rights activists continue to serve long prison terms under horrific conditions. But the situation in Tunisia is without question bad enough to keep MEDA from having much operational impact in that country, and to provoke the rather devastating assessment of the MEDA evaluators. More to the point, human rights practices in Tunisia generally, and the situation of defenders in particular, remains as bad if not worse than when the Barcelona process was initiated, and several years of an operational Association Agreement has not produced any discernible improvement.

We find a similar deterioration of conditions in Egypt. During a period of active negotiations over a draft Association Agreement, the government has become increasingly aggressive in its efforts to control and discredit organizations dedicated to monitoring and defending human rights. This period has witnessed raids on the offices of the Arab Program for Human Rights Activists; the arrest and detention of the head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR: the case against Hafiz Abu Sa'ada has yet to be formally closed); the arrest, detention, and forthcoming trial (at this writing scheduled for November 18, just a few days after the Marseilles summit) of Saad Eddin Ibrahim and his associates in the Ibn Khaldun Center; and promulgation (in May 1999) of a new Law on Civil Associations and Institutions (Law 153/99) that mandates unwarranted restrictions on the activities of non-governmental organizations, including human rights groups, and authorizes a high degree of government interference in their internal affairs. When that law was overturned by the Supreme Constitutional Court, apparently on procedural grounds, the EOHR was informed that its application to register under the existing law had been deferred "upon a request from security officials."

The situation in other Euro-Mediterranean partner countries also testifies to a serious gap between pronouncement and practice regarding human rights defenders, as indicated by these recent developments in the region:

  • On May 27, Algerian security forces detained Mohamed Smain, head of the Relizane office of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH) after he attempted to document evidence at a grave site connected with the case of the two former mayors implicated in mass killings in the area. He was released the next day but authorities confiscated his videotape of the site.

  • Rachid Mesli, an Algerian human rights lawyer who had been released from prison in July 1999 after serving all but a few days of a three year sentence on trumped up charges, was stopped at the airport and questioned in June after returning from a meeting in Geneva about the future of Algeria. Surveillance of his activities intensified and a prison acquaintance was reportedly tortured in an effort to elicit, among other things, damaging information about Mesli, leading him to fear that he would be arrested and returned to prison. Mesli left Algeria with his family in August and requested political asylum in Switzerland.

  • In the territories under Israeli military occupation, lawyers for Palestinian detainees frequently had difficulty gaining access to their clients, and closures often kept Palestinian human rights workers and lawyers from traveling freely within the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Israel.

  • On August 8, Palestinian Authority Chief of Police Ghazi al-Jabali ordered LAW and its director, Khader Shkirat, banned from "visiting prisons, detention centers, police command centers, and police locations" because of his "continuous attacks on the [Palestinian] Authority." The order came one day after Shkirat was violently removed from the Ramallah Police Headquarters when he raised cases of police torture of detainees.

  • In Turkey criticism of the authorities or questioning the state's monolithic view of society is often viewed as a form of disloyalty bordering on treason. Over the past five years members of the Turkish Human Rights Association's (HRA) fifty-nine branches have been detained, tortured, imprisoned and subjected to death threats. HRA branches in Diyarbakir and Van have been frequently closed down by order of the Emergency Region governor, whose administrative decisions cannot be challenged in the courts.

  • In Morocco Capt. Mustafa Adib was convicted for a second time in an unfair military trial of "insulting the royal armed forces" after he complained of corruption and racketeering among the high command at the air base where he was stationed.

  • In September the Jordanian Press association suspended Nidal Mansour, editor of Al-Hadath weekly, for accepting foreign funding for a local press freedom organization.

The serious and persistent government or government-sanctioned attacks on human rights defenders and interference in their work throughout the region constitutes a serious challenge to the Euro-Mediterranean project as it moves into its second five-year phase. The challenge is both to the governments that commit these abuses and to the governments that allow them to pass without consequence. European governments have invested a much greater effort into combating migration and denying asylum protection, for instance, than to addressing the human rights abuses that contribute to the outflow of migrants and asylum seekers.


  • The official communique of the Marseilles summit should reflect the unambiguous commitment of all Euro-Mediterranean partner states to uphold and implement the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (UNGA Res 53/144 of December 1998).

  • All Euro-Mediterranean partner states should review domestic legislation and remove or amend provisions which are contrary to the letter and spirit of that Declaration.

  • A review of compliance in law and in practice by partner states (including E.U. member states) with the Declaration and with the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights pertaining to freedom of association and freedom of expression should be on the agenda of Association Council as well as appropriate Association Committee and Working Group meetings, and should be addressed in notes and briefings regarding the work of such meetings.

  • The partner states should set up a working group on human rights for all Association Agreements where they do not already exist.

  • The European Council Presidency, the E.U. High Representatives, and the Commissioners charged with foreign policy and development should, as a matter of procedure, meet with human rights defenders in partner countries and countries negotiating partnerships, especially persons and organizations who would otherwise not be able to approach E.U. bodies and policymakers in Brussels. Findings from those meetings should be included in briefings for the press as well as for other member states.

  • High representatives of partner countries and countries negotiating partnerships should meet with human rights defenders in European Union member states regarding issues of concern, including the protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers and their families.