If it were not for the unchecked outrages committed by the Iraqi forces in occupwere rounded upied Kuwait after the August 2 invasion, it would be hard to say that 1990 had been a bad year for human rights in the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, there were a number of positive developments: not least, a grudging recognition in regional capitals of the need to involve their people in decision making to a greater extent than before. Unfortunately, these developments were largely overshadowed in the West by the "rape of Kuwait," for which Saddam Hussein bore responsibility.
With the winds from Eastern Europe blowing strong, many governments acquired a new awareness of the importance of popular participation in the form of elections as a means of promoting national stability. Such diverse governments as those in Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria and Egypt all held national elections of one kind or another since the European upheaval. With the exception of local changes in Algeria, none of these polls produced a transfer of power from longstanding rulers or governing parties. But, to differing degrees, each represented a step forward toward greater openness. Middle East Watch detailed its concerns over the electoral process in Egypt in a newsletter, and commented on President Asad's evident determination to hang on to power at all costs, including through murder, torture and imprisonment of perceived dissenters, in the course of a major report on Syria.
In the most conservative states of the region, those of the Arabian Peninsula, the example set by Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, who pledged to install an appointed consultative assembly, was rapidly followed by several of his smaller neighbors. From their place of exile in Saudi Arabia, the ousted Kuwaiti ruling family, the al-Sabahs, also promised to respect their own national constitution, albeit in the future -- to restore the National Assembly suspended four years earlier and reinstitute press freedom, once Iraq's takeover of Kuwait was reversed. The impetus for these democratic gestures was, of course, the far-reaching crisis that had erupted around them; and only an optimist unfamiliar with the Middle East's chronic vacillation over democracy could assume unquestionably that these pledges will be fulfilled once the war clouds lift. But, for a human rights organization such as Middle East Watch, they were nonetheless an important breakthrough -- one to be exploited in the coming months, even if the pledges failed to address the serious deprivations of civil and political rights that persist in those nations.
The appearance in 1990 of national unity in two formerly divided states -- Lebanon and Yemen -- was an unexpected bonus for the cause of human rights. As it descended into anarchy for over a decade, Lebanon had been synonymous in the public mind with often unspeakable brutalities, including the taking of hostages, committed by one sect against another. The West has been obsessed with its own small band of hostages, but over the years thousands of Lebanese have suffered similarly. Few are aware, for instance, of the 300 or so detainees in the Khiam prison in southern Lebanon, controlled by the Israeli-backed SLA militia. Held under dismal conditions, in some cases for years, these detainees have not enjoyed the luxury of due process. A Middle East Watch report on this prison, to which virtually all outside access is barred, is nearing completion for early 1991.
Freedom from the terror which reigned for so long will suffice, for now, for most Lebanese. But Syria's violent record at home leaves cause for concern that a new form of terror will be imposed on Lebanon -- one reflected in the October massacre of some 100 prisoners taken near Gen. 'Aoun's headquarters in Ba'bda. It would also be tragic if the Pax Syriana being overseen by Damascus through Lebanese President Elias Hrawi were, in the process of restoring order, to extinguish the effervescent cultural, intellectual and political life which once distinguished Lebanon among Middle Eastern states.
In Yemen, unification of the two former states in May was accompanied by the proclamation of far-reaching political and civil liberties, to an extent unseen anywhere else in the Arab world. Despite the strains imposed by the fusing of two very different political and social systems, in the north and the south, the practical implementation of these freedoms appears to date to have gone well. Over 30 political parties are now functioning in Sana'a, the capital, all political prisoners have been freed, and freedom of speech has been guaranteed. In the process, President Mohammed Salah appears to retain widespread popular support, and to have set an important example for the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.
However, Yemen's open sympathy for Iraq in the Gulf crisis triggered retaliatory action by Saudi Arabia against the two million-strong Yemeni population in the Kingdom. Rules of residence and employment affecting Yemenis were arbitrarily changed without warning, indirectly compelling an estimated 750,000 to return home, some destitute and maltreated. Palestinians in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, notably Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, suffered likewise for the PLO's political support of Iraq. Many hundreds were arbitrarily expelled from countries in which they had lived sometimes for decades. Stateless Palestinians of Gazan origin face a particularly uncertain future because Israeli authorities have refused permission for them to return home and other Arab nations will not grant them citizenship. Middle East Watch expects to publish its research on this issue in early 1991.
Women in Saudi Arabia, forcibly cloistered by their menfolk and the religious police, are among those Saudis who began to stir during the latter part of 1990, in the wake of the arrival on their soil of the huge US expeditionary force. But across the Persian Gulf, Iranian women found that the improvements in their lowly social condition expected to come from President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, who portrays himself as a modernizing, progressive cleric, were not fulfilled. Female dress codes were even more strictly enforced than before, while women continued to be barred from certain professions and educational fields.
Throughout the region, in fact, women have been the principal victims of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. In Jordan and Algeria, Islamists made strong gains through the ballot box, putting them in a position to dictate the social agenda. For Algerian women, as a Middle East Watch mission recorded, the decaying power of the ruling FLN party and the concomitant rise of the Islamist FIS has meant an increase in attacks on women for behavior deemed inappropriate by FIS followers. In most cases, the police and local authorities responded passively, refusing to intervene.
Parliamentary elections expected to take place sometime during 1991 in Algeria, following 1990's municipal poll, could bring about an unprecedented development for the Arab world: the replacement of a ruling regime through elections. Apprehensions over the consequences for civil liberties of an Islamist-led government are, on the other hand, growing.
In Israel, the collapse of the second Likud-Labor coalition brought to power what, by general consent, is the most right-wing government in the country's history. With Cabinet Ministers who openly advocate the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories at his side, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir had been expected to take a much tougher approach to the Palestinian intifada. Nearly 800 Palestinians, almost none of them armed with anything beyond stones, have been killed by the Israeli security forces during the three-year uprising, raising acute concerns about the excessive use of force. Middle East Watch issued a report on the Israeli Defense Force's inadequate investigation and prosecution of soldiers who deviate from open-fire regulations, and criticized those guidelines as being too permissive.
However, the new Likud Defense Minister, Moshe Arens, surprised his critics by initially taking a less confrontational approach than his predecessor, Labor's Yitzhak Rabin. Casualties at the hands of Israeli troops dropped sharply. Until December an informal moratorium on the use of deportations was maintained. Meanwhile, West Bank schools and some universities, closed for over two years, were gradually reopened. Middle East Watch, in a May newsletter, called for the immediate opening of all schools and universities.
On the negative side of the balance sheet, the descent of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict into more chaotic, intercommunal -- and, in the Palestinian case, intracommunal -- strife has deepened. Over 150 killings of Palestinians deemed to be collaborators with Israel were recorded during the year, almost as many as in the previous two combined. A spate of stabbing attacks on Jewish civilians by Palestinians drew long jail sentences for those involved, but deaths attributed to militant Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories in the past rarely led to court, or serious punishment.
In the single most serious incident of the entire intifada, in October, paramilitary Border Police shot and killed at least 17 Palestinians, and wounded hundreds of others, on and around the holy Haram el-Sharif, or Temple Mount, compound in the Old City of Jerusalem. An official investigation reprimanded senior officers for lack of foresight to prevent the confrontation, but largely defended the use of lethal force. At year's end, a separate, judicial inquiry into the deaths was also underway.
While Israel continued strenuously to resist UN Security Council efforts to investigate its treatment of the Palestinians in territories captured during the June 1967 war, one of the most significant human rights developments of the year as far as Iran was concerned was the Rafsanjani government's decision to allow foreign human rights teams to conduct their own investigations. After five years of being denied entry to Iran, the UN Special Representative, Professor Reynaldo Galindo Pohl, paid two visits, in February and October. His initial report was widely regarded as inadequate in its methodology and conclusions, but a second document produced a much more detailed, and severe, indictment of Iran's abysmal record. This includes the assassination of exiled political opponents, the use of public stonings and beheadings for certain crimes, and mass executions of narcotics offenders. The government's displeasure at the second UN report notwithstanding, at the end of the year the International Committee of the Red Cross was negotiating the terms of its access to Iranian prisons. Middle East Watch had also been given approval, in principle, to conduct its own mission.
The torture and maltreatment of political prisoners continues to be an endemic problem throughout the Middle East and Maghreb regions. To take a few examples: in Iran, torture is believed to have been used to extract confessions from some of a group of over 30 prominent dissidents arrested in June and July after signing an open letter criticizing the government for the lack of freedom and for its failure to respect the rights set forth in the Iranian Constitution. The background to the arrests of members of Iran's sole remaining opposition functioning above ground was laid out in a Middle East Watch newsletter.
In neighboring Iraq, among many other issues, Middle East Watch's major report on that country documented the widespread use of torture by the mukhabarat -- even against children. It also catalogued the systematic abuses against Kurds, including the forced depopulation of Kurdish areas and the transfer of half a million Kurds. As a follow-up, Middle East Watch is now engaged in researching a book on the plight of the Kurds throughout the region; they also face discrimination in Syria, Iran and Turkey.
In Morocco, King Hassan's benign image abroad is belied by his cruel, and vindictive, treatment of those alleged to have plotted against him almost 20 years ago. At the Tazmamart prison, in southern Morocco, where over 50 of the accused plotters were detained and secretly held in medieval conditions, Middle East Watch reported that more than half of the inmates are believed to have died due to the maltreatment and conditions they were forced to endure. A mission to Morocco gathered information on abuses of the rule of law, for a report to be published in early 1991.
As elsewhere, torture is officially banned in Egypt. Its regular use against detainees held under a State of Emergency, during the term in office of former Interior Minister Zaki Badr, was nevertheless confirmed by a Middle East Watch mission in May. General Abdel Halim Moussa, who replaced Badr in January, promised reforms, including an end to torture. In practice, what has transpired is that the repression of leftists and other secular opponents of the Mubarak government has been eased, while unrestrained action is being taken against Islamic fundamentalists, some of whom are armed and violent. Hundreds of Islamists were rounded up, many of whom were reportedly tortured following the assassination of the Speaker of the People's Assembly, Riftak Mahgoub, on October 12.
Where human rights are concerned, US policy toward the region during 1990 was decidedly mixed. While sotto voce criticism was leveled at a number of countries, few were publicly condemned in a forthright fashion. Nor were economic or political sanctions applied against any country for mistreating its own people; although Syria, Libya and Iran were all censured for their support for terrorism abroad.
The notable exception to this generalization was Iraq after it annexed Kuwait. Prior to August 2, the administration went to considerable lengths to block the imposition by Congress of economic sanctions on Iraq, refusing to acknowledge the self-evident: that the Saddam Hussein regime demonstrated "a consistent pattern of gross abuses of human rights," in the language of the Foreign Assistance Act mandating sanctions. Thereafter, the Iraqi President was demonized as "a ruthless Hitler" by President Bush himself.
With respect to Israel's behavior in the Occupied Territories, the Bush administration has taken a more robust line than its predecessor, joining in UN Security Council votes of criticism, while continuing to exercise a restraining influence on the resolutions of that forum. But while denouncing atrocities perpetrated against Kuwaitis living under occupation, the administration failed to endorse international protection of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In general, though, the US has chosen to take a low-key approach toward human rights abuses in this region, despite the extremely serious abuses committed there. And where broader geostrategic interests or long-term alliances are involved, human rights are relegated to a low priority. Morocco, for instance, a recipient of military and economic aid, and a close ally, is never criticized publicly. Egypt's President Mubarak gets similar kid-glove treatment, although he receives some $2.8 billion a year in US aid.
Even regimes with whom relations are publicly distant, as with Syria prior to the Gulf crisis, or Iran, are spared a public tongue-lashing. Where was the Bush administration when Syrian troops and militiamen loyal to Syria allegedly massacred scores of General 'Aoun's troops and sympathizers after his surrender? And what did it say when Iranian Revolutionary Guards working on behalf of a hardline minister seized the relatives and political associates of former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, a political moderate who the US had tried to cultivate after the 1979 revolution? Working to establish a firm and consistent US voice on human rights matters in the region is an important priority of Middle East Watch.