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Human Rights Defenders
The Middle East and North Africa was the region of the world with perhaps the youngest human rights movement. While local activists had traced values of justice, tolerance and mutual respect extending as far back as Pharaonic times in Egypt, the region’s modern human rights movement was formed in the late 1960s and early 1970s and only began to expand in the late 1980s. In 1998 there were over twenty human rights groups in Egypt and at least twelve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This year the oldest surviving membership-based group in the Arab world, the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH), celebrated its twenty-first anniversary—although government repression sharply impeded its ability to function in 1998. Active groups could also be found in Algeria, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, and Yemen. Groups in exile monitored Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and several other Gulf states.

Until the mid-1990s the majority of locally based human rights organizations focused on civil and political rights. In recent years, however, several groups were established, especially in the territories under Palestinian control and in Egypt, with a primary focus on social and economic rights. After the 1993 Vienna world conference on human rights, the women’s rights movement and the human rights movement in the region began to work much more closely with each other. In recent years some human rights organizations set up women’s rights divisions while others attempted to incorporate a gender component into all programs.

The growth of the human rights movement, although impressive, was uneven in geographic scope. In the late seventies and early eighties groups existed mainly in Morocco and Tunisia, though some activities had commenced in Egypt and the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The impetus for the growth of the early movement included disenchantment with political parties and movements and an increased awareness of the failure of Arab regimes to put into practice a rhetorical commitment to social justice and basic rights. The upsurge in local interest in human rights coincided, moreover, with the rise of political Islam and the threat it seemed to pose to women’s rights and freedom of expression and belief. Support by international human rights organizations, local and international media, and international funding also played vital roles as a new generation of activists emerged.

Growth was not without setbacks and major challenges. Human rights groups lacked legal status in many countries in the region. Civil strife in Algeria diminished the activities of rights groups there and in 1994 cost the life of Youcef Fathallah, secretary-general of the Algerian Human Rights League. Syrian authorities crushed the nascent Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF) in 1992, and some of its leading members were serving prison sentences of up to ten years. In Tunisia the vice-president of the LTDH was behind bars in 1998, serving a three-year sentence, and the former president was prevented from traveling abroad. In the short period since the Palestinian Authority (PA) took overin parts of Gaza and the West Bank, leading activists such as Raji Sourani and Iyyad Saraj were detained for short periods and other activists were harassed and threatened in attempts to stifle reporting on the PA’s record of abuses.

Challenges extended beyond government harassment and oppression, however, and included issues that went to the heart of the movement itself. Human rights organizations continued to grow in a hostile political environment, and attacks against them came from political opposition groups and the media as well as from governments. The movement also lacked a broad social base, a reflection of weak institutions of civil society region-wide. It had failed in the past to formulate common rights-based positions on highly political issues such as the 1991 Gulf War, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and sanctions, and had been undermined by the double standards displayed by the West and the U.N. on these issues as well as others. Funding from abroad, while invaluable in facilitating the rapid growth of the movement in the 1990s, also made activists vulnerable to accusations of advancing foreign agendas, and sometimes fueled both competition for funds and lack of collegiality.

In assessing the coming of age of the local movement, it was noteworthy that human rights had been incorporated into the discourse used by governments, opposition groups including Islamists, academics, and activists regionwide. The growth of governmental human rights institutions or ministerial mechanisms in Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, Tunisia, and under the Palestinian Authority was also an indicator of the greater attention paid by governments to rights demands.

A final encouraging indicator was the development in the 1980s of regional bodies such as the Arab Organization for Human Rights and the Arab Institute for Human Rights, and the growth in the 1990s of other regional bodies with specific mandates that focused on the challenges facing the movement. These included the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, which examined cultural, political, and socio-economic roots of human rights concepts in the region and how these impacted on the effectiveness of the movement, and the Arab Program for Human Rights Activists, which acted as a network highlighting the plight of persecuted activists and coordinating advocacy on their behalf.







Israel, The Occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Palestinian Authority Territories

Saudi Arabia





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