(Cairo) – Many democracies have allowed their ties with repressive allies to temper their support for human rights in the Arab Spring protests, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2012. For reasons of principle and long-term interest, governments should stand firm with the people of the Middle East and North Africa when they demand their basic rights and work to ensure the transition to genuine democracies.
The 676-page report, Human Rights Watch’s annual review of human rights practices around the globe, summarizes major rights issues in more than 90 countries, reflecting the extensive investigative work carried out in 2011 by Human Rights Watch staff. On events in the Middle East and North Africa, Human Rights Watch said that firm and consistent international support for peaceful protesters and government critics is the best way to pressure the region’s autocrats to end abuses and enhance basic freedoms. A principled insistence on respect for rights is also the best way to help popular movements steer clear of the intolerance, lawlessness, and revenge that can threaten a revolution from within, Human Rights Watch said.
“The people driving the Arab Spring deserve strong international support to realize their rights and to build genuine democracies,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Loyalty to autocratic friends shouldn’t stand in the way of siding with democratic reformers. International influence is also needed to ensure that the new governments extend human rights and the rule of law to all, especially women and minorities.”
The World Report 2012 documents human rights abuses worldwide, including: violations of the laws of war in Libya and Afghanistan; the plight of political prisoners in Vietnam and Eritrea; the silencing of dissent in China and Cuba; internet crackdowns in Iran and Thailand; killings by security forces in India and Mexico; election-related problems in Russia and the Democratic Republic of Congo; mistreatment of migrants in Western Europe; neglectful maternal health policies in Haiti and South Africa; the suppression of religious freedom in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia; torture in Pakistan and Uzbekistan; discrimination against people with disabilities in Nepal and Peru; and detention without trial in Malaysia and by the United States.
One welcome advance was the adoption of an international treaty to protect the rights of domestic workers, Human Rights Watch said. Domestic workers are especially vulnerable to abuse, but many countries exclude them from labor laws and other protections. The new treaty guarantees the basic rights of millions of migrants who work in private homes as nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers.
Western policy towards Arab countries traditionally has been one of containment, backing an array of Arab autocrats to guarantee “stability” in the region even as democracy spread in other parts of the world. Human Rights Watch said the reasons so many democratic governments make an “Arab exception” include fear of political Islam and terrorism, the need to keep oil supplies flowing, and a longstanding policy of reliance on autocracies to maintain Arab Israeli peace and to help stifle migration to Europe.
“The events of the past year show that the forced silence of people living under autocrats should never have been mistaken for popular complacency,” Roth said. “It is time to end the ‘Arab exception’ and recognize that the people of the region deserve respect for their rights and freedoms as much as anyone else.”
The repercussions of the Arab Spring have been felt around the world, Human Rights Watch said. Leaders in China, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Uzbekistan seem to be living in fear of the precedent of people ousting their autocratic governments. But even democracies such as India, Brazil, and South Africa have been reluctant to support change. Relying on outmoded views of human rights promotion as imperialism and ignoring the international support that their own people historically enjoyed when seeking their rights, these democracies often failed at the United Nations to stand with people facing repression.
China and Russia have been even more obstructionist, vetoing efforts at the UN Security Council to build pressure on Syria to stop killing thousands of demonstrators. Their ostensible reason –avoiding a Libya-like military intervention – rings hollow when the modest resolution they vetoed could not possibly be read to authorize military action.
Human Rights Watch said the international community could play an important role in fostering the growth of rights-respecting democracies in the Middle East and North Africa. Rather than refusing to countenance the rise of political Islam, as sometimes occurred in the past, democratic governments should recognize that political Islam may represent a majority preference, Human Rights Watch said. However, the international community should insist that Islamist governments abide by international human rights obligations, particularly with respect to women’s rights and religious freedom, as with any government.
In the Middle East and North Africa, the United States and the European Union were strongest in standing up to repression in Libya and Syria, whose leaders were considered unfriendly to the West, Human Rights Watch said. They were slow to challenge Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, a perceived bulwark of regional “stability,” until his fate was virtually sealed. They failed to oppose immunity for Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh for his responsibility in the killing of protesters – despite the signal sent that more killings would be cost-free – because he is seen as a defense against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. They applied no real pressure on Bahrain as it crushed its democracy movement, out of deference to Saudi sensibilities, fears of Iranian influence, and a desire to protect a US naval base.
The United States and some European allies could make an enormous contribution to ending torture in the Arab world by coming clean about their own records of complicity in torture as part of their fight against terrorism. Western governments should punish those responsible for ordering or facilitating torture and end the use of diplomatic assurances as a fig leaf to justify sending suspects to countries where they risk torture.
Member countries of the Arab League, which historically sought to defend each other from any form of human rights criticism, have become more constructively engaged during the Arab Spring, Human Rights Watch said. The Arab League endorsed pressure to end Gaddafi’s repression in Libya, and they implemented sanctions against Syria and deployed observers in a so-far unsuccessful effort to curb Bashar al-Assad’s killing in Syria. By contrast, the African Union (AU) has been wary of the Arab Spring, even though the AU was ostensibly created to support democracy and freedom.
Transitional governments in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt need help revising their repressive laws and building the governing institutions that autocrats deliberately left weak and underdeveloped, above all national justice institutions, Human Rights Watch said. Until security forces and government officials have a reasonable expectation that their misconduct will land them in court, the temptation to resort to abuse, violence, and corruption will be hard to resist.
The same is true of the complementary role played by international justice.
“Rights-respecting governments should support international justice regardless of political considerations. It’s misguided to believe that allowing countries to sweep past abuses under the rug will somehow avoid encouraging future atrocities,” Roth said. “As we mark the first anniversary of the Arab Spring, we should stand firmly for the rights and aspirations of the individual over the spoils of the tyrant.”