(London) – The euphoria of the Arab Spring has given way to the sobering challenge of creating rights-respecting democracies, Human Rights Watch said today in issuing its World Report 2013. The willingness of new governments to respect rights will determine whether those uprisings give birth to genuine democracy or simply spawn authoritarianism in new forms.
In the 665-page report, its23rd annual review of human rights practices around the globe, Human Rights Watch summarizes major issues in more than 90 countries. With regard to events in the Middle East and North Africa known as the Arab Spring, Human Rights Watch said the creation of a rights-respecting state can be painstaking work that requires building effective institutions of governance, establishing independent courts, creating professional police, and resisting the temptation of majorities to disregard human rights and the rule of law. But the difficulty of building democracy does not justify seeking a return to the old order, Human Rights Watch said.
“The uncertainties of freedom are no reason to revert to the enforced predictability of authoritarian rule,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “The path ahead may be treacherous, but the alternative is to consign entire countries to a grim future of oppression.”
The tension between majority rule and respect for rights poses perhaps the greatest challenge for the new governments, Human Rights Watch said. Leaders in the Middle East are naturally eager to exercise their new electoral clout, but they have a duty to govern without sacrificing fundamental freedoms or the rights of minorities, women, and other groups at risk.
Other countries can be supportive both by setting positive examples in their own practices, respecting human rights themselves, and by consistently promoting rights in their relations with the new government and others. Turning a blind eye to repression may be politically convenient but it does enormous damage to the quests for rights-respecting democracies, Human Rights Watch said.
Three additional essays in the World Report address other threats to human rights. One describes the need to regulate business operations around the world, especially in an era of globalization, to protect the rights of workers and people negatively affected by company operations. The second says that in responding to environmental crises, governments and others frequently focus on the harm to nature, neglecting the human rights impact on people in the crisis zone. The third essay highlights how arguments of “tradition” and cultural relativism are used to deny women and minorities human rights that should be universal.
The struggle over Egypt’s constitution, which will probably be the most influential among countries in the region undergoing change, demonstrates the difficulty of protecting human rights, Human Rights Watch said in the report’s introduction. The constitution has some positive elements, including clear prohibitions on torture and arbitrary detention.
But broadly worded and vague provisions on speech, religion, and the family have dangerous implications for women’s rights and the exercise of social freedoms protected under international law. The constitution also reflects a seeming abandonment of efforts to exercise civilian control over the military.
Among the Arab countries that have changed their governments, Libya best illustrates the problem of a weak state, a result of Muammar Gaddafi’s decisions to keep government institutions underdeveloped to discourage challenges to his rule. The problem is particularly acute with respect to the rule of law. Militias dominate many parts of the country and in some places commit serious abuses with impunity. Meanwhile, thousands of people remain in detention, some held by the government and others by militias, with little immediate prospect of being charged or of confronting in court whatever evidence exists against them.
In Syria, where 60,000 people have been killed in ongoing fighting, according to the latest United Nations estimate, government forces have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes, while some opposition forces have also carried out serious abuses, including torture and summary executions.
A decision by the United Nations Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court would provide a measure of justice for all victims and help deter further atrocities and sectarian revenge. But though many governments say they support such action, they have not exerted the kind of sustained public pressure that could have persuaded Russia and China to abandon their vetoes and to allow a referral. Pressure is also needed on Syria’s armed opposition to articulate and live by a vision for Syria that respects the rights of all people.
The rights of women are a source of contention in many countries as Islamists gain electoral power. Some opponents contend that such rights are a Western imposition, at odds with Islam or Arab culture. International human rights law does not prevent women from leading a conservative or religious lifestyle if they wish. But too often governments impose restrictions on women who seek equality or autonomy. Calling such rights a Western imposition does nothing to disguise the domestic oppression, compelling women to assume a subservient role.
“As the Islamist-dominated governments of the Arab Spring take root, perhaps no issue will better define their records than the treatment of women,” Roth said.
Speech that is seen to transgress certain bounds often tempts those in power to restrict the rights of others. Especially vulnerable are statements that criticize the government, insult certain groups, or offend religious sentiment. In these cases, the danger to free speech is greatest in the absence of strong and independent institutions that can protect rights. Governments should also exercise restraint, respecting the right to dissent, criticize, and voice unpopular views.
Governments can justify some restrictions on speech, including speech used to incite violence. But it is also important to police those who use violence to suppress or punish speech. Those who react violently to nonviolent speech because they object to its content are the offenders; officials have a duty to stop their violence, not censor the offending speech.
The problem of unbridled majority rule is not limited to the Arab world. A vivid demonstration was found in Burma, where a long-entrenched military dictatorship gave way to a reform-minded civilian government. Still, the Burmese government has been reluctant to protect the country’s minority groups or even speak out about abuses against them, most notably the severe and violent persecution of the Muslim Rohingya.
The transition from revolution to rights-respecting democracy is foremost a task for the people of the country undergoing change, but other governments can and should exert significant influence. Yet Western support for human rights and democracy throughout the Middle East has been anything but consistent when interests in oil, military bases, or Israel are at issue.
Such inconsistency when it comes to holding abusive officials to account fuels arguments by repressive governments that international justice is selective and rarely applied to the allies of Western governments; it also undermines the deterrent value of the International Criminal Court.
“The Middle East’s new leaders will need to show principled determination if they are to improve human rights in a region long resistant to democratic change,” Roth said. “And they will need consistent and unwavering support from influential outsiders.”