Human Rights Developments
The Arab-Israeli peace process, jolted by the assassination of Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, dominated the political picture. Elsewhere in the region the aftermath of international armed conflicts and unresolved internal conflicts took other turns, with northeast Iraq the scene of internecine warfare between Kurdish groups and a Turkish invasion; continuing violence in and around Israeli-occupied south Lebanon; Iraq's failure to release information on the almost one thousand prisoners unaccounted for since it withdrew from Kuwait; Yemen's actions to stifle criticism in the wake of its civil war; and more delays in the process to resolve the seemingly intractable dispute between Morocco and the Polisario Front over the status of the Western Sahara.
Nowhere was the conflict between an Islamist movement and a secular government more deadly than in Algeria, where tens of thousands died. Armed Islamist opposition groups in Algeria, as well as in Egypt and the Israeli-occupied territories, violated basic humanitarian norms by deliberately targeting civilians. But the response by governments to opposition groups, Islamist and secular, often failed to distinguish the violent forces from the nonviolent. In Saudi Arabia the government continued its crackdown on the largely nonviolent Islamist opposition, with hundreds of arrests. In Egypt, even nonviolent and nonpolitical organizations, including the nation's principal human rights organizations, were targeted as the government's campaign to suppress the violent Islamist movement was transformed into a blunt instrument to suppress criticism and to restrict political participation.
Elections did not in themselves mean effective political participation; opposition candidates in Egypt were thrown into prison, and in Iran, the lead-up to 1996 elections brought new restrictions on freedom of expression. Kuwait provided a human rights bright spot, with its signing of four international human rights instruments and abolition of its abusive state security courts. In Morocco, despite reforms that had brought significant improvements, law enforcement officials continued to engage in torture and due process violations. Syria's state security courts ignored defendant claims of coerced confessions, and sentenced nonviolent political dissidents to long prison terms. Despite promises that it would not adopt the abusive practices of its neighbors, the Palestinian Authority in Gaza/Jericho_at Israel's urging and with U.S. approval_set up a state security court to try militant opponents. Israel, in the areas under its direct control, continued to abuse the rights of Palestinians.
The commitment to accountability was tested across the region in 1995. Governments exhibited a disturbing confidence that if they rode out an initial storm of criticism the world would soon forget about abuses; whether it was Egypt's stubborn refusal to allow investigations of deaths in detention, or Algeria's cover-up of the Serkadji prison massacre, or Israel's hiding behind a statute of limitations in its domestic law to avoid investigating reports of the murder of prisoners of war by Israeli troops in 1956 and 1967_war crimes that should never be subject to statutes of limitations.
There was no letup in the ongoing struggle between Middle East governments and Islamist opposition groups that called for dramatic transformations in government and society. Algeria was the scene of the bloodiest and ugliest conflict, in which thousands of civilians were deliberately killed or wounded, targeted by both sides. In Israel, radical religious parties, angrily opposed to their government's agreements with the PLO, threatened violence to stop the handover of territory to Palestinian control. The threats turned to action in November when a militant Israeli assassinated Prime Minister Rabin, after several incidents in which Israeli extremists murdered Palestinians.
Emboldened by assurances of continued political support, several governments in the Middle East intensified and broadened their attack on all who opposed the government, violent and nonviolent alike. Expanding the focus from militant activists to the political center, government crackdowns also targeted lawyers, human rights activists, journalists, intellectuals, and academics. Lawyers were beaten in Syria and forty-three were imprisoned in Egypt, some of them after torture. Political parties were banned and in Egypt candidates for parliamentary elections were imprisoned. The space for political activity or dissent was shrinking all over the region.
Nongovernmental organizations, from human rights groups to charitable societies, having emerged as a force to be reckoned with on the international scene, were increasingly restricted.
In Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, the government of Hosni Mubarak paid little attention to domestic law, international law, or issues of accountability as its battle with the violent clandestine Islamic Group was paralleled by an expanding campaign to suppress the nonviolent opposition as well. Security forces operated with virtual impunity. Arbitrary arrests, long-term detentions, torture, hostage-taking, deaths in detention, and executions of civilians condemned to death without appeal by military courts were the main features of Egypt's human rights record. In a widely criticized move, Mubarak referred eighty-two Muslim Brothers, including former elected members of parliament and at least sixteen candidates in the upcoming election, to the Supreme Military Court for prosecution on political charges.
In Saudi Arabia the government beheaded an Islamist activist, the first Islamist opponent to be executed. He was convicted in a trial that failed miserably to meet international standards. Hundreds of other critics were arbitrarily arrested and detained without trial.
In Bahrain, demonstrations calling for restoration of constitutional rule and the release of political prisoners erupted in December 1994 and continued into the summer of 1995. While some demonstrators were implicated in acts of violence, resulting in the death and injury of members of the security forces and the destruction of property, most demonstrations were peaceful. When faced with peaceful protests, the security forces, led by former British colonial officer Ian Henderson, frequently used excessive lethal force. The government's show of force resulted in the death of at least ten protesters_including some who died under suspicious circumstances while in custody. Scores of protesters were injured when security forces used live ammunition to disperse demonstrators. Hundreds of suspected supporters of the protest movement were arrested, including Sheikh Abdel-Amir al-Jamri, a religious scholar, and members of his family. The only offense of many of those arrested appeared to be their call for restoration of the parliament and constitutional rule, suspended since 1975. By late October, while most detainees appeared to have been released, hundreds still remained in detention, including many who, after summary trials, were given lengthy prison sentences by the State Security Court. Others were summarily dismissed from their jobs.
In April, over 300 Bahraini women signed a petition calling for the restoration of democracy, respect for human rights and increased political participation for women. The government threatened the scores of signatories with the loss of their jobs if they did not withdraw their support for the effort, and subsequently some were dismissed or suspended.
Organized opposition groups continued to violate basic humanitarian law through deadly indiscriminate attacks and the targeting of civilians. In one of their bloodiest attacks yet, Algeria's Armed Islamic Group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing near an Algiers police station. The explosion killed forty-two and injured over 200, mostly civilians. The group also murdered wives and children of police officers, teachers and other public employees. Militant Palestinian Islamist groups claimed responsibility for four suicide bombings that killed forty Israelis and wounded hundreds.
In spite of the acts of violence intended to derail the Arab-Israeli peace talks, including the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin and the attempt made on the life of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, ongoing efforts to negotiate and implement peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors dominated the political picture of the Middle East. Too often human rights issues and the principle of accountability were treated as irritants or obstacles to this process. While political resolutions to the region's conflicts are essential to improving human rights conditions, peace agreements and implementation plans must include at all stages human rights protections in order to have any hope of succeeding.
It would be difficult to consider the first full year of the Palestinian Authority's (PA) partial self-rule as a human rights success. While the transfer of authority reduced contact and clashes between the Israeli army and the 800,000 Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and Jericho enclave, Israel continued to restrict Palestinians entering and leaving the occupied territories. In the West Bank areas over which Israel exercised direct control, human rights abuses such as arbitrary arrest, collective punishment and torture continued as in past years.
Meanwhile, in the Gaza Strip and Jericho, the Palestinian Authority made little progress in establishing the rule of law. The PA bypassed its existing civil court system and established a state security court to try mainly Islamist militants accused of violent activities.
As governments planned for the future peace, they were reminded_often painfully_of lingering unresolved legacies of past wars. Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights and Syria's 35,000 troops in Lebanon raised a range of human rights issues. The current and future status of Palestinian refugees required immediate attention; their precarious position was exposed when Libya expelled thousands this year, leaving entire families with nowhere to go.
The 1991 Gulf War continued to raise accountability issues. Five years after its invasion of Kuwait, Iraq had failed to account for the more than 900 "missing" Kuwaitis and other nationals rounded up during the invasion and occupation. Five years of U.N. economic sanctions imposed on Iraq and Iraq's refusal to accept the U.N.'s offer of conditional oil sale, have caused critical shortages of food and medicine and a dramatic rise in infant mortality. In northern Iraq, under the protection of an internationally enforced no-fly zone, rival Kurdish parties battled each other, killing or wounding hundreds in the process.
In Kuwait, the Bedoons_native Kuwaitis denied nationality_and Palestinian residents continue to suffer the aftershocks of the war. Collectively accused of collusion with Iraqi forces, they were subjected to a range of harassment and abuse, from heavy fines and threats to arbitrary arrest and torture, all in a concerted effort by the state to force them to leave Kuwait. For the Bedoons, this was a denial of their right to remain in, or return to, their own country.
In some cases governments adopted or continued the use of extraordinary procedures in the form of emergency law or state security courts, which by their very nature were abusive. Kuwait showed improvement in this area by abolishing its state security court, which had meted out death penalties and other harsh sentences in unfair proceedings that used coerced confessions and denied legal counsel.
In most other countries state security courts survived; in fact, thrived in their own abusive way. In Syria, for example, excruciatingly slow-paced trials of accused members of unauthorized political groups continued before the three-judge state security court. Many defendants had already spent fifteen years in prison before being charged and put on trial. Complaints of coerced confessions and torture were ignored by the judges and the accused had no access to lawyers of their choice. Verdicts could not be appealed.
In Egypt, an emergency law in effect since 1981 allowed the government to try civilians before military courts. But the expanded use of military courts to try hundreds of civilians, including leaders of civil society, caused an uproar of protest in Egyptian political and human rights circles.
Several governments encouraged the violent and intimidating activities of so-called vigilante groups supportive of government policy, especially when their actions were directed against known government critics or opponents. In Iran, the government did little to stop militant mobs from attacking, on two separate occasions, a prominent intellectual as he expressed his views on a liberal interpretation of Islamic principles. In Egypt a controversial court ruling declared a university professor an apostate because of his academic writing and ordered his separation from his Muslim wife. This decision was not only an outrageous infringement on the couple's rights; it could also embolden violent Islamist groups to attack them.
It was rare for states to openly confront or condone the use of torture. Most states claimed not to tolerate torture, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. A debate brewed in Israel over the government's controversial decision to allow increasingly harsh methods of interrogation, which often amounted to torture. In Iraq, where there was no such debate, a series of brutal decrees, advertised in newspapers, prescribed branding of the forehead and amputation for a range of offenses.
Prisons and detention centers, where accountability has life-and-death consequences, were often routinely used as centers for torture. Many prisoners died in detention as a consequence of torture or severe ill-treatment. Internal investigations were rarely conducted and almost never made public, doing little to show that authorities at a high level did not authorize the abusive treatment. In Egypt there was an alarming rise in the number of deaths in detention. There were at least two reported deaths in detention in the Gaza/Jericho area under the newly established Palestinian Authority.
The Algerian government not only blocked all independent investigations of a massacre in February at the Serkadji prison, it destroyed evidence, hastily buried the estimated one hundred prisoners without autopsies and prosecuted no one.
Across the region it remained difficult for human rights monitors, and at times lawyers, to gain access to prisons. There was at least one welcome exception as the International Committee of the Red Cross was finally granted access to Al-Khiam prison in south Lebanon.
Morocco's process of reform, which led to significant human rights improvements beginning in the late 1980s, stalled in 1995. Prison conditions remained abusive. The government did not account for all of the disappeared, or pay reparations to those who had been released from secret detention. Torture and due process violations continued.
Although difficult to track, use of the death penalty appeared to be increasing. In Saudi Arabia the government beheaded 192 people in the first ten months of 1995, most of whom were convicted of drug trafficking in secret trials with no appeal. That was more than in the two previous years combined.
Elections and preparations for elections were major themes in 1995. The Middle East needed no reminder of the critical human rights implications of an election process. The region's worst human rights disaster, Algeria, was precipitated in 1992 when a military-backed regime annulled parliamentary elections that the major Islamist party was poised to win. Algerians were due to return to the polls at the end of the year for the presidential election, in the face of threats against those who participate by the Armed Islamic Group. One candidate was assassinated in September.
This year human rights abuses were frequently associated with the election process. Governments often cynically manipulated elections and referenda to ensure victory, or validate their repressive rule, and the accompanying processes were riddled with violations of the right to free expression, association and assembly.
In Egypt, President Mubarak's preparation for the parliamentary election consisted of throwing opposition candidates into jail. In Lebanon, the Syrian government, with some 35,000 troops stationed in the country, apparently suggested there might not be the need for an election as long as the Lebanese government could amend the constitution to allow the existing president to serve an unprecedented third term. Despite an outcry from some quarters, the government approved the amendment and President Elias Hrawi began his third term.
In Iran's run-up to election scheduled for early 1996 the government restricted candidate eligibility and closed newspapers.
The U.N. came under sustained pressure from Morocco as it prepared for the referendum on self-determination in the Western Sahara. This threatened the fairness of the process and led to long delays. There were no delays in the September referendum in Iraq, when President Saddam Husein quickly called for a vote of confidence and received 99.9 percent of the votes cast.
The Right to Monitor
Those who had the courage to speak out in defense of human rights, criticize repressive practices, or monitor human rights conditions continued to face attacks from the government and violent opposition groups they criticized.
Two human rights activists were assassinated in Algeria, and as was the case in many of the murders there, the identities of the killers were not conclusively determined. Rampant political violence made any form of independent human rights monitoring an act of great courage.
Most countries in the region placed tight restrictions on human rights monitoring. Syria, which opened its doors to some international human rights organizations, did not allow its own citizens to monitor human rights conditions. Individuals or groups who were determined to investigate and report on human rights issues were tolerated in some countries as long as they did not cross certain lines, or were obliged to work from outside the country. Some were imprisoned for their work or killed. Although advances in telecommunication technology improved the efficiency of collecting and disseminating information from a position of exile, these groups continued to operate in the face of threats and ongoing harassment.
The large and active Egyptian human rights community came under sustained and aggressive attack in 1995 from the Mubarak government for exposing the worsening human rights conditions. Accused by the minister of the interior of "tarnishing Egypt's image," all human rights groups, domestic and international, faced restrictions, surveillance, interference, and a barrage of ridicule from the government-dominated media.
Human Rights Watch/Middle East requested access to Libya and Iraq in order to conduct fact-finding missions, but had not received a positive response.
The Role of the International Community
The double standard was clearly illustrated by U.S. actions and policies in the region. States that supported the peace process, or confronted Islamist militants were usually not criticized or held accountable for their own abuses except, to a limited extent Algeria. On the other hand, governments or groups referred to as "enemies of the peace process" and Islamist opposition groups were held to a strict standard and harshly criticized.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert H. Pelletreau could have been referring to most governments in the Middle East_especially Egypt, which receives $2.1 billion in U.S. assistance every year_when he described the situation in Algeria, "The government's reliance on repressive tactics has led to serious excesses by the security forces, alienated the Algerian people...[and] marginalized moderate elements of society..."
Many in the international community seemed to fear that the horrible violence that consumed Algeria could spread to other countries_Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco in particular. This fear muted public expressions of concern about government human rights abuses, sending a message that in the battle against Islamists brutal, arbitrary, and indiscriminate actions would be tolerated.
Governments battling opponents of the peace process were given the same latitude. This was the message delivered by U.S. Vice President Al Gore when he visited Jericho in March. He praised the Palestinian Authority for its use of state security courts, although he was well aware of their lack of due-process safeguards.
As human rights were downgraded, economic objectives were elevated to a high priority. The U.S. government put enormous effort into winning Middle East contracts for U.S. businesses and promoting economic activity around the Arab-Israeli peace process. A U.S.-sponsored business summit held in Amman brought together more than one thousand business and government representatives. It remained to be seen whether governments and businesses in pursuit of contracts and profits will recognize their obligations to adopt socially responsible practices that defend and promote human rights.
With the human rights component to its foreign policy circumscribed by other agendas, the State Department often pointed to its annual human rights report as evidence of its continued importance. These generally accurate and comprehensive reports were valuable records of U.S. government awareness of human rights conditions, but they were no substitute for foreign policy action. The U.S. government's failure to use the findings of its own reports to hold governments accountable to a single standard of human rights behavior opened its human rights policies to accusations of bias and hypocrisy.
With the U.S. and other governments acting out of a combination of competing interests, the Middle East might have looked to the United Nations for even-handed assistance in defending human rights. But while the U.N. celebrated its fiftieth birthday this year, its performance in the Middle East was not a cause for celebration. Without the mandate or political will to resist Moroccan pressure, the U.N. risked losing control of its operation to organize a free and fair referendum in the Western Sahara.
In Iraq the U.N. was caught in a tragic dilemma; with the government of Iraq refusing to comply with Security Council resolutions, the U.N. maintained tight economic sanctions for a fifth straight year, and watched as Iraqi civilians suffered and died as a result.
The Work of Human Rights Watch/Middle East
Human Rights Watch/Middle East's work in 1995 covered a range of issues from the government security force's practice of hostage taking in Egypt, to the institutionalized discrimination against the Bedoons of Kuwait. We examined the human rights improvements and shortcomings in Morocco since the reforms beginning in the late 1980s, and assessed the human rights record of the Palestinian Authority in its first year of in Gaza/Jericho self-rule areas.
Governments were not the only targets of our research and advocacy. The United Nation's failing operation in the Western Sahara was the object of a fact-finding mission and findings were published in an October report. A Human Rights Watch/Middle East delegation met with a Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip to protest the targeting of civilians by Hamas militants.
After years of making requests to the government of Syria, Human Rights Watch/Middle East was finally allowed to conduct an official fact finding mission to Syria. The mission lasted seven weeks and included visits to several parts of the country and interviews with a wide range of Syrians. The first in a series of reports focused on the state security court, pressure on political prisoners after release, and torture.
Although priority was given to the monitoring of current conditions and rapid response interventions when the first word of an abuse was received, Human Rights Watch/Middle East also pursued issues of accountability for past abuses; for example, urging states to bring a case of genocide against the government of Iraq for its slaughter of Kurds in the late 1980s.
Human Rights Watch maintained pressure on governments all over the world, with particular attention to the U.S. and the states of the European Union, urging them to raise human rights issues in their diplomatic and trade contacts with Middle East governments.