Director of the Middle East at Amnesty International:

Human rights in the Middle East are the least protected

‘Our main role is to stand with those whose human rights were violated and to draw attention to their plight, and to be a voice to those who lost their voices due to the violations they had suffered’.

Malcolm Smart

Malcolm Smart

Q 1: Is the Middle East region different from the rest of the world in relation to commitment to human rights? Where would Amnesty International place the region in terms of reforms and positive changes to the Human Rights compared with other regions in the world? What are the most critical points on the issue of the Arab human rights, and once such points are met will there be a breakthrough that reflects positively on the human rights situation?

Amnesty International does not seek to make comparisons between different world regions or, indeed, between countries, but to assess each state’s human rights record individually, recognizing that no two states are exactly alike, and using international human rights law and standards as the principal benchmark against which to assess their record.

Relative to other world regions, the Middle East is notable in that human rights are less well protected under international treaty and there is not an effective mechanism in place regionally to promote and protect human rights - along the lines, for example, of the Inter-American Court, the European Court of Human Rights or the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. On the first point, it is notable that certain states have still to become party to key international human rights treaties to which most other states globally have signed up (for example, Saudi Arabia is yet to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights although it was one of the member states of the newly-formed UN when it adopted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948 and has recently been sitting on the UN’s main human rights body, the UN Human Rights Council) or have done so entering reservations against some of their key provisions - for example, when becoming party to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women - which have the effect of undermining the treaty. On the second point, there is now an Arab Human Rights Charter which has been adopted by a number of Middle Eastern states, but in certain important respects this is a weaker document than the main international human rights treaties and it is uncertain, as yet, whether the body established to monitor its implementation will have any teeth.

This point of ratifying human rights treaties is important because governments, in doing so, commit to meeting certain human rights obligations. The real challenge, then, is for these rights to be realised in practice - this needs firm commitment and political will by governments but also the fullest possible involvement of civil society and public involvement in ensuring that human rights are well understood and are attainable for all, not least those who are often the most vulnerable in society due to discrimination or other factors.

Q2: What is in your view, the core causes that lead to violations of human rights in the Arab countries, and make the path to human rights development ridden with problems?

Governments generally continue to show a reluctance to accept criticism or to allow the free flow and exchange of information and ideas, and to put the protection and promotion of human rights at the centre of their policies. Consequently, all across the region we see violations of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, with those who criticise state authorities - in the media, through blogs or in their other writings or speeches or other activities - liable to arrest and detention or other forms of harassment. Some are prosecuted on criminal defamation charges or for harming the state or its security when all they did was to peacefully express views critical of the government or of some alleged malpractice by state authorities. By such means, mere expression of a different view is equated as subversion by those who hold the power in the state. This is a gross abuse of human rights. And perhaps the saddest irony is that those targeted in this way are often Human Rights Defenders - people with the courage, and temerity, to stand up to state authorities and insist that they meet their obligations under international human rights law.

Arab Charter on Human Rights the most weakest instrument compared to international treaties, yet no assurances to be activated

This is one of the core problems but, clearly, there are many others and they are both complex and diverse. The continuing denial of rights to Palestinians as a result of the more than 60-year long Israel-Palestinian conflict and the presence of foreign military forces in the region, notably since 2003 in Iraq, are factors that contribute to insecurity and political instability in the region, to which can be added the political stand off and regional and international concern about Iran’s nuclear development programme, and Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons. As well, public security also continues to be threatened by the actions of al-Qa’ida and its affiliates and other armed groups, whose attacks frequently target civilians in gross breach of international law, and also are used as a justification by governments in the region to use anti-terrorism laws over broadly, to clamp down on peaceful dissent, and to allow their security and intelligence police far too much latitude in carrying out arrests, detaining people in breach of their rights and, all too often, torturing or otherwise ill-treating them with impunity.

Q 3: Is there any methodology and/or standards used by your organization in assessing the development of human rights in various countries in general? Do you have a scientific classification of the Arab countries in terms of commitment to international standards, or in terms of positive developments in the performance of governments, even if such developments are limited and not comprehensive in nature?

We look at human rights in each country separately taking into account the human rights treaty obligations that each state has entered into of its own volition, as the standards by which it agrees to be measured, and against the benchmarks set down within the wider framework of international law - human rights law but also international humanitarian law, international refugee law and international criminal law. We look too at the particular political, economic, cultural and social context in each state and seek to identify what are the current human rights problems that need to be addressed, and what steps might be taken and by whom - often the government but sometimes other actors too or instead - to address these problems and bring

Amnesty criticizes governments, but publicly acknowledges their positive improvements in the human rights situation
relief and remedy to those whose rights are being denied; this may be an untried political detainee, a victim of enforced disappearance and his or her family, or a family under threat of forcible removal from their home, or perhaps a migrant domestic worker who is exposed to abuse by her employer because her rights are inadequately protected under the employment and other law, and she is triply discriminated against as a woman, a foreigner and as a migrant worker.

We are known mostly for our criticism of violations that occur, but we do also give a lot of attention to human rights improvements when they are made by governments and others. We seek always to encourage such improvements and to give credit, including publicly, where credit is due. But our primary roles are to stand with those whose human rights are violated, to draw attention to their plight and so, to an extent, to act as a voice for those who, all too often, have been rendered voiceless by the violations that they are suffering.

Q 4: It is noticed that Amnesty International focus on civil and political rights violations only, why? It is observed that the nature of political systems and their openness determines the development and respect for human rights, but little has been done to analyze the nature of political regimes in the Arab region in particular?

In fact, Amnesty International works not only for civil and political rights but also for the protection and promotion of economic, social and cultural rights as we consider that all human rights are universal and indivisible. While we continue to give a great deal of attention to violations of civil and political rights, last year we launched our Demand Dignity campaign, an international campaign that we will run for the next few years and which focuses on human rights abuses that force people into poverty and that keep them in poverty. In particular, in this campaign we are currently giving greatest attention to the right of everyone to adequate shelter for themself and their family, addressing problems of forcible evictions and destruction of homes which often hit hardest on the very poorest, and on the

Western governments have used (human rights) for their political objectives, and were selective in criticizing systems they do not like
issue of maternal mortality, its human rights causes and consequences - these, often, are due to discrimination and violence against women and their subordinate role in many societies, and problems such as early and forced marriage. As well, we are giving attention in this Demand Dignity campaign to the role and responsibilities of corporate actors, the private often multinational companies whose activities sometimes cause or lead to serious human rights abuses in the areas in which they are pursuing their commercial interests; in particular, we are examining the role of companies in the extractive industries - oil and gas, mining and so on.

We don’t give a lot of time or attention to trying to analyse different political systems - that is more a job for the academic community and political commentators. Unfortunately, we have found in the almost 50 years since Amnesty International was formed that there is no perfect political system when it comes to human rights - as our published annual reports show each year no region of the world and no political system is immune from human rights abuses.

Q 5: Some countries complain that the major international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International harmonize their agenda, objectives and the timing of their human rights campaigns with the political agenda of the major Western countries. Furthermore, it is evident that when Western countries involve in political conflict with another country, it would be accompanied by a human rights campaign by those organizations. What do you say about this claim?

We reject this claim. Frankly, it is often made by governments that we have criticised or their supporters for self-serving reasons, to dismiss our criticism without addressing its substance. It is, however, a frequently repeated claim that human rights are somehow a Western concept and are being imposed on governments and people in the Middle East and other parts of the world. Yet, in reality, governments in the Middle East and all around the world have freely committed to uphold international human rights law and standards, accepting that they must report periodically to the international community, through the UN, when doing so. Even more importantly, one needs to look at the substance of what is meant by human rights - for example, the right not to be tortured, or the right to have an education or the right to be free from discrimination. Do the government officials and others in the Middle East who claim that human rights are a Western invention deny that people in the Middle East have such rights, or that these rights are not already rooted in local culture and values? I don’t hear them really saying that - or, indeed, that they themselves and their families do not also have these rights - even though they like toassert that human rights are somehow an alien concept. Not so.

Governments threw away the legal book and followed the maxim (the end justifies the means), and created a net of suppression under the name of anti-terrorism

One problem, of course, is that Western governments have sometimes used notions of human rights and the need to protect them in their pursuit of their own political objectives, and have done so selectively critizing governments they dislike on human rights grounds while remaining silent on abuses by their allies. This, clearly, does a disservice to human rights and has made it that bit easier for those who wish to do so to try and give human rights a bad name.

For its part, from its formation in 1961 Amnesty International has remained independent of all governments and political ideologies and has sought to assess the human rights records of different states according to a consistent standard and the framework of international law - the corpus of law that governments, not Amnesty International, invented ostensibly to regulate their own conduct.

Thus, we do not time our campaigns or other activities to coincide with the political interests of Western or other states - indeed, if you look at our record, you will see that many times Western, as well as other governments, have greatly disliked it when we have campaigned against violations for which they are responsible and most certainly found it inconvenient.

Q6: International human rights reports indicate a decline in the level of respect for human rights in the world during the past years, and attributed it in one of its aspects to the human rights abuses carried out under the pretext of (counter-terrorism). There is no consensus regarding the definition of ‘terrorism’, which is still loose. How long will these violations persist under this pretext? What is the position of Amnesty International on anti-terrorism laws issued by different countries?

Yes, the years of the so-called war on terror have seen an erosion in human rights in the name of the fight against terrorism. Clearly, governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens and others within their jurisdiction from terrorism, as other serious crime, but when doing so they must also abide by their obligations under international law. This is largely where a number of governments - in the Middle East and elsewhere, including the USA and Europe - have fallen seriously short, with Guantanamo and the secret renditions programme as the two most obvious examples, though there are many others.

Essentially, what happened was that governments to an extent threw away the rule book and took on an “end justifies the means” approach, to the extent that they subordinated their human rights obligations to the challenge of fighting terrorism. Unsurpringly, the result has been further serious abuses of human rights, both of those suspected of involvement in terrorism, and of other people such as Human Rights Defenders, government critics and people who expose government wrongdoing, who have been drawn into the wide net of repression that has been created using over-broad and ill-defined anti-terrorism laws.

Of course, we condemn terrorism - such as bomb and other attacks on civilians - in the strongest possible terms. We demand that those who perpetrate such acts immediately desist and we call for them to be brought to justice, in conformity with the requirements of international law. At the same time, we condemn secret detentions, enforced disappearances and torture - violations that have all too often been committed by governments against both people suspected of terrorism and also many others - and in this case too call for those responsible to be held to account and brought to justice. The fight against terrorism cannot be used to justify such grievous violations; indeed, when it is, public security is even further threatened.

Q 7: What is the methodology adopted by Amnesty International with regard to monitoring and follow-up of the situation of human rights in Arab countries, particularly sources and credibility of information?

Our approach is to monitor all possible public sources of information including media reports but also information published by governments, political parties and civil society groups, academics, international agencies and others but also to seek information from other sources - these can include, most particularly, victims of human rights abuses or their relatives or eye-witnesses. We also carry out field visits when we can to investigate human rights on the ground - although, sadly, some governments - those of Iran and Saudi Arabia among them - continue to refuse us access to their countries for this purpose.