Rachid Mesli from Alkarama Organization:
Unprecedented Human Rights Revival in Arab World
Alkaramais a non-governmental human rights organization founded
and situated in Geneva in 2004 by a team of lawyers and human rights
activists with a view to contributing to the promotion and protection
of human rights, especially in the Arab world. Objectives of the
organization are many including: expose cases of human rights violations
in the Arab world, provide moral support and legal assistance to
victims of abuses, exert efforts to prosecute perpetrators of human
rights violations; encourage governments to respect human rights
and exert pressure on them if necessary.
|Mr. Rachid Mesli
Bahrain Human Rights Monitor interviewed the Director of the
Legal Section of the Organization, Mr. Rachid Mesli, about a number
Q 1: There are many human rights organizations in the world,
and Alkarama is one of these organizations , what distinguishes
Alkarama from other organizations?
Thank you for calling us distinguished. Alkarama is only one
of many organizations that work in the field of human rights in
the Arab world, and it is not the only one to stand out for doing
so from Europe, because there are other organizations working on
the human rights situation in the Arab world for various reasons.
But allow me to tell you that our organization’s distinguishing
characteristic derives from the nature of its work, which may be
summarized under three headings:
The first heading is that our organization treats only issues
tied to physical violations of human rights affecting physical and
mental security and human freedom. We have restricted ourselves
to working on this category of violations, without forgetting violations
related to them.
The second distinguishing characteristic is that Alkarama resorts
to international law to treat the violations that it learns of through
its network of human rights activists, and uses the mechanisms for
the protection and promotion of human rights set up by the United
Nations to do so. And as there is no dedicated system set up to
protect human rights in the Arab world, we therefore resort to the
mechanisms of the international human rights law, meaning that our
organization takes a legal approach when it comes to dealing with
Finally, when the issue relates to intervening on behalf of the
victims to lighten their suffering or limit the violations they
are being subjected to, then it appears natural to tighten as far
as possible the relations with their family members and lawyers.
This is the human side of our organization’s work, which appears
obvious although we do not try to bring it to the front. These are
the three characteristics that perhaps distinguish us from other
organizations at present.
Q 2: What is your assessment of the human rights situation in
the Middle East, and do you see from past experience any positive
signs for the progress of human rights conditions?
The human rights situation in general in the Arab League member
states is worrying. I do not see any essential difference between
the results that local and international NGOs have obtained in this
regard. It varies from country to country according to their political,
social and historical characteristics. Nonetheless, we observe that
a culture of human rights has begun to spread in the whole region,
perhaps because of the ease of communication... People have become
more aware of their rights and of the need for states to respect
them. As a result the citizens have come to demand that their physical
security and justice and freedom of expression be respected. For
example, it used to seem natural that when a person was arrested
by the security forces he should be beaten up, and the victims would
rarely call this torture, whereas today they have come to describe
rightly such practices as torture. Now they need to take a step
further, and lodge a complaint – a practice that has not yet become
customary. Many people today realize that their governments have
obligations in the sphere of human rights, and they have started
to demand that they meet these obligations. Likewise, many political
opposition groups, despite differences in their outlooks, display
increasing interest in human rights issues, which was not the case
previously, at least not to the same degree.
Thanks to that, the region has begun to witness an unprecedented
human rights awakening, both because the wall of silence that had
been imposed on it has been breaking down, and because the number
of human rights activists has been increasing day by day.
On the other hand, we observe contradictory changes at the level
of state institutions: The obligations that the states have undertaken
through their signature of international treaties and the principles
of international law bring a sort of improvement to the human rights
situation in some states, but they create the new problem of these
institutions insincerely adopting human rights discourse while continuing
to break these principles in dealing with their citizens’ rights.
For example, whereas the law limits the term of custody or pre-trial
detention, it is exceeded by resorting to a variety of roundabout
methods in order to make the legal records not officially indicate
that the legal limit has been surpassed; in Algeria or Morocco,
for example, to legitimize an over-long pre-trial detention period,
the security forces do not hesitate to forge the official report
of the initial investigation.
Q 3: Is the violation of human rights in the Arab world has its
own characteristics? Or, are there political, cultural and historical
factors which have particularly contributed to the continuation
of the deteriorating conditions?
There are no cultural factors that would allow us to speak of
human rights being respected especially in one part of the world
as opposed to another, since the practice of secret detention and
torture extends to every continent and every form of culture. Under
the cover of fighting terrorism, governments in Europe and North
America practice secret detention and other forms of human rights
violations. Therefore, war on terror has plainly encouraged this
part of the world to slide into yet more of these human rights violations.
The internal and external political circumstances of states play
a decisive role in whether regimes resort to these practices. The
Syrian regime, for example, whose security is exposed to continual
external threats, has resorted to domestic repression in order to
remain in power, and the case of Algeria has shown the extent to
which a regime can resort to collective and systematic human rights
violations, which may be categorized as “crimes against humanity
to safeguard particular minority interests”. What happened in Iraq,
which sank into an unprecedented swamp of violence and unparalleled
violations, is not the best choice, compared to the period of Saddam
Hussein’s rule, and is simply the direct result of the occupation
by American forces from which this part of the world suffers.
There are also internal factors that play a role in the human
rights situation’s continuous deterioration. Some regimes, rejected
by their peoples, find no alternative to continuous persecution
of the opposition in order to remain in power. In Egypt and Yemen,
for example, despite arbitrary detentions and routine torture and
mass forced disappearances, the situation remains explosive, whereas
the Tunisian regime has succeeded in combining economic progress
with advanced brutal repression.
Q 4: Do you rely on specific criteria in assessing the human
rights situation in the Middle East? Have you adopted classification
measures for the Arab countries in terms of commitment to human
We have not developed specific criteria for assessing the human
rights situation in a particular country, for a simple reason: the
differing political situations make that a difficult exercise. We
cannot compare, for example, the situation in Somalia, where the
state is absent, to that in Tunisia, where the state is omnipresent.
In the former case, one would be glad when the number of killings
so much falls, whereas a case of one extra judicial killing in the
latter case would represent a serious deterioration in human rights.
The idea of setting objective criteria for assessing the human
rights situation across different countries and evaluating positive
and negative developments is interesting, but we already know that
the governments will blame NGOs for the non-objectivity of their
judgments whatever happens!
Instead, it is possible to display the observations and recommendations
put forward by the UN bodies dealing with the human rights situation
in each country and compare them and bring them to the attention
of civil society organizations that follow these issues; this data
in general remains accessible only to specialists. These tasks are
specific to the human rights organizations in each country, where
and when they exist.
Q 5: Alkarama uses the United Nations mechanisms to address the
human rights violation in the Middle East, can you explain the nature
of these mechanisms and how they can impact in reducing human rights
The United Nations has established a variety of mechanisms for
the protection and promotion of human rights worldwide and has placed
them at the service of victims and organizations concerned with
spreading and bringing them such information. Some of these mechanisms
were put in place by international treaties and concern only states
that have ratified them or the optional protocols. These mechanisms
concern only a small number of Arab states when it comes to investigating
Alongside these, we find mechanisms that concern all states,
and treat most physical violations, such as the Special Rapporteurs
or Working Groups. For example, there is a mechanism that follows
and intervenes in issues of torture and other cruel, inhuman or
degrading treatment or punishment, namely the Special Rapporteur
on Torture. There is also another mechanism concerned in particular
with issues of arbitrary deprivation of liberty, namely the Working
Group on Arbitrary Detention.
These mechanisms may be resorted to by any victim or their representative.
The violations will be subjected to investigation or special intervention
with regard to the state in question through a procedure specific
to each mechanism.
When the state in question cooperates with the UN mechanism and
shows goodwill in a positive way, it thereby shows its desire to
improve the human rights situation, either by putting an end to
some violation or by correcting a general situation. It is also
a matter of the country’s reputation in the assembly of nations,
because it is not good for its reputation to be in the spotlight
for a sensitive issue such as human rights.
Thousands of complaints lodged with various UN bodies have been
treated so far since our organization was founded six years ago.
We may say, after the experience that we have gained, that the results
we have reached are encouraging with regard to some countries, but
the situation remains worrying with regard to others.
Q 6: Despite the fact that many Arab countries have ratified
the international human rights conventions , we find that there
are numerous violations of these rights in comparison with the human
rights situation on the ground. How can you convince the public
of the usefulness of signing these international human rights charters
by authoritarian regimes if such regimes do not intend or commit
to apply them?
Signing international treaties contributes to improvement of
the human rights situation, because it creates an additional way
to put pressure on states, and gives citizens a way to act on the
international level. However, we may perceive that signing international
treaties does not automatically lead to an improvement of the human
rights situation on the ground. Algeria signed the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against
Torture after the democratic openness that it experienced in 1989,
but when the army put an end to democracy two years later, the country
experienced systematic collective human rights violations against
the Algerian people without any reaction worth mentioning from the
United Nations. It thus appears clear that signing on its own is
not enough, and is meaningless when the member state does not respect
The important thing is to push states to respect the obligations
to which they have signed up. It is very important for civil society
organizations and NGOs to play an active role by taking measures
aimed at encouraging states to respect these obligations by participating
for example in the universal periodic review of the situation in
each country by various UN bodies and issuing experts’ reports.
They can also play a more active role by following the recommendations
issued by these bodies. It is clear that an exceptional improvement
of the human rights situation does not depend exclusively on work
at the UN level. Rather, organizations and political parties, if
they exist, need to take in the idea of human rights and their development
and enforcement at the domestic level, and the country’s adherence
to the principles of human rights gives them a chance to remind
the government of its obligations.
Q 7: One of the objectives of Karam is to disseminate a human
rights culture in the Arab communities and educate citizens about
their constitutional rights and means of protecting these rights
What are the tools that you use of to achieve this objective, and
to what extent are such tools effective?
Alkarama considers the spread of the culture of human rights
in Arab societies to be a crucial issue both in terms of perception
– the Arab citizen needs to be aware of his rights as a human being
– and in terms of feeling that these values do not contradict his
culture and identity, and are not a monopoly of other persons who
have the exclusive right of enacting it and living under its wing.
Of course, enacting laws and constitutions is not enough to spread
this culture, especially if these laws are not respected. Karama’s
contribution towards spreading the culture of human rights is based
on dealing with cases of human rights violation and using the tools
provided by international human rights law to try to stop injustice,
limit the violations, and make the victims and their relatives in
general aware that there are rights and laws of direct relevance
to them, and that can directly affect their situation as citizens.
Alkarama envisions that the more citizens observe in practice that
they can restore their rights by resorting to the law, whether at
the domestic or international level, the more confidence in the
rule of law and the value system of human rights increases. What
we have observed in practice is that in many states the victims
and their families used to look with skepticism on anything connected
with human rights, and think of them as just slogans with no effect
on their situation, but over time, and as our organization took
on, as far as possible, more and more cases, the people in question
became convinced of the importance of human rights and the need
to protect them. Another matter that contributes to the growth of
awareness is that Karama, insofar as it takes care to work with
governments and urge them to respect human rights, always stands
with the victims and does not flatter these governments when they
break their obligations. This makes Arab citizens feel that there
is someone who stands with them when they are abused.
Alongside this, Alkarama organizes conferences and embraces balanced,
responsible media work that supports its legal work and makes Arab
citizens aware of their rights and how to protect them.
Q 8: One of the objectives Alkarama seeks to achieve is to train
human rights defenders. How does Alkarama organize such trainings,
and are you satisfied with what you have done in this regard so
We hope that every Arab citizen will become a human rights defender,
at least in principle, because it is not possible to envisage a
concept of citizenship without the emergence of commitment to, and
defense of, human rights. But practically speaking, anyone who wants
to practice this noble profession which makes a person a true human
rights defender ss needs training and qualifications. Alkarama opens
its doors to hundreds of citizens in the Arab world for voluntary
work as human rights defenders, and undertakes to train them to
take on the cases of victims in their areas in practice and to understand
and use the legal mechanisms that can allow them to succeed in their
work. Alkarama also organizes field training sessions at its base
in Switzerland where human rights defenders can update their skills,
both theoretical and practical. We make sure that anyone who joins
this enterprise commits to the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders
as established by the United Nations. Of course, this effort needs
to be continuous and lasting, both on the part of Alkarama and on
the part of those trained in this context. We can see that this
effort always needs improvement; no organization knowing the situation
of the Arab world can be content with its efforts however great
they may be, because there remains a need for more work.