Rachid Mesli from Alkarama Organization:

Unprecedented Human Rights Revival in Arab World

Alkaramais a non-governmental human rights organization founded

Mr. Rachid Mesli
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.

Bahrain Human Rights Monitor interviewed the Director of the Legal Section of the Organization, Mr. Rachid Mesli, about a number of issues.

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 individual cases.

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 rights standards?

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 violations?

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 individual violations.

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 its obligations.

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 far?

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.