Western countries should do more to support democracy and human rights in the Arab world, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said today at the release of its 2012 World Report.
The 676-page report was launched for the first time in Cairo, “because it is the capital of the Arab world,” said Kenneth Roth, HRW’s executive director. He was present alongside Heba Morayef, HRW’s Cairo-based Middle East and North Africa (MENA) researcher. The annual review looks at more than 90 countries, but this year’s report focuses on the international community’s reactions to the Arab Spring.
Roth said the report “reaches the sad but unavoidable conclusion that western policy for the Arab world has been one of containment. The West has treated Arab people as if they are to be feared, while promoting democracy elsewhere. In the MENA, they supported an array of autocrats as long as they supported western interests.” These Western interests include limiting the rise of political Islam, protecting Israel, maintaining the flow of oil, and stemming migration to Europe, Roth added.
While condemning the violent suppression of protests, Western countries have not fully backed peaceful protestors, Roth said. “Even today, the West endorsed an amnesty to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government, which means he will pay no price for killing demonstrators.” His criticism was directed at the United States and Europe, as well as dictatorial regimes in countries such as China and Russia where expressions of dissent, loosely inspired by the Arab world, have also been violently suppressed.
Brazil, India and South Africa, southern democracies that held critical seats on the United Nations Security Council in 2011, also did nothing to support popular movements in the Arab world, Roth said. “Despite having developed accountable governments and the rule of law in their own countries, these southern democracies showed only sporadic interest in helping people in the Arab world. They seemed much more preoccupied with fear that the promotion of peaceful protestors would serve northern interests.”
The African Union has also played a disappointing role in “backing authoritarians and ignoring the interests of North Africa’s people,” Roth said. He added that Turkey has played an increasingly important role by speaking out against violence and autocracy in the region, but argued that its ability to serve as a positive example is hindered by its intolerance of dissent at home, particularly of journalists and peaceful Kurdish activists.
Roth made four recommendations to the international community. First, come to terms with the rise of political Islam where it represents a majority. Second, promote more consistent defense of the right to freedom of expression, especially through social media and the internet, even if the message is anti-Western. “International companies should not sell equipment to countries that spy on and repress people,” he said.
The third recommendation is for the West to come clean about its own complicity in torture. Roth criticized US President Barack Obama’s refusal to investigate torture under former president George Bush. “The West must also stop finding excuses to send terror suspects to be tortured in the region,” he said.
The fourth recommendation is to help build the rule of law in the MENA and oppose impunity. “The lesson must be learned from Yemen: if you send a signal that there is no price to be paid for killing demonstrators, it sends a license to kill. This is terrible and encourages violence.”
The Arab League is meeting in Cairo today to decide whether or not to extend its observer mission in Syria for another month.
Roth expressed disappointment in the Arab League observers’ lack of transparency in its mission, which he said has limited its effectiveness in exposing President Bashar Al-Assad’s human rights abuses. “The Arab League has operated largely secretly and without transparency by not reporting its findings. Observer presence is not enough to deter Assad. They must regularly and publicly report what they’re seeing in order to maximize effectiveness. We don’t even know what rules have been governing the observers’ activities in Syria.”
He added, “We hope the Arab League makes clear that if Assad continues to kill in the second month of their presence, then they will look to the Security Council to ratchet up pressure. There are important steps it can take far short of military intervention, such as targeted sanctions on Assad and his entourage and an arms embargo, so that Russia can stop supplying Assad’s regime.”
“Also, the public threat of referral to the Hague’s international criminal court would greatly increase the influence of Arab League observers.”
In terms of UN Security Council resolutions, Roth said China and Russia have been the most “obstructionist” in vetoing efforts to apply pressure, but that Brazil, India and South Africa are also to blame. “If the southern democracies had voted for increasing pressure on Assad through sanctions and embargoes, then it would have been difficult for Russia and China to stand alone. Those lessons were learned from the Libya resolutions.”
HRW has been in contact with the Muslim Brotherhood for years, particularly in supporting its members suppressed under the Mubarak regime. On its concerns about the movement going forward as it looks to dominate parliament, Roth said: “The rhetoric is good but the proof is going to be in the pudding.”
“I hope they recognize they can’t pick and choose among freedoms without compromising all freedoms. They have so far supported political freedom, but this will be difficult to fully secure if they are not at the same time respecting religious freedoms and the rights of women.”
On the military, he said: “It has shown itself to be thin-skinned when it comes to criticisms of it and popular demonstrations. It doesn’t understand that democracy is not just about elections, but also a vigorous press and civil society.”
Roth and Morayef criticized the military’s harassment of non-governmental organizations for receiving foreign funding, especially given the irony that the military is a recipient of foreign aid itself. They also criticized the new draft law on NGOs being proposed by the government, which places further restrictions on them.
They also expressed concern at the excessive use of violence against demonstrators. “We are worried that the police and Ministry of Interior won’t be reformed, and that corruption will continue in the security apparatus,” Morayef said.
On the incoming parliament, Roth said it is essential for policymakers to realize that the “goal to build the rule of law is essential to democracy, and they can’t have this if governing authorities are above the rule of law. Reforming security forces must be a key goal for the new parliament.”