At a two-day conference held this week in Cairo entitled “Prospects for Political Reform in the Arab World,” organized by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), Arab and western rights activists expressed concern about what they see as waning interest on the part of the US and EU in promoting human rights reform in the region.
Conference sessions were devoted to a range of issues, including human rights development in the Arab region, EU and US policies for promoting democracy and human rights in the Arab world, and the role of the UN in promoting human rights in the Middle East.
Speakers provided an overview of the regional human rights situation, from longstanding national emergency laws to the frequent use of military tribunals in countries such as Syria, Algeria, Sudan, Egypt and Yemen. The conference also highlighted a perceived shift in the agenda of Arab civil society over the last decade from a focus on general regional issues towards more specific, localized problems, such as election monitoring, torture and prison conditions within each respective country.
At the conference, many attendees complained that EU and US priorities in the region had shifted over the last ten years–at the expense of human rights and democracy promotion.
“Recent years have seen a European pull-back from active democracy support,” said Kristina Kausch, research fellow at Madrid-based think tank FRIDE. This trend, she said, had lead to “mounting disappointment with the lack of coherence and commitment, which stands in contradiction to a plethora of the EU’s declared foreign policy goals.”
Conference participants tackled the issue of US democracy funding in particular, which, they noted, has a significant impact on which initiatives are pursued in the region and which aren’t. According to CIHRS Director Bahey Eddein Hassan, new US Agency for International Development (USAID) policies, for example, restrict agency funding to organizations approved by the Egyptian regime.
“Sadly, the American administration has agreed to provide support through USAID only to those organizations officially registered [with the Egyptian government],” said CIHRS Director Bahey Eddein Hassan. “This gives the government the right to decide what constitutes an NGO, which has a negative political effect rather than a positive developmental one.”
Fortunately, he added, other sources of US funding–such as the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which sponsored the conference–are not bound by the same restrictions.
“The current human rights situation in the world will continue to reflect the absence of political will for the support of reform and democracy,” said CIHRS research head Essam Edin Hassan. “This lack of commitment is not only visible in the Arab world, but extends as far as the UN and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).”
Acording to conference participant Neil Hicks, international policy adviser for US-based advocacy group Human Rights First, one of the reasons for the UNHRC’s current ineffectiveness is that Arab states work to “undermine the independence and effectiveness of the UN’s human rights machinery.”
“A number of states, including several close allies of the US with poor human rights records–such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan–have played a leading role in promoting damaging proposals,” noted Hicks, which include, “limiting the participation of independent NGOs at UNHRC meetings, especially during the Universal Periodic Review Process, the council’s most promising innovation.”
Conference participants also drew up a series of recommendations to be presented at the Forum for the Future, a democracy and reform initiative founded by the G8 and countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Recommendations included calls for Arab countries to abide by international human rights standards, civil-society monitored elections, guarantees for freedom of expression and the abolition of emergency laws.
“We’re trying to send recommendations to make this forum more functional and effective in helping human rights issues in the Arab world,” said Hassan.
Participants also called on Arab nations to release political activists and prisoners of conscience, along with other detainees.
At the end of the conference, attendees voted to nominate a spokesperson to represent them at the upcoming Forum for the Future, scheduled to take place in Qatar in November under the auspices of the Qatari and Canadian governments. Rola Badran, programs director for the Palestinian Organization for Human Rights in Lebanon was selected for the task.