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OPINION / Human Rights

Could human rights protections reverse today's cruelty?

Even in the lands untouched by war, tens of millions of people suffer the indignities of political powerlessness.

by Rami G Khouri

Week after week, year after year, the endless stream of cruelties and occasional barbarism across the Middle East seems only to widen and deepen.

Routine criminal deeds using barrel bombs, chemical weapons, starvation sieges, shooting of children, torture and rape, mass imprisonment, destruction of hospitals and schools, and death by drones and missiles are committed by all actors in the region, including governments, rebel groups, foreign militaries, ethnic militias, and criminal gangs.

Innocent civilians pay the heaviest price. The rule of law and its global human rights and international humanitarian law protection remain elusive, with no serious signs of either deterrence or accountability measures to stop the atrocities.

Even in quiet or wealthy lands untouched by war, tens of millions of people suffer the indignities of political powerlessness, socioeconomic vulnerabilities, and rampant discrimination.

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'Two countervailing patterns'

The temptation to despair is great, yet the nearly 400 million people who live in Arab countries have nowhere to escape to, and must keep seeking the path to stability and equity.

International development experts in the United Nations system and its thousands of non-governmental partners see three critical pillars that underpin stable, secure and satisfying societies and countries: peace and security, development and humanitarianism, and human rights.

Instead of just cursing the madness and cruelty all around us, I decided to ask some experts whom I respect how one day we can reverse the worsening conditions and growing atrocities in the Arab world.

I went first to the person who is charged with promoting global human rights compliance in our world.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, is a Jordanian prince and seasoned diplomat whose assessment of such sensitive issues over the years I had always found clear, useful, and truthful. I met him in Geneva recently.

Protecting the fundamental freedoms and rights of your citizens is the way to create an antidote to the extremists and their thoughts. Using counterterrorism measures against journalists, activists and politicians to achieve a narrow political aim and consolidate your power base and authority is counterproductive.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Should ordinary citizens anywhere expect the UN system to provide practical assistance, or have even just a glimmer of hope that one day soon we will emerge from this nightmare of human cruelty and return to orderly, secure societies, I asked him.

"We see two countervailing trends at the same time," he told me. "There is growing acceptance of universal norms on issues such as child rights, women, minorities, LGBT, and torture, but some countries take exception to some norms - like sexual and reproductive rights, LGBT communities, and minorities - and say they need more time to overcome cultural resistance.

"Some states also sign the human rights agreements, but do not enforce them seriously. Our message to them is simple and clear: 'What can you say to others who deny your citizens' rights, if you also deny rights to your own minorities and vulnerable groups?'

One area of progress is offering no amnesty after a peace agreement for those who have been accused of war crimes, and ensuring that those who violate human rights on a massive scale must face their victims in a court of law one day.

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"Frustratingly slow but real signs" of such progress include the sentencing of former officials of Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

On the negative side, he points out, were "the devastating consequences" of giving former Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh amnesty when he stepped down in 2012, which "was intended to foster stability, but backfired horribly".

Turbulent conditions in the Middle East

So what does this mean for Syria, Yemen, Libya and other conflicts, I asked? "Accountability must be institutionalised in post-conflict transitional justice arrangements," he said, otherwise tensions from deep-rooted grievances will persist, and people will commit atrocities without fear of being brought to court.

In the current turbulent conditions in the Middle East especially, he regularly criticises states in the north and south for overreacting in hysterical ways to existing security or refugee conditions.

"Protecting the fundamental freedoms and rights of your citizens is the way to create an antidote to the extremists and their thoughts. Using counterterrorism measures against journalists, activists and politicians to achieve a narrow political aim and consolidate your power base and authority is counterproductive; it often fans the very thing governments say they want to remove from society, including intolerance, incitement to hatred, violence, assorted phobias, and deep racism. This is evident everywhere in the world, including some Middle Eastern societies.

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He regularly speaks out about these issues forcefully and frankly. At the UN Human Rights Council's June session he warned against harsh action by specific European, Arab, Asian and African states alike.

He does not shy away from warning about the damage caused by human rights regressions during specific events, such as the war in Yemen, the policies of the Philippines' new President Rodrigo Duterte, Donald Trump's statements, or post-coup measures in Turkey.

Human rights for all

"Better human rights conditions will emerge from closer coordination among the four levels of activism and official responsibility in this field," he says: governments, state and regional non-governmental organisations, and the UN system.

In the final analysis, he adds, "human rights must be consequential for individuals everywhere, in villages, on the border, in the capital and throughout society. We have to keep fighting the tendency by some governments and others to treat human rights as window-dressing in their laws, treaties and rhetoric, without showing any perceptible change at the level of a citizen's life."

Human rights protections under the rule are directly related in two ways to the current wave of violence, abuses, state fragmentation, and refugee flows.

He suggests "human rights observance is the glue that binds the citizen-state relationship that is absolutely fundamental to the legitimacy of the state. The Arab uprisings of 2011 started in the two states - Egypt and Tunisia - that were well on track to meeting the Millennium Development Goals.

"It is clear that beyond material conditions, citizens also must feel they are treated with dignity and have a say politically in the direction of their country."

Better human rights protections would also reduce the flows of desperate displaced people and refugees.

"If the world had invested in improving human rights conditions in the refugees' home countries, and reduced the insane disparities, deprivations and discrimination they faced, we certainly would not have the current refugee flows, human suffering, and underfunded responses," he suggests.

Rami G Khouri is a senior public policy fellow at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut and a non-resident senior fellow at Harvard University Kennedy School.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.



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