Human rights rhetoric grows in Middle East

The Arab Spring has compelled the region’s governments, if reluctantly, to adopt the language of human rights politics.

bashar al assad to speak today
Protestors have put pressure on their governments to condemn repression in neighbouring countries [Reuters]

The wave of protest and change sweeping the Middle East has produced many firsts. Among them is Middle Eastern governments’ reluctant foray into human rights politics. The early Arab response to Libya, though riddled with contradictions, was groundbreaking.

The Arab League decision to support a “No Fly Zone” over Libya in April, pledges by its Secretary General to pursue an investigation into Libyan human rights abuses in May, and Qatar’s extensive support for Libya’s opposition on humanitarian grounds effectively broke an unspoken pact that Arab states did not pose overt human rights challenges to each other as giving the framework increased credence could be detrimental to them all. Even more democratic Turkey was averse to risking the strong relations it was steadily developing with its neighbours by bringing up awkward human rights conversations.

The unprecedented move of denouncing a neighbour (that was not Israel) for its use of violence against a disaffected population in the Libyan case was last month followed by a chain of condemnations of the Syrian regime’s repression of protestors challenging its rule. Although political calculations rendered the Assad regime more difficult to desert than Gaddafi’s, the Arab League, the GCC, Turkey, Kuwait, Jordan, the PLO and, much more astoundingly, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have all moved to issue public rebukes of Syria’s brutal crackdown on its citizens.

King Abdullah’s recalling of the Saudi Ambassador from Damascus while declaring that what is happening in Syria is “against values and ethics” and “unacceptable to Saudi Arabia” can hardly be viewed as a dramatic change of heart since he sent troops to crush Bahrain’s protest movement. As several commentators have observed, more likely, it was a highly calculated step to bolster domestic legitimacy by tapping into popular outrage over the bloodshed, exploit the sectarian element of the conflict, counter Iranian influence in an increasingly imaginable post-Assad Syria or any combination thereof.

Regardless of its motives, the Saudi king’s intervention was significant. Ultimately, he was forced to manage, respond to and validate a discourse that could sooner or later be used to undermine his own grip on power.

Middle Eastern double standards

Taking this leap into human rights politics inevitably means opening the doors to popular and civil society demands to live up to the rhetoric being deployed and justify differential treatment of human rights violations in other contexts.

This dynamic has begun to take shape in the Middle East. Syrian embassies in several parts of the region, most notably Cairo, have been the site of popular protests expressing solidarity with Syrians or demandnig their government expel Syrian ambassadors. Further, ever since the Arab League took its bold stance on Libya, Arab civil society has been demanding that it takes equally bold action on Bahrain and Syria. In April a group of 12 human rights NGOs wrote a scathing letter accusing the Arab League of “double standards and selectivity” in its support for Syria’s bid to join the UN Human Rights Council after having voted for Libya’s expulsion from the same body and the institution of a “no fly zone” in Libya  on human rights grounds. Arab governments, which over the years have become experts at decrying Western double-standards on human rights, now had to respond to the hypocrisy charge themselves.

Not only has the Arab League dropped its support for Syria taking a seat on the Human Rights Council, recently the four Arab states with seats on the UN body voted for a resolution condemning Syrian human rights violations and urging the Syrian government to cooperate with UN investigations of its human rights abuses. While in statements at the special session Saudi Arabia called on Syria to “cease all forms of violations of human rights” and Qatar referred to the need to uphold citizens’ rights, it was Kuwait that made the most dramatic statement. In textbook UN human rights language, the Kuwaiti delegate affirmed Kuwait’s commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, reminded Syria of its obligations under international human rights treaties to human rights norms, and concluded by quoting from the part of the UN Charter which states, “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small”.

For those who have seen Arab delegates sit before the same body and make statements simply congratulating each other on their human rights achievements in the face of “challenges” and “constraints” in their ability to fully adhere to international human rights norms, the Arab delegates’ statements were almost surreal.

Although tepid and often devoid of the explicit invocations of “human rights” heard before the Human Rights Council, the Arab Spring seems to have forced many of the region’s governments into engaging and affirming human rights norms. This is a significant departure from simply proceeding as if the repression simply did not exist, or treating charges of human rights violations as irrelevant or imperialist interventions. Middle Eastern governments have in effect opened the door to a new era in the region’s human rights politics, one not centred around charges of Western double standards and hypocrisy, but equally around charges of Middle Eastern double standards and hypocrisy.

Human rights entanglements

Arab states are not the only ones with noteworthy human rights entanglements in the Middle East these days. When Turkey finally began placing more substantive diplomatic pressure on the Assad government several weeks ago, it issued Damascus a “ten to fifteen day deadline” to institute reforms. Soon thereafter Assad initiated a brutal attack on Latakia using tanks and gunboats. In solidarity protests held elsewhere in the country, Syrian participants reportedly held signs reading “Thank you Erdogan. Two weeks is enough time to slaughter all the Syrian people”. This type of shaming and criticism may have contributed to Turkey subsequently issuing a “final warning” – this time demanding an immediate end to the violence.
As the region’s autocratic rulers likely foresaw, the field they have entered is fraught with traps for them and new openings for activists to push the envelope on human rights. The more they condemn repression, the more expectations and norms around the range of acceptable positions they can take shift.

When the violent crackdowns in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria began, many feared that they would provide a dangerous alternative to the Tunisian and Egyptian models. In fact, at many points over the last few months, this seemed to be the unfortunate direction that the region’s disparate protest and change movements were heading. But the severity of the Assad regime’s violence in the face of the Arab Spring’s aspirations seemed to have been too much for people in the region to accept.

Confronted with shaming from a slew of internal and international actors and pressure to weigh in from their own populations, Middle Eastern governments have now twice moved to rebuke an authoritarian neighbor. Having condemned Gaddafi and Assad’s methods so dramatically, they have made it more difficult for themselves to resort to the same violence in the future.

The entry of Middle Eastern governments into regional human rights politics has prompted mounting demands and new expectations for increased and more consistent treatment of human rights. Although clearly not a panacea for the region’s many human rights ills, it is a promising development.

Shadi Mokhtari is Assistant Professor at the School of International Service at American University. She is the author of After Abu Gharib: Exploring Human Rights in America and the Middle East and Editor in Chief of the Muslim World Journal of Human Rights.

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