The Middle East and Human Rights

by James Paul , Joe Stork
published in MER149

Ibn Sina hospital, in a beautiful suburb of Rabat, is Morocco’s finest medical facility. It is the major teaching hospital of Morocco’s top medical school, a place where Moroccan and foreign medical experts carry on research and perform medical care at the highest level.

Not long ago, a patient jumped to his death from the top floor of Ibn Sina. His body bore signs of torture. A special section of the hospital, it turned out, had been used for years to detain and perhaps even to interrogate political prisoners.

Throughout the Middle East, amid the stream of ordinary life, there are many such reminders of repression: notorious prisons where political detainees languish, censored newspapers and exiled writers, unemployed teachers who dared to speak out. Everywhere, the rights of citizens are honored mainly in the breach. Due process, religious toleration, democratic rights, freedom of assembly and expression are conspicuous by their absence. Whether monarchy or theocracy, parliamentary regime or revolutionary junta, the record is all too similar.

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s regime has tortured and killed prisoners in their cells. Syria, in 1982, laid siege to Hama, one of the country’s largest cities, to quash a rebellion there, massacring thousands. In Turkey, the military government has imprisoned tens of thousands of political activists and trade unionists, purged the universities, imposed harsh censorship and sharply curtailed political life. In Iran, the government of the Islamic Republic has jailed and tortured thousands, imposing savage punishments that go beyond even the excesses of the shah’s regime. In the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon, Palestinians live as a subject people, under siege and threatened by mass expulsions.

Minority groups feel insecure and persecuted. In North Africa, the Berbers see their language and cultural identity eroded. Copts in Egypt live nervously under a succession of populist regimes for which Islam and nationalism are often intermingled. In Sudan the black non-Muslim population of the south faces continual persecution by a Sunni Arab government in the north. Ruling minorities feel threatened, too. As a result, their rule is especially intolerant and inflexible. The Alawis in Syria and the Maronites in Lebanon are two cases in point.

Most countries in the region have constitutions, formal legal systems, nominally independent judiciaries. There are elections, for many countries have some sort of “People’s Assembly.” But in even the most open countries, the contradiction between these formal systems and actual practice is striking. In Egypt, elections are manipulated and workers’ right to strike sharply curtailed. This may be benign by comparison to Syria, Iraq, Iran or Saudi Arabia, but it is still a long way from the basic standards articulated in the UN Human Rights Declaration of 1948 and subsequent international and regional covenants.

Many states -- including many in the Middle East -- have failed to endorse these documents, but as the rights movement expands, states are not able to stop it. In a shrinking world, with new communications technology, ideas cross boundaries easily; customs authorities may seize books and magazines, but they are helpless to halt ideas carried over the airwaves or in the minds of travelling students, workers and other citizens. A million Turks have lived in Germany and a like number of Algerians in France. Cassette tapes, passed clandestinely from hand to hand, provided wide circulation for Iranian revolutionary tracts. European television stations reach North Africa easily. Foreign broadcasts are popular throughout the region as a way of finding out what is happening at home.

Today, human rights has become an issue that also transcends traditional political boundaries. The left, once content to dismiss individual rights as bourgeois luxuries, no longer suspends its critical faculties when a repressive regime lays claim to “revolutionary” credentials. In the liberal center, the rights issue increasingly influences political thinking. Even on the right, fewer are ready to defend human rights outrages, however much they are covered by anti-communist justifications.

Where Do Rights Come From?

Most human rights advocates agree that rights are not universal and abstract, but rather embedded in human culture and history. Every society has developed some shared sense of behavior, of proper relations between individuals and between them and the state. “Rights” are what people demand of political authority. The bourgeois revolutions in the West produced the idea of “inalienable” individual rights, but they drew on prior sources. Individual rights had been protected by religious doctrines, by customs and by ancient laws. All societies also had means to tell the virtuous king from the cruel tyrant. The specifics vary from one time and place to another, but a sense of what was just and fair remained. Throughout history rights have often been taken away, but commitment to defend them has fueled many an insurrection and revolutionary struggle.

In the West today, human rights means political or civil rights almost exclusively. Free speech, freedom of association, free elections -- these are at the core of a solidly established consensus. East Bloc countries and many Western socialists stress the importance of social and economic rights, like the right to food, housing, jobs and medical care. The leaflets and graffiti of some groups fighting dictatorships in Latin America, for instance, stress “bread, work and freedom.”

Few people would claim that rights are just a matter of competing rhetoric. Longtime human rights advocates like William Wipfler of the National Council of Churches argue that the human rights movement is one of the great political movements of our time, contributing to a growing international consensus that no state can afford to ignore.

Rights and US Policy

The expanding consensus on rights has not corresponded to an expansion of practice in many states. It would be difficult to tally victories and setbacks, since both have been plentiful. One of the biggest barriers has been nationalism. An international rights movement challenges loyalty, sovereignty, national security and other dogmas underlying the modern state system. The United States is sensitive to this challenge. That is why it has failed to ratify the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights or on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, or even the convention against genocide.

But recent history confirms Wipfler’s judgement, and reminds us that rights commonly assumed today -- such as the ban on slavery -- were achieved by persistent political struggle. The civil rights and women’s rights movements have been two of the most powerful political developments in the United States. Efforts to make human rights practices a factor in determining US foreign policy in many ways stems from the consciousness implanted by these struggles.

In the aftermath of Vietnam, the human rights agenda of Jimmy Carter’s administration was largely intended to reconstruct a domestic consensus in support of US foreign policy. That agenda was limited in its purpose, narrow in its definition and uneven in its application. The administration made sure to allow for plenty of “executive discretion” where “national security” was concerned -- as in the case of Iran under the shah. Carter’s mission was to halt and restrain the most flagrant violations of rights in critical Third World countries where repression was so brutal that it was undermining the social system. There was a constant tension between the need to control excesses (even by Washington’s tolerant standards) and the imperative to preserve the underlying political order. Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, pushed human rights as an ideological weapon against the Soviet Union.

Human rights was an issue that Washington could manipulate but could not control. In retrospect, it created openings for solidarity groups to pressure Congress and the administration to reduce aid at critical junctures to certain dictatorships, such as Marcos’ Philippines, Somoza’s Nicaragua and Galtieri’s Argentina. And even though Iran was spared direct US pressures on human rights, the shah’s concern to construct a more liberal image in the US was probably a factor in the paralysis with which he faced his opponents once the revolution erupted.

For exactly these reasons, the Reagan administration came to office determined to gut the human rights issue entirely. When this proved impossible, the White House simply declared that only one right mattered and that was “democracy,” conveniently reduced to mean competitive elections to some sort of parliament. What mattered was procedure rather than substance. Under Reagan, “human rights” became one of the slogans to justify aggression against Nicaragua and Grenada. Friendliness towards the US and hostility towards the Soviet Union and domestic leftists constituted prima facie evidence of a preference for “democracy” over “totalitarianism.”

Rights in the Middle East

There is no evidence that the question of rights ever affected a single major policy decision by any US administration towards any country in the Middle East. Favoritism toward certain countries, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, is one element at work. Where there is abiding hostility toward a regime, as with Khomeini’s Iran or Asad’s Syria, the issue of “terrorism” has provided the necessary justification.

Human rights advocates outside the government have devoted scant attention to the region. Many are hesitant to raise uncomfortable questions about Israeli policy towards Palestinians. Although the records of most Arab states towards their own citizens are as bad or worse, there is no advantage for Israel and its patrons in drawing attention to this topic.

At another level, though, there seems to be an underlying sense in the West that questions of rights have not been terribly important to the people of the Middle East. To some extent this reflects a racist notion that people of different culture and color are less than human, less “sensitive” and “civilized” than Westerners (including Israelis). In the Middle East this is compounded by equation of “Arab” and “Muslim” with terrorists, who by definition do not respect or deserve rights. There has also been relatively less information about the rights situation in the region, reflecting both the effective control that most Arab states exercise over their media and the low priority that progressive forces and movements have accorded this issue in the past. There have been important changes here, as Naseer Aruri documents in his survey of the rights situation in the Arab world. But even the new Arab Organization for Human Rights, in its charter, incorporates language that practically invites the regimes to “declare a state of emergency” which would “justify the renouncement of the commitments incorporated in this Charter.”

In many Middle East countries, there has been marked progress in the realm of social rights. Education and health care have expanded rapidly. Housing, nutrition, access to clean water, and the like have improved also. Even women’s rights, where the region has an especially bad record, have probably improved, at least on a formal level. But civil and political rights have almost certainly gotten worse.

If the Middle East today appears to have a uniquely bleak human rights record, though, the evidence from elsewhere in the world suggests otherwise. What country in the Middle East can match the mass killings that have occurred in Cambodia, Indonesia, Uganda or El Salvador? There is no need to search for causes of rights violations that are uniquely Middle Eastern in origin -- Islam or oriental despotism, for instance.

More than anything else, the human rights record of the region today is influenced by war. States at war have special motivations and excuses to impose censorship and tight security, and root out traitors. War maims, kills and displaces people. Iran and Iraq are the states most affected today by wartime repression. Over a longer period, the state of war between Israel and the Palestinians and the Arab states has caused or excused much of the repression in the region. In North Africa, the struggle in Western Sahara has affected rights in Algeria and Morocco. Wars over local self-determination and autonomy have likewise triggered repression in Ethiopia and Somalia (over Eritrea and the Ogaden), in Sudan (the South), in Turkey, Iraq and Iran (Kurds). Finally, there has been the bloody civil war in Lebanon, which has led to the most frightful epidemic of kidnapping, killing and displacement.

This issue explores the question of human rights in the Middle East, specifically the Arab world and Turkey. Our next number will pursue these questions in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

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