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Do Arab states really engage with human rights?

With growing demands for "bread, freedom and social justice" across the Arab Spring countries, many have started to question the status of human rights in the region and, more specifically, whether Arab states actually have any engagement with them in any meaningful way. Brutal clamp-downs and massacres by state security services have been accompanied by international support for regime changes, from the likes of French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé and British Prime Minister David Cameron among others.

Both have urged the international community to "shoulder" demands for rights and regime change in order to further democracy and the application of international human rights, although critics point to the sub-text that this is merely an excuse to cover their collective fear of Islamist groups coming to power in the Middle East. At the beginning of the Arab Spring revolutions, Cameron told the Daily Telegraph that if Western governments did not provide support to people defending their rights, prolonged chaos in the region would breed Islamic extremism and accelerate the pace of immigration by North Africans to European countries. Such support would thus be "good for us back at home". It is clear that the morality of human rights can fall short of genuine conviction when faced with political interests.

There appears to be an inherent Western bias in UN human rights bodies and many accusations have been made about Arab states' "sloppy" engagement with human rights. In a talk this week by Fateh Azzam, former UN Regional Representative for the region, founder of Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship and Senior Policy Fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, he scrutinised these allegations and dismantled misconceptions about Arab states' motivation to improve human rights.

Findings

Azzam determined that in terms of legal obligations vis-à-vis human rights in Arab states, they are there. If we look, for example, at the 21 members of the Arab League, engagement and ratification can be detected, especially with regards to conventions covering women and children's rights.

However, if we look at the most important part – the implementation of conventions – there is some inconsistency. States have to report periodically to the bodies responsible for the treaties, each of them with a committee of experts appointed by states but acting independently and not as representatives of the states charged with the implementation of regulations to meet human rights goals. In the reporting process there are major issues over delays, especially from Arab states; some have delays up to 13 years. Half of the states in the region are "seriously late" presenting their reports, Azzam pointed out. On the reporting of civil and political rights ten of the states were delayed by a minimum of two years. Reports on women's and children's rights are almost never late.

All of the conventions also have Optional Protocols, most of which require states to accept individual complaints about abuses of the various treaties to be submitted to state governments. Very few Arab states have signed the Optional Protocols allowing individuals to file complaints and raise issues, suggesting that they are not ready to subject themselves to international scrutiny.

There are 36 working groups mediating between NGOs and states. They aim to ensure that national legislation and the implementation of rights correspond with UN treaties signed and international human rights law. "There is a very patchy engagement by the mandate holders of the working groups on human rights," Azzam said. "They don't seem to accept that there is criticism and that we are going to do something about this." Frankly, he noted, some of the correspondence was a waste of time. You have to receive permission to enter a country to see if implementation of specific issues has been carried out; this could be done by a Special Rapporteur. There are also open invitations, which gives the representative the liberty of visiting more freely but only five Arab states have signed up to this within the past five years. Transparency in implementation of the ratified treaties and respect for them is very rare.

Palestinian rights

There has been an increase in the number of issues raised about Palestinian rights through UN mechanisms, especially in Lebanon. Many recommendations on behalf of the UN have been made concerning the treatment of Palestinian refugees and the dire consequences when fundamental rights are lacking. Government responses are always very defensive; Lebanon has rejected all recommendations, on the grounds that "they [the international community] don't understand what it's like in Lebanon with millions of refugees", explained Azzam.

Despite constituting a quarter of the total Lebanese population, there is still no system in place for refugees for a regional approach to deal with the issue. According to refugee law, the longer a person has refugee status the more rights they should accrue with regards to social and economic life and their long-term requirements. As MEMO's previous reports show, this is not the case in Lebanon.

How serious do the Arab states take their engagement with human rights?

According to Azzam, the way that the Arab states engage with UN human rights mechanisms is no different from the rest of the world. However, whether they are doing this because of real commitment to the human rights issue is debateable.

The Arab states' discourse on human rights has changed, from being more or less redundant to seeing the vacuum filled by faith-based, usually Islamic, civil society organisations. Welfare and the protection of civilians was regarded as a Western liberal construct forced upon all other states. As the human rights paradigm grew more important in international relations discourse, the Arab world could not maintain this position.

The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam was developed in 1990 in order to respond to the increasing legitimacy of the human rights paradigm, effectively setting out how the Arab states see human rights in accordance with Islam. This more or less failed to accommodate either.

Now, the Arab states are trying to conform to international human rights law and mechanisms and engage fully. "They are trying to do what they want to do, within the limits of what they think [the UN] will accept," claimed Azzam. There is a commitment to human rights, but "our way, let us do it our way" he recounted from his recent meeting with a regional monarch. This is mainly due to a commitment to "cultural traditions".

Moral and political interplay within the UN system is very extensive and there is always the underlying assessment of western influence and to what extent it is a product of Euro-American ideological history. The UPR (Universal Periodic Review) reports and recommendations, civil and political rights concerns were raised twice as frequently by international NGOs and four times more by non-Arab states, than they were by national/regional NGOs and Arab states respectively. In response to these recommendations, Arab states were more or less silent and entirely silent on the issues of the physical security of citizens, including protection from torture, Azzam's latest report said.

Could the UN play a bridging role for Arab states and human rights?

There is a sense that the UN is more optimistic and willing to enforce rights but it is a complex organisation. Nevertheless, argued Azzam, UN agencies and programmes on the ground have the capacity to play a bridging role between local states and human rights.

Further, as they are obligated to create an annual report for each country, UN agencies need more engagement with states. "In looking at what treaties they are obligated to implement, a part of the plan has to be that the UN helps the state to achieve this through legislation," Azzam said. "We do this with the support of expert NGOs, research centres, human rights activists; that's the bridging role, I am thinking about."

The UPR is a relatively new mechanism established in 2006 by the UN General Assembly of the UN as a function of the Human Rights Council; every four years the states are reviewed individually, and all concerned parties and stakeholders may contribute to this review, following up each state's improvements. This function will, according to Azzam, assist states in bridging between human rights and the state, as it is more action-oriented and merges together human rights mechanisms in the UN.

Why should we deal with Arab states regionally rather than individually?

Azzam believes that there is a sense that states can help each other, in the context of the region: "We are a unity, and it is different if we coordinate with for example Amnesty or HRW, whether we find it useful or hampering in furthering human rights; we feel it is very important."

Regional coordination has fluctuated over the years and there are disagreements, but in the end some of the common issues in the Gulf and Levant are shared.

In this regard, many discussions have taken place recently on many levels about an Arab Human Rights Court, but nothing has yet materialised. Discussions took place during the review of an Arab Human Rights Charter where all human rights activists wanted this court to be created, "but the states would not hear of it!" The most they would accept, said Azzam, was a committee. Although there is a Latin American commission, and an African and European court, the Arab states decided not to go ahead.

"The real issue with the establishment of an Arab court is this concept of sovereignty and being willing to submit your decision-making and the way you run your state to regional or international scrutiny," Azzam explained. "Having someone else telling you how to run your state is problematic."

The Arab states are very defensive of their sovereignty and the human rights paradigm has cut into that sovereignty, particularly since the start of the Arab Spring. "We have common issues and can mediate between the often Western-centric nature of the global UN discourse on human rights, and what some would designate 'cultural traditions', inhibiting their enjoyment." Furthermore, added Azzam, identity is in some sense involved as human rights concerns are frequently shared amongst these states, and could be answered most effectively in cooperation. "We speak the same language- not Arabic- but the same language of human rights."

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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