Global indifference to human rights violations in the Middle East is fuelling atrocities and repression, warns Amnesty International in its latest review of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. “The international community’s chilling complacency towards wide-scale human rights violations in the MENA has emboldened governments to commit appalling violations during 2018 by giving them the sense that they need never fear facing justice,” Amnesty points out.
The report describes how authorities across the region have “unashamedly persisted with ruthless campaigns of repression in order to crush dissent, cracking down on protesters, civil society and political opponents, often with tacit support from powerful allies”. Narratives of national security and counterterrorism have often been used as justification by governments seeking to change the balance between state powers and individual freedoms, to the detriment of the latter.
The Amnesty report notes that the shocking murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October led to a rare pause as states such as Germany, Denmark and Finland moved to suspend their supply of arms to Saudi Arabia. However, a handful of countries were unmoved and for key allies of the Saudis, such as Britain, the US and France, it has been business as usual. The human rights group is critical of the international community’s failure to meet the demands by Amnesty and other rights groups for an independent UN investigation capable of delivering justice with regard to the brutal murder of the Washington Post journalist.
“It took Jamal Khashoggi’s cold-blooded murder inside a consulate to prompt a handful of more responsible states to suspend arms transfers to a country that has been leading a coalition responsible for war crimes and has helped create a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen,” explained Heba Morayef, Regional Director for Amnesty in the MENA region. “Yet even the global outcry over the Khashoggi case has not been followed by concrete action to ensure those responsible for his murder are brought to justice.” Morayef pointed out that, “Across MENA throughout 2018 thousands of dissidents and peaceful critics have been victims of shameless government violations on a shocking scale, amid deafening silence from the international community.”
The sale of weapons by the west to the Middle East is cited as a major concern in the Amnesty report. The weapons which are still supplied by states such as France and the US to Egypt, for example, are being used to repress the country’s own citizens and a widespread crackdown on human rights. The report warns that the supply of weapons has turned Egypt into a more dangerous place for peaceful critics of the government than at any other time in the country’s recent history.
Amnesty also condemns US arms sales to Israel which, it says, is fuelling a culture of impunity and disregard for human suffering by the Tel Aviv government. The human rights body objects to Washington’s unconditional commitment to provide Israel with $38 billion in military aid over the next 10 years, saying that it allows Israel to commit “vast number of human rights violations” in the Occupied Palestinian Territories with total impunity.
In the Gaza Strip alone, the report points out, Israeli forces killed at least 180 Palestinians last year, including 35 children, during protests calling for the legitimate right of return for Palestinian refugees. Commenting on the UN Human Rights Council commission of inquiry set up to look into the killings, Amnesty says that Israel has refused to cooperate with the inquiry and has faced little to no pressure to do so.
Philip Luther, research and advocacy director for MENA at Amnesty, says that the link between arms sales and human rights violations demonstrates that governments in Europe put lucrative business deals and security cooperation before human and civil rights “time and again”.
“All states should immediately suspend the sale or transfer of arms to all the parties to the conflict in Yemen, on the one hand, and to Israel, on the other,” says Amnesty, “until there is no longer a substantial risk that such equipment could be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law.”
Such violations include what it calls the “unbridled repression of dissent” across the region. It cites the situation in the UAE, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others as evidence of this. Indeed, Amnesty has designated last year as a “year of shame” for Iran, noting the arrest of more than 7,000 protesters, students, journalists, environmental activists, workers and human rights defenders, many arbitrarily.
In Saudi Arabia there were similar crackdowns against government critics, academics and human rights defenders. “Virtually all human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia are now behind bars or have been forced to flee the country,” the Amnesty report concludes.