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Human rights in the Arab countries

  

Introduction

International agreements such as UN conventions involving human rights present Arab states (and the Islamic countries more generally) with a dilemma. On one hand they are reluctant to accept the principle of universality, arguing for exceptions to be made on cultural or religious grounds, while on the other they feel a need to demonstrate that Islam respects human rights by signing up to UN conventions [see table]. 

Becoming a party to the various human rights conventions gives respectability without necessarily creating any serious obligations in terms of compliance – firstly because the conventions themselves lack effective enforcement mechanisms and secondly because the parties to a UN convention can often choose to ignore parts of it simply by registering their “reservations”. 

In some cases these reservations can be so sweeping as to negate the essential substance of the agreement. Liesbeth Lijnzaad, in her book, Reservations to UN Human Rights Treaties: Ratify and Ruin? sums up the problem thus:

By making reservations to human rights treaties, states frequently undermine essential rules, and indeed essential human rights guarantees … The impression is that many states, when ratifying, at the same time ruin the treaty. Reservations restrict the potential domestic effect of the human rights treaty, and a large number of reservations made by a great many states will turn a human rights instrument into a moth-eaten guarantee.

In theory, reservations which are “incompatible with the object and purpose” of a UN convention are not allowed but in practice they can be difficult to prevent. When North Yemen acceded to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in 1989 it declared reservations “in respect of article 5 (c) and article 5 (d) (iv), (vi) and (vii)”. In effect, it was claiming the right to discriminate on racial grounds with regard to political rights, marriage rights, inheritance rights and the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

This was obviously incompatible with the aims of the convention and Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom all lodged formal objections. However, their numbers fell well short of the two-thirds of states-parties required to block the Yemeni reservations, and there was little that could be done about it except patiently cajole: seventeen years later, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was continuing to repeat its “recommendation” that Yemen should “consider withdrawing its reservation”.

Meanwhile Saudi Arabia, despite operating what is probably the world’s most comprehensive system of institutionalised discrimination against women, is a party – together with 17 other Arab states – to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The kingdom rationalises this seemingly irreconcilable position, after a fashion, by saying it does not consider itself bound by any part of the convention that conflicts with “the norms of Islamic law”. 

Among the other Arab countries, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Syria and the UAE have also lodged reservations based on Islamic law.

Citing “Islamic law” in the context of international treaties is especially problematic because no one can be sure what it means. The shari’a is not formally codified, there are various methods of interpretation and scholars can sometimes reach wildly differing conclusions. As Denmark noted in its objection to Saudi Arabia’s reservations, the references to the provisions of Islamic law were “of unlimited scope and undefined character”.

The key point, though, is that religious principles are a convenient vehicle for excusing all manner of abuse. In reality, the abuses usually have more to do with local customs and practice than religious doctrine but invoking religion removes any need to account for them or try to justify them. Since religious belief demands respect and tolerance from others, dressing up unsavoury practices in religious garb becomes a way of silencing critics. The overall effect of dragging Islamic law into human rights debates, then, is to lower standards rather than raise them, as Ann Elizabeth Mayer demonstrates in her book, Islam and Human Rights – Tradition and Politics. “Distinctive Islamic criteria have consistently been used to cut back on the rights and freedoms guaranteed by international law, as if the latter were deemed excessive,” she writes. “The literature arguing that Muslims may have human rights, but only according to Islamic principles, provides the theoretical rationales for many recent government policies that have been harmful for rights.” [page 3]

Although there are many points of contention between the concept of universal rights and Islamic law (as variously conceived), the principal ones are in the areas of women’s rights, freedom of religion, and the treatment of non-Muslims.

This is not to suggest that Islam is incapable of accommodating modern concepts of universal human rights. Individual freedoms are a relatively undeveloped area of Islamic law and Mayer suggests this is largely for historical reasons:

Since the pious Muslim was only supposed to understand and obey the divine law, which entailed abiding by the limits that God had decreed, demands for individual freedoms could sound distinctly subversive to the orthodox mind …

The aim of Islamic law was generally conceived to be ensuring the wellbeing of the Islamic community, or umma, as a whole, in a situation where both the ruler and the ruled were presumed to be motivated to follow the law in order to win divine favour and avoid punishment in Hell. In consequence, shari’a doctrines remained highly idealistic and were not elaborated with a view to providing institutional mechanisms to deal with actual situations where governments disregarded Islamic law and oppressed and exploited their subjects.

Scholars of Islamic law did not traditionally address issues like what institutions and procedures were needed to constrain the ruler and curb oppression; rather, they tended to think of the relationship between ruler and ruled solely in terms of this idealised scheme, in which rulers were conceived of as pious Muslims eager to follow God’s mandate. [pp. 53–54]

Arguments about universality versus cultural relativism are often a red herring – a part of the political game. Arab states often invoke relativist arguments in an international context when they talk about "traditions", “the norms of Islamic law”, etc, but they rarely apply relativist principles within their own countries. In other words, they tend to espouse cultural relativism or universalism as and when it suits them. 

This is very similar to the way western governments often behave when they that claim to uphold universal rights but champion them more strongly among enemies than allies. The Arab states, through their membership of the UN and other bodies, are willing members of the international community; they accept the principle of international law and, along with other countries, play a part in formulating it. They are also among the first to complain about human rights abuses and infringements of international law where Israel is concerned. 

In partially exempting themselves from international standards, the Arab states are not so much arguing for cultural relativism as for a form of cultural selectivity. What they are actually seeking to protect is not the sum-total of authentic local tradition but an imagined, officially-approved version of it which in some cases has to be imposed on reluctant citizens – for example, through the policing of dress codes and the closure of shops at prayer time. The Islamic “norms” that Saudi Arabia waves in international forums are not those of the country as a whole but of the Wahhabi sect, which happens to have become dominant through its political alliance with the royal family.If Arab governments really believed in cultural relativism as a principle they would surely also apply it within their own countries by insisting on respect for the different norms and traditions of whatever distinctive religious, ethnic or regional groups may be found within their own borders. Mostly they do not.

Source: What's Really Wrong with the Middle East, by Brian Whitaker (Saqi Books, 2009).


Useful links:

Human rights   
A compilation of recent articles by the Arab Reform Bulletin.

Human Rights Watch
See reports and press releases on the Middle East and North Africa

Amnesty International 

United Nations Commission on Human Rights

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information

Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network 

US State Department 
Human rights section

UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office 
Human rights section


Documents on human rights

Universal Declaration of Human Rights  
UN General Assembly, 10 December, 1948

Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights  
19 September, 1981

Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam 
Organisation of Islamic the Conference, 5 August 1990

Arab Charter on Human Rights  
Arab League, 15 September, 1994

The Casablanca Declaration  
Arab Human Rights Movement, 25 April, 1999

Beirut Declaration (PDF)
First Arab Conference on Justice, 16 June, 1999. Also in Arabic (PDF).

Treaties, conventions, agreements
Full text of 95 international human rights documents [Human Rights Internet, Canada]


Algeria

Algeria-Watch 
A compilation of information about human rights in Algeria

Human Rights Watch - Algeria

Amnesty International - Algeria

Wikipedia - Algeria


Bahrain

Human Rights Watch - Bahrain

Amnesty International - Bahrain

Wikipedia - Bahrain


Comoros

Human Rights Watch - Comoros

Amnesty International - Comoros

Wikipedia - Comoros


Djibouti

Human Rights Watch - Djibouti

Amnesty Internationaln - Djibouti


Egypt

Human Rights Watch - Egypt

Amnesty International - Egypt

Wikipedia - Egypt

Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights 

Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights 

Freedom of association and human rights in Egypt  
EMHRN, 1999


Iraq

Human Rights Watch - Iraq

Amnesty International - Iraq 

Wikipedia - Iraq


Jordan

Human Rights Watch - Jordan

Amnesty International - Jordan 

Wikipedia - Jordan

Refugees also have rights 
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. EMHRN, September 2000


Kuwait

Human Rights Watch - Kuwait

Amnesty International - Kuwait

Wikipedia - Kuwait


Lebanon

Human Rights Watch - Lebanon

Amnesty International - Lebanon

Wikipedia - Lebanon

Refugees also have rights 
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. EMHRN, September 2000


Libya

Human Rights Watch - Libya

Amnesty International - Libya

Wikipedia - Libya


Mauritania

Human Rights Watch - Mauritania

Amnesty International - Mauritania

Wikipedia - Mauritania


Morocco

Human Rights Watch - Morocco

Amnesty International - Morocco and Western Sahara

Wikipediai - Wikipedia

Wikipedia - Western Sahara

Derechos organisation 
On human rights in Morocco and Western Sahara (English and Spanish)

Moroccan human rights organisations 
(Ministry of Communication - in French)

Association Marocaine des Droits de l'Homme 
A non-governmental organization

Conseil Consultatif des Droits de l'Homme 
A governmental human rights body


Oman

Human Rights Watch - Oman

Amnesty International - Oman

Wikipedia - Oman


Palestine/Israel

Human Rights Watch - Israel and the occupied territories

Amnesty International - Israel and the occupied territories

Amnesty International - Palestinian Authority 

Wikipedia - Israel

Wikipedia - Palestinian Territories

B'Tselem (Israeli human rights organisation)

Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group 

Independent Commission for Human Rights 

Palestinian Centre for Human Rights  

al-Mezan Center for Human Rights 
See also: Wikipedia

Human rights review on EU-Israel   
EMHRN, 29 May 2005 

Tightened spaces for human rights - Palestinian NGO work 
EMHRN discussion paper, March 2004

Migrant workers in Israel - a contemporary form of slavery 
EMHRN. August 2003


Qatar

Human Rights Watch - Qatar

Amnesty International - Qatar

Wikipedia - Qatar


Saudi Arabia

Human Rights Watch - Saudi Arabia

Amnesty International - Saudi Arabia

Wikipedia - Saudi Arabia

Saudi Human Rights Centre 

Human rights in Saudi Arabia (Wikipedia)


Somalia

Human Rights Watch - Somalia

Amnesty International - Somalia 

Wikipedia - Somalia


Sudan

Human Rights Watch - Sudan

Amnesty International - Sudan

Wikipedia - Sudan


Syria

Human Rights Watch - Syria

Amnesty International - Syria

Wikipedia - Syria

Trial of Syrian human rights activist Aktham Naisseh  
EMHRN, 16 Aug 2004 

Trial of Syrian human rights activist Aktham Naisseh 
EMHRN, 26 July 2004


Tunisia

Human Rights Watch - Tunisia

Amnesty International - Tunisia

Freedom of expression, freedom of association and unfair trials in Tunisia  
EMHRN, 2001. English

The Tunisians prisons seen from within  
Report by Khémais Ksila. EMHRN, 2000. French

The state of lberties and human rights in Tunisia 
EMHRN, 1999. English, French

Torture, arbitrary detention and unfair trial in Tunisia 
The trial of Radhia Nassraoui and 20 co-defendants. EMHRN, 1999. English, French


United Arab Emirates

Human Rights Watch - United Arab Emirates

Amnesty International - United Arab Emirates

Wikipedia - United Arab Emirates


Yemen

Human Rights Watch - Yemen

Amnesty International - Yemen

Wikipedia - Yemen

Executions in Yemen  
(1998-2001)

The human rights system in Yemen  
Dr Salah Haddash (Yemen Times, 10 August 1998)

     

In the human rights section

Human rights: introduction 

Arab ratification of UN human rights conventions 

Arab civil society 

Human rights documents

 

In the diversity section

  

Books

Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics

Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics 
by Ann Mayer

From amazon.com or amazon.co.uk

  

What's Really Wrong with the Middle East
by Brian Whitaker

From amazon.com or amazon.co.uk


 
   
  
   


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Last revised on 21 August, 2009