Middle East and North Africa
“They showed me a photocopied piece of paper that read: ‘Since the election, some people want to create chaos and unrest. It is asked that quick action is taken… to identify the organizers and the collaborators.’ It was pretty strange for me. I asked, ‘How is this related to me?’ They explained it was a general warrant. Then they brought me to the car.”
Shiva Nazar Ahari, an Iranian human rights defender arrested on 14 June, describing her arrest by Intelligence Ministry officials.
The year opened with Israeli military jets pounding
The Iranian authorities, meanwhile, seemed more intent on covering up than investigating allegations of rape and other torture of detainees. They also sought to transfer the blame for killings committed by their forces onto those who spoke out against them, rather than comply with their obligations under international law to properly investigate human rights violations and hold those responsible to account. As the architects of the abuse, they had much to hide.
The events in
Conflict and insecurity
The short, sharp conflict in
Likewise, it was civilians, people trying to go about their daily lives amid the turmoil around them, who bore the brunt of the internal conflict that continued to grip much of
In Yemen too, many thousands of civilians were displaced from their homes – they numbered close to 200,000 by the end of 2009 – and an unknown number were killed amid renewed, more intense fighting between government forces and armed adherents of a Shi’a minority cleric killed in 2004. The conflict, in the northerly Sa’da Governorate, spilled over into neighbouring
"In all too many states, those who had the courage or temerity to question government policies or criticize their human rights records were still liable to find themselves branded as enemies of the state."
Attacks by armed groups, including groups apparently aligned to al-Qa’ida, killed civilians in states such as
Repression of dissent
If these were the most extreme manifestations, the political insecurity that pervades the region was evidenced also by a pattern of governmental intolerance of even peaceful criticism and dissent.
In states such as
In Egypt, leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood – all civilians – sentenced to imprisonment after an unfair trial before a military court in 2008 had their sentences confirmed and members and supporters of the organization, officially banned but commanding wide support, continued to be harassed and detained. In the West Bank, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority cracked down on supporters of Hamas; in
The Moroccan authorities, meanwhile, were increasingly intolerant of those advocating independence for Western Sahara, administered by
In all too many states, those who had the courage or temerity to question government policies or criticize their human rights records were still liable to find themselves branded as enemies of the state and detained or sentenced to prison terms.
Some even paid with their lives: in
Freedom of expression and the media
In most countries of the region, the media was closely controlled. Editors and journalists had to operate within both written and unwritten rules, and to steer clear of subjects considered taboo – including criticism of the ruler, his family and circle, official corruption or other abuse of power by those in authority. The alternative was to be subjected to harassment, arrest or prosecution on criminal defamation charges. It was not only the mainstream media that suffered in this way. In
"Torture and other ill-treatment remained endemic and, for the most part, were committed with impunity."
Throughout the region, governments allowed their security forces exceptional licence in the name of upholding state security and defending against threats to the public, although often such forces were used to pursue partisan political interests and to maintain monopolies on power in the face of calls for greater openness, free elections and political change.
Consequently, torture and other ill-treatment remained endemic and, for the most part, were committed with impunity. It was common practice throughout the region for political suspects to be detained incommunicado, often for weeks or months at a time, in secret or undisclosed prisons where they were tortured and abused to make them “confess”, to name and so put at risk others with whom they were associated, to make them become informers or simply to terrorize them. Many such detainees were then brought to trial, often before special courts whose procedures ran counter to those prescribed under international fair trial standards, routinely ignoring their complaints of torture and convicting them on the basis of their forced ‘confessions’.
In Iran, the authorities mounted a series of “show trials” reminiscent of those associated with some of the most totalitarian regimes of the 20th century to punish those accused of leading the outburst of popular protest that greeted the official result of the presidential election. In Saudi Arabia, the government announced that more than 300 people had been sentenced on terrorism-related charges but disclosed no details of the trials, which were held in secret, closed to outside observers and, it appeared, even to defence lawyers. One death sentence was said to have been imposed; other defendants received prison terms of up to 30 years.
Several governments in the region continued to use the death penalty extensively, justifying the practice on the grounds both that it was required by Shari’a law and that it deterred crime and guaranteed public security; in a number of other states, the authorities did not carry out executions. The main offenders were
Economic concerns – housing and livelihoods
Despite efforts by the new US administration to build momentum for a revived Middle East peace process, the divide between Israelis and Palestinians was further deepened in 2009 – not only by the deaths and destruction caused during Operation “Cast Lead” but also by the impact of Israel’s unremitting blockade of the Gaza Strip. Begun in June 2007, the blockade continued to cut off almost 1.5 million Palestinians from the rest of the world, isolating them in
"Women and girls continued to face legal and other discrimination and to be denied the opportunity to access their rights."
Across the region, women and girls continued to face legal and other discrimination and to be denied the opportunity to access their rights such as to education, health and political participation. In most countries, family and personal status laws rendered women legally inferior to men in relation to inheritance, divorce and custody over their children, and caused them to be inadequately protected against violence within the family or on account of their gender. States such as Iraq, Jordan and Syria retained laws which allow men who commit violence against women to escape punishment if their crimes are deemed to be committed “in a fit of rage” and to uphold family “honour” or to receive only minimal punishment; in Syria, it represented an advance when the President decreed in July that men who killed or injured women relatives on such grounds should receive a penalty of at least two years in prison.
So-called honour killings of women were reported in
Some advances were made in 2009, however. In
In the oil- and gas-rich states of the Gulf, it was migrant workers – mostly from Asia – whose labour underpinned the national economies and helped build the world’s tallest skyscraper, opened amid great fanfare in December in
Throughout the region, the situation of foreign migrants gave serious cause for concern. Thousands of suspected irregular migrants from sub-Saharan Africa seeking to obtain work or travel on to Europe were detained in
Refugees and asylum-seekers also rarely received the protection that is their right. In
"All across the region, state authorities have shown themselves either reluctant or downright unwilling to honour their international treaty obligations to protect and promote human rights."
Women, migrants, refugees: these were not alone in suffering discrimination and violence in 2009. In
Accounting for the past
2009 saw little progress towards addressing past human rights violations despite the continuing, valiant efforts of many survivors and victims’ families to learn the truth of what occurred and to seek justice. The Algerian government appeared ever more determined to blot out the enforced disappearances and killings of the 1990s from public memory, and the Syrian government showed no interest in clarifying the fate of those who disappeared under the rule of the current President’s father. In
Ten years on from the start of a new millennium, much – so much – remains to be done to give reality to the human rights set out more than 60 years earlier in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In particular, all across the region, state authorities have shown themselves either reluctant or downright unwilling to honour their international treaty obligations to protect and promote human rights. This trend has been exacerbated in face of the threat posed by terrorism, while that threat is also used as a convenient justification for clamping down further on legitimate criticism and dissent. Even so, all across the region, courageous individuals remain undeterred and continue to speak out for what is their right and their due, and in support of the rights of others. They are our inspiration.