A pervasive feeling of having been historically wronged by the West weighs heavily on the Arab collective psyche. Arabs of all cultural and political backgrounds, from the general public to intellectuals, harbor resentment over foreign occupation, the destruction of Iraq, the starvation of the Iraqi people through the strictest economic blockade in history, and the impunity given to aggressive acts by Israel. This sense of injustice gives us cause to invoke human rights in the defense of our collective rights. At the same time, Arabs are averse to the human rights framework because Western governments use its rhetoric when defending such policies. Moreover, many Arabs perceive internationally recognized human rights as a Western import and thus unsuitable for our societies. Organizations and individuals advocating human rights are thought to be carriers of an alien culture that aims to subjugate our societies and undermine our belief in Islam.
The challenge for the Arab human rights movement is to disabuse people of these notions and to accentuate the importance of rights in people’s daily lives. To do this, we must access the broad-based media and use it effectively. Yet, the governments and fundamentalist groups that spread propaganda against human rights monopolize the mosque, radio, television, and press. We only have limited leeway within the opposition press to the extent that it is tolerated in some Arab countries. But even then, opposition parties distort the human rights message to serve their political and ideological ends, not to mention the fact that half the population of many Arab countries is illiterate.
To counter negative perceptions of human rights, our movement must demonstrate to the public that its grievances can be redressed through human rights advocacy. Unfortunately, once again, repressive government regimes stand in our way. Many Arab human rights organizations are not legally recognized. Judiciary branches often do not enjoy even limited independence from the executive. There is frequently no response when human rights organizations forward a citizen’s complaint to an offending government bureaucracy. This failure to deliver weakens our credibility among our constituents.
This credibility problem can be compounded when international human rights groups, which operate away from the political, social, and cultural context in which Arab human rights violations occur, fail to consult with local human rights organizations. In the preparation of their reports, international human rights organizations often rely on foreign sources. They are based in the centers of international power—London, Washington, New York, Paris, Geneva—that many Arabs associate with double-dealing, double standards, and the use of human rights in the service of narrow interests. When international human rights organizations ignore these realities, their standing in the local Arab context is damaged. But the moral standing of local Arab organizations, along with our ability to mobilize public opinion in support of human rights, suffers even greater setbacks.
To illustrate, I will use the case of Egypt, but an example could be drawn from any Arab country. In 1992, Human Rights Watch released a report on torture in Egypt. It recommended that the United States and the European Community suspend all bilateral aid and loans until torture and prolonged arbitrary detention ended. Such a demand was not acceptable to the Egyptian public, especially because it perceived that the same criterion was not applied to Israel, which has a notorious record of torture and arbitrary detention in the occupied territories.
In 1994, Amnesty International published a report entitled “Human Rights Defenders under Threat,” which documented the arrest and torture of a small group of lawyers who were known for defending Islamic political prisoners and accused of having various other connections to armed Islamic groups. Although this was accurate, the government was not specifically threatening any local human rights organizations, despite the implications of the report’s title. It was at that point that our movement in Egypt started to be subjected to “threat.” A month after the report was released, authorities banned a meeting of the local Amnesty chapter in Egypt and asked their representatives to leave the country. The government challenged the legitimacy of legally registered local human rights organizations and substantially sharpened their tone in their dealings with local groups as well.
Considerable progress could have been made on human rights issues in Egypt during these years had international human rights groups formulated a common strategy with local organizations. International groups did rely upon local organizations for collecting, verifying, and documenting information. However, with few exceptions, we were not further consulted on their many reports or campaigns. For instance, we were not included in the formulation of their policies that escalated confrontation with the Egyptian government. This occurred despite the fact that the international groups knew there would be negative repercussions for us because the authorities consider local groups to be the source of information for international groups. International groups also failed to use their position of influence to create dialogue between the concerned government authorities and our local movement.
In the essential task of broadening public legitimacy of human rights in the Arab world, our human rights organizations have to confront the formidable challenges posed by repressive governments. Much has been celebrated about the supranational authority of the international human rights regime and its ability to overcome state repression. However, the lack of credibility of human rights in the Arab world limits the potential of the international regime in this regard. International groups should collaborate with our local movement to develop strategies to build the moral standing of human rights among the public and improve the responsiveness of human rights practice to Arab concerns.
*Based on a paper presented to a workshop at the First International Conference of the Arab Human Rights Movement, Casablanca, April 23–25, 1999, as well as “Reclaiming the Initiative,” by Rowaq Arabi, in CIHRS Periodical Journal, April 1997.