“The international community’s chilling complacency towards wide-scale human rights violations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA),” Amnesty International says in a recent report, created a sense of impunity on the part of authorities to ramp up their crackdown and repression on political foes, critics and civil society groups.
Under the title of “Human rights in the Middle East and North Africa: A review of 2018,” the report documents how political authorities acted with impunity when they dealt with opponents, critics of all social creed and civil society institutions amid silence from the international community.
The gist of the argument in Amnesty report was the tacit support from some Western allies which, either unwittingly or not, emboldened Middle East governments to elbow aside the basic pillars of judicial impartiality and fair trial in their crushing of the opposition.
“Across MENA with virtually no exceptions governments have displayed a shocking intolerance for the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly,” Heba Morayef, Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said.
Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia, according to the report, emerged as the leading countries where crackdowns intensified last year. And these countries, Amnesty suggests, embody the international community’s complacent silence and inadequate response to “rampant government violations.”
As the report extensively dwelled upon, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi represented the high-water mark of state impunity when Saudi government, through its intelligence agency, steered the grisly killing of the dissident journalist at Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in early October, last year. The appalling murder sent shockwaves across the world, spurring a wide-scale international condemnation and criticism. The incident caused a sense of shudder in Ankara, which ramped up pressure against Riyadh in a quest to punish Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.
No Action From Western Powers Against Saudi Arabia
Several countries such as Denmark and Finland took action against Riyadh, suspending arms sale to the kingdom, which is bogged down in a quagmire in Yemen’s protracted civil war.
However, as the Amnesty report reveals, major international powers, including the U.S., the U.K., and France, appeared reticent in going further to punish the oil-rich country. The lack of robust international action by world powers, the London-based human rights watchdog emphasizes, only emboldened local authorities to arrive in conclusion that they would go away unpunished for their repressive actions.
Perhaps above all, the Amnesty notes, the failure also dented the prospect for an independent U.N. investigation, with binding consequences that would deliver justice.
“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,” said Morayef.
“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,” he added.
Philip Luther, Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, stated that the world should follow “in the footsteps of states such as Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, and Norway.” All those countries declared the suspension of supply of weapons to Riyadh after the Khashoggi murder.
Despite the international uproar, the Donald J. Trump administration refused to take a harsh stance against Salman. Washington even urged Turkey to lift its pressure against the crown prince with whom the Trump White House cultivated closer ties.
Repression Across Region
Although many regimes have reasserted themselves after the upheavals sparked by Arab Spring in 2010 and 2011, internal unrests and street protests have never fully ceased.
And whenever it happened, as Amnesty report lucidly indicates, the MENA governments ruthlessly suppressed social protests.
“Protesters who took to the streets to defy oppression and peaceful critics who dared to speak out have paid a heavy price,” Amnesty said, adding that “Some are facing years behind bars simply for expressing their opinions as governments impose ludicrously harsh sentences to intimidate activists into silence.”
Iran, which was marked by large-scale street protests over soaring inflation and increasing food prices last year, also saw a significant increase in crackdowns. “In a wave of mass protests was violently a wave of mass protests was violently suppressed, with thousands arrested and detained throughout the year,” Amnesty said. “However,” it noted in sharp criticism, “the response from the European Union, which has an ongoing human rights dialogue with the country, was muted.”
The year 2018 in Iran was designated by Amnesty International as the “year of shame.” More than 7,000 students, journalists, activists of all types, and other rights volunteers were arrested on dubious political charges. Activist women, who displayed peaceful civil disobedience by refusing to wear a headscarf, which is mandatory in Iran, in public spaces faced legal prosecution for their activism. Hundreds of them were reportedly detained for violating dress codes of the regime.
According to the report, Egypt was another regional country where liberties and rights were considerably shredded last year. Under the autocratic rule of President Abdelfettah el Sisi, the Egyptian authorities intensified their crackdown on civil society, journalists, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other social figures critical of the government.
Part of the Amnesty’s criticism focused on the Western countries’ indifferent approach to the rights violations in the domestic realm in Egypt. States including France and the USA, Amnesty reported, have also continued to supply Egypt with weapons used for internal repression. “Today, Egypt has become a more dangerous place for peaceful critics than at any other time in the country’s recent history.”
Luther, one of the many Amnesty regional directors, underlined the corrosive implications of renewed arms deals between the Western powers and MENA countries.
“Time and again allies of governments in the region have put lucrative business deals, security co-operation or billions of dollars’ worth of arms sales fuelling abuses and creating a climate where MENA governments feel ‘untouchable’ and above the law,” he said.
The Khashoggi case evidently exposed the external reach of the Saudi regime. But it was only one aspect of the Saudi crackdown as Riyadh accelerated the pace and scope of targeting critics, activists, and journalists inside and outside the kingdom. The regime embarked on a sweeping purge and clampdown, arresting hundreds of dissidents. “Virtually all human rights defenders” were either placed behind bars or were forced to exile, the Amnesty report reveals.
The report also slams major Western powers for their reluctance to halt arms supply to Riyadh, which is accused by the U.N. and the international community, for serious war crimes in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition forces are embroiled in a prolonged war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, a struggle that plunged the country into the brink of famine and widespread diseases, such as the outbreak of cholera. The Saudi military uses advanced U.S. technology in its quest to crush Houthi resistance. A bipartisan consensus emerged among Democrats and Republicans in both chambers of the U.S. Senate over the need of wide-ranging sanctions against Riyadh for war crimes in Yemen, including a ban on the U.S. transfer of advanced military technology to the Saudi forces.
“For too long the lack of international pressure to ensure that warring parties committing war crimes and other violations of international law are held to account has allowed perpetrators of atrocities across MENA to escape unpunished,” Luther said. “Accountability is essential – not only to secure justice for victims of these crimes but to help prevent an endless cycle of violations and yet more victims.”
The study, rich in detail and direct in its assessment, documents a similar pattern of crackdowns, arbitrary arrests, politically-motivated trials in other countries as well. Vicious cycles of crackdowns also took place in Jordan, in Algeria, in Morocco, in Libya, in Palestine and Syria.
“In the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain prominent activists Ahmed Mansoor and Nabeel Rajab were punished with heavy prison terms of 10 and five years respectively for their social media posts,” the report stated. (LGBT) groups across the region also faced significant restrictions and political pressure, including arrests.
Amid all the heart-wrenching and demoralizing picture, the Amnesty report notes progress, however minor, in some areas. This includes the Saudi decision to lift the ban on women for driving cars. It came as some sort of consolation. But the same government ruthlessly pursues women activists who protest domestic violence, social pressure and other limitations on their lives.