Middle East and North Africa 2016/2017

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Middle East and North Africa 2016/2017

During 2016, millions of people across the Middle East and North Africa saw their lives thrown into turmoil, torment and tragedy, and their homes and livelihoods destroyed, by unrelenting state repression and continuing armed conflicts that were marked on all sides by appalling crimes and abuses. So intense was the political and human rights crisis that tens of thousands risked their lives in perilous attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea rather than remain in the region. In Syria, more than five years of fighting had resulted in the biggest human-made humanitarian crisis of our time, and the armed conflicts in Iraq, Libya and Yemen also took a heavy toll on civilians. Armed conflict and repression exploited and exacerbated long-standing fault lines and increased political and religious polarization, further undermining respect for human rights.

Armed conflict

The human consequences of more than five years of conflict in Syria were, frankly, incalculable. There was no clear or evident formula sufficient to assess the true scale and dimensions of the suffering caused to Syria’s population – the deaths and injuries, the devastation and dislocation of families and livelihoods, or the destruction of homes, property, historical sites and religious and cultural icons. Only raw statistics on the numbers killed or displaced and images of the destruction in cities such as Aleppo gave some indication of the enormous scale and intensity of the crisis. By the end of the year, the conflict had caused the deaths of more than 300,000 people and the forcible displacement of more than 11 million others, including 6.6 million who remained internally displaced and 4.8 million who had fled to other countries to seek refuge. All the forces engaged in the conflict continued to commit war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law, flagrantly disregarding the obligation of all parties to protect civilians.

Syrian government forces repeatedly conducted indiscriminate attacks, dropping barrel bombs and other explosives and firing imprecise artillery shells into civilian residential areas controlled by opposition fighters. They also continued to besiege such areas, causing further civilian deaths from lack of adequate food and medicine. Government forces also carried out direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects, relentlessly bombing hospitals and other medical facilities and, on at least one occasion, apparently attacking a UN humanitarian relief convoy. Russian forces allied with the Syrian government continued to carry out air strikes on opposition-held areas, causing thousands of civilian deaths and injuries and destroying civilian homes and infrastructure. As the year closed, the conflict appeared to have reached a decisive phase after government and allied forces wrested control of Aleppo city from opposition forces. In December, a ceasefire agreement between government and some opposition forces, reached under Russian and Turkish auspices, appeared to open the way for new peace talks and the UN Security Council unanimously reiterated its call for all parties to the conflict to allow the “rapid, safe and unhindered” delivery of humanitarian aid across Syria.

In areas that the Syrian government controlled or recaptured, security forces continued to suppress all opposition, detaining thousands, many in conditions of enforced disappearance that denied their families any information on their whereabouts, conditions or fate. Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees continued to be widespread; many died as a result.

Armed groups fighting the Syrian government and each other also committed war crimes and other serious violations of international law. The armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS) carried out direct attacks against civilians in government-held areas of the capital, Damascus, using suicide bombers, and mounted attacks using suspected chemical agents, conducted sieges, and committed unlawful killings in areas it controlled. Other armed groups indiscriminately shelled areas controlled by Syrian government or Kurdish forces, killing and injuring civilians.

Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, remained mired in armed conflict between an array of Yemeni and foreign military forces which continued to exhibit a wanton disregard for the lives of civilians, carrying out indiscriminate attacks using bombs, artillery shells and other imprecise weapons, and directly attacking civilians and civilian structures or imperilling civilians by firing weapons from residential areas.

The Huthi armed group and allied army units loyal to Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh indiscriminately shelled areas of Ta’iz city, killing and injuring civilians, and blocked the entry of food and vital medical supplies, causing a humanitarian emergency. The Huthis also engaged in indiscriminate cross-border shelling of civilian areas in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, a Saudi Arabia-led military coalition of Arab state forces dedicated to restoring Yemen’s internationally recognized government conducted a relentless campaign of air strikes on areas controlled or contested by the Huthis and their allies, killing and injuring thousands of civilians. Many of the attacks were indiscriminate or disproportionate; others appeared to directly target civilians and civilian objects, such as schools and market places. Aerial bombing repeatedly struck hospitals. Some coalition attacks amounted to war crimes. The UN reported that more than 2 million children in Yemen were acutely malnourished, and 18.8 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance or protection at the end of the year.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of civilians remained caught in the midst of armed conflict in Iraq. Iraqi government forces, mostly comprising Shi’a paramilitary militias and Sunni tribal fighters, and Kurdish Regional Government forces, backed by air strikes and other military support from a US-led international coalition, recaptured Falluja and other cities formerly controlled by IS. At the end of the year, the parties were engaged in an offensive aimed at driving IS forces from Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. All sides committed atrocities. Government forces and allied paramilitary militias committed war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, mostly against members of the Sunni Arab community, including extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings, torture and deliberate destruction of civilian homes. They subjected hundreds of men and boys to enforced disappearance and took no steps to clarify the fate and whereabouts of thousands who remained disappeared after being seized by government forces and allied militias in previous years.

In areas it controlled, IS continued to carry out execution-style killings of local people who opposed them or whom they suspected of collaborating with government forces. IS fighters punished individuals they accused of failing to comply with their codes of dress and behaviour, carried out abductions, used torture and inflicted floggings and other cruel punishments, subjected Yazidi women and girls to sexual violence, including sexual slavery, and indoctrinated and recruited boys, including Yazidi captives, and used them in fighting. As government forces advanced, IS forces prevented civilians from fleeing conflict areas, using them as human shields and shooting those who sought to escape and punishing their families. In other areas, including the capital, Baghdad, IS carried out suicide bombings and other deadly attacks that were indiscriminate or deliberately targeted civilians in crowded markets, Shi’a religious shrines and other public spaces, killing and injuring hundreds.

Elsewhere, Libya remained torn and divided by armed conflict, five years after the fall of former leader Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi. The Presidential Council of the Government of National Accord (GNA), which emerged from UN-backed talks, failed to consolidate power on the ground. Its legitimacy remained contested by Libya’s recognized Parliament and forces supporting rival former governments based in Tripoli, on the one hand, and Tobruk and al-Bayda, on the other. IS lost its stronghold in the city of Sirte to pro-GNA forces after months of fighting which caused another wave of displacement. The conflict continued to be marked on all sides by serious violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes. Various forces attacked hospitals and carried out indiscriminate air strikes and artillery attacks that killed and injured civilians; in June, the World Health Organization reported that 60% of public hospitals in areas of conflict had ceased to function or were inaccessible.

Armed groups and militias in Libya also carried out abductions, holding victims as hostages for prisoner exchange or ransom, and detained civilians on account of their origin, opinions or perceived political or tribal affiliations. IS forces summarily killed captured opposition fighters and civilians in areas they controlled or contested. Other forces, including those affiliated with the GNA, also committed unlawful killings in Tripoli, Benghazi and elsewhere.

Years of internecine strife in Libya, just as in other countries engulfed in armed conflict, had a devastating impact on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, as access to food, electricity, health care, education and other services was severely curtailed.

International involvement

The armed conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya were all exacerbated to some extent by foreign involvement. Europeans and other nationals travelled to the region to fight for IS, while Russian, US, Turkish, Saudi Arabian and other armed forces from the region and elsewhere left their deadly mark.

In Syria, government forces recaptured significant territory from opposing armed groups in 2016, aided by Shi’a militia fighters from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran and an intensive Russian bombing campaign that killed and injured thousands of civilians in opposition-held areas. A US-led military coalition also conducted air strikes against IS and other armed groups in Syria and Iraq, killing and injuring civilians, and US forces carried out strikes in Libya and Yemen. The Saudi Arabia-led military coalition in Yemen used internationally banned cluster munitions and other weapons obtained from the USA, the UK and other states in indiscriminate attacks on areas controlled by the Huthis and their allies, in which civilians were killed.

Meanwhile the UN Security Council, critically hamstrung by divisions between its permanent member states, continued to fail to do its job of addressing threats to international peace and security and protecting civilians. UN efforts to promote peace negotiations made little or no progress while UN agencies struggled to address the humanitarian needs that the conflicts generated among the tens of thousands of civilians forced to living under siege, and the millions internally displaced or seeking safety as refugees.

Freedoms of expression, association and assembly

All across the region, state authorities unduly restricted and impeded exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Most governments maintained and enforced laws that criminalized peaceful speech, writing or other expression, including social media and other online comment, that they deemed critical, offensive or insulting to public authorities, symbols or religion, or that disclosed information they wished to withhold. In Bahrain, the authorities prosecuted and imprisoned human rights defenders on charges that included “inciting hatred against the regime” and for criticizing Saudi Arabian bombing raids in Yemen, and barred media outlets from employing journalists deemed to have “insulted” Bahrain or other Gulf states.

In Iran, the authorities prosecuted and imprisoned scores of peaceful critics on vague and spurious national security charges. Those targeted included human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, trade unionists, filmmakers, musicians, women’s rights activists, ethnic and religious minority rights activists, and anti-death penalty campaigners. In Kuwait, a new cybercrime law penalized peaceful online criticism of the government and judiciary with up to 10 years’ imprisonment and another law barred anyone convicted of insulting the Emir, God or the prophets from standing as a parliamentary candidate. Government critics and journalists were also imprisoned in Oman, where the authorities closed down a newspaper that had published reports alleging official corruption, and in Saudi Arabia, where the courts handed down lengthy prison sentences on overly broad charges such as “breaking allegiance to the ruler”. In Jordan, a gunman killed a journalist whom the authorities had accused of posting a cartoon they deemed “offensive” to Islam; the gunman was later charged with murder.

The right to freedom of association was widely curtailed in the region. States including Iran, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia did not permit independent political parties. Human rights groups, including those campaigning for women’s rights, were targeted by the authorities in a number of countries. In Egypt, the authorities ordered the closure of a centre renowned for its treatment of survivors of torture and victims of political violence, froze the assets of other human rights groups, and published new draft legislation that threatened to make it impossible for independent NGOs to continue to operate. In Algeria, the government sought to undermine local human rights groups, including Amnesty International Algeria, by continuing to block their legal registration. The Moroccan authorities similarly continued to block the legal registration of several human rights groups. In Bahrain, the authorities suspended the main opposition association in June, having imprisoned its leader in 2014, seized its assets, and in July obtained a court order for its dissolution. In Iran, the Association of Iranian Journalists appealed unsuccessfully to the President to honour his 2013 election pledge to lift its suspension, and the authorities refused to renew the licence of the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association, instead imprisoning some of its members on account of their alleged “membership of an illegal group”. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards also harassed women’s human rights defenders.

In Algeria the authorities maintained their 15-year ban on all demonstrations in the capital, Algiers, forcibly dispersed other protests, and imprisoned peaceful protesters. In Bahrain, the government continued to ban all demonstrations in the capital, Manama, and the security forces used excessive force to disperse protests in predominantly Shi’a villages.

Armed groups also restricted freedoms of expression and association in areas they controlled, including in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. In Iraq, self-declared IS “courts” ordered stoning for “adultery” and floggings and other corporal punishments against inhabitants for smoking, failing to adhere to the IS-imposed dress code, or other IS rules. In Libya, armed groups harassed, abducted, tortured and killed human rights defenders and journalists.

Justice system

Security forces throughout the region arbitrarily arrested and detained actual and suspected government critics and opponents, often using vague and broadly drawn laws. In Syria, many detainees were forcibly disappeared after they were seized by government forces. In Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), detainees were frequently subjected to enforced disappearance: cut off from the outside world, deprived of legal protection and tortured to force “confessions” that courts used to convict them at trial. Detention without trial was widely used: Israeli authorities held hundreds of Palestinians under indefinitely renewable administrative detention orders, while Jordanian authorities continued to hold thousands under a 1954 law allowing detention without charge or trial for up to one year.

Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees remained rife, particularly in Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the UAE. Common torture methods included beatings, electric shocks, sleep deprivation, stress positions, prolonged suspension by the wrists or ankles and threats against detainees and their loved ones. There were new reports of torture in Tunisia although a new Code of Criminal Procedures improved safeguards for detainees (other than terrorism suspects) and a national preventive body created in 2013 slowly began to take shape.

A continuing lack of judicial independence together with the “confession culture” that permeated so many national justice systems saw courts often act as mere tools of government repression rather than independent arbiters of justice upholding international fair trial standards. Courts in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the UAE repeatedly failed to conduct fair trials, particularly in cases where defendants faced national security or terrorism-related charges, including in death penalty cases. In Bahrain, the authorities used the courts to obtain orders revoking the nationality of a critical religious cleric and of scores of defendants convicted of terrorism charges, leading to the expulsion of some and rendering many stateless.

Courts in Saudi Arabia continued to impose cruel punishments that included floggings of hundreds of lashes, and courts in Iran sentenced defendants to flogging, amputation of their fingers and toes and blinding.

Refugees, internally displaced people and migrants

Across the region, millions of people were on the move seeking to escape armed conflicts or other violence, political repression or economic degradation. They included refugees and asylum-seekers, people displaced within their own country, and migrants from the region and beyond. Many were children; some were unaccompanied and especially vulnerable to human trafficking and sexual and other exploitation and abuse.

The Syrian and other armed conflicts continued to severely impact other states in the region and beyond. Lebanon hosted more than 1 million refugees from Syria and Jordan hosted more than 650,000, according to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. These main host countries struggled to meet the additional economic, social and other needs that the arrival of so many refugees presented, amid faltering international humanitarian aid and deeply inadequate refugee resettlement provision by European and other states. The principal host states imposed tighter border controls to prevent new arrivals, consigning thousands of people who sought to flee the conflict to precarious conditions on the Syrian side of the border. Lebanese authorities forcibly returned some asylum-seekers to Syria and Turkish authorities carried out mass forced returns and unlawful push-backs of people seeking refuge. Despite international expressions of concern, countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council accepted few refugees from the region’s armed conflicts; some provided financial support for international humanitarian assistance.

In host countries, refugees and asylum-seekers frequently lived in insecure and impoverished conditions, were denied employment and faced arrest for not possessing valid documents. In Libya, foreign nationals who entered or remained in the country irregularly, including asylum-seekers and refugees, as well as migrants mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, faced severe repression. Thousands were seized at checkpoints and in raids and incarcerated indefinitely in abusive conditions in both government-run and militia-controlled detention facilities. Others faced abduction for ransom, exploitation and sexual violence by human traffickers and smugglers. These and other “push” factors led tens of thousands to seek refuge elsewhere, often by paying criminal people-smugglers to risk their lives in flimsy, overcrowded craft that set out from Turkish, Libyan and other shores in often vain attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Thousands reached Europe, where they faced uncertain futures; thousands of others, including children, drowned.

Elsewhere in the region, migrant workers, many from Asia, continued to experience exploitation and abuses. In Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, where migrant workers formed a majority of the population and their labour underpinned the national economies, restrictive sponsorship policies continued to tie workers to employers, increasing migrant workers’ vulnerability. In Saudi Arabia, many migrants were left destitute after the government cut spending on construction and other projects. Migrant domestic workers, predominantly women, remained especially vulnerable to abuse by employers – including sexual and other physical and psychological abuse and forced labour due to the continuing failure of state authorities to extend basic labour law safeguards to the domestic employment sector. In Jordan, some 80,000 women migrants employed as domestic workers were excluded from the protection of labour laws, placing them at risk of violence and exploitation, according to a local workers’ rights group.

Women’s rights

Throughout the region, women and girls were denied equal status with men in law and in practice and were subject to gender-based violence, including sexual violence and killings perpetrated in the name of “honour”. Male “guardianship” rules restricted women’s freedom of movement and access to higher education and employment in Saudi Arabia, where the authorities also continued to prohibit women from driving motor vehicles.

Family laws discriminating against women in relation to marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance remained prevalent, and in many countries laws failed to protect from, and even facilitated, sexual violence against women – for example, by failing to criminalize early and forced marriage and marital rape and by allowing rapists to escape prosecution by marrying their victim. Authorities in Bahrain and Jordan took action during the year to remove or reduce this provision for rapists from their penal codes, and in other positive developments draft laws on combating violence against women appeared to be advancing towards enactment in Morocco and Tunisia. In other states, however, laws continued to prescribe lesser punishment for crimes of violence against women, including murder, if the perpetrators committed them in the name of “family honour”, or made women liable to criminal prosecution for reporting rape; these laws perpetuated conditions that both facilitate and obscure potentially high levels of domestic violence against women and girls.

Women’s rights activists faced arrest, imprisonment and harassment by Ministry of Intelligence and Revolutionary Guards officials in Iran, and the authorities used “morality police” to enforce compulsory “veiling” laws on women, who regularly suffered harassment, violence, arbitrary arrest and detention on account of their dress. Meanwhile, draft laws that heeded the Supreme Leader’s call for greater compliance with women’s “traditional” roles as home makers and child bearers threatened to reduce women’s access to sexual and reproductive health.

Conditions for women and girls were especially perilous in areas of armed conflict, where they endured siege, aerial bombing and other forms of attack by both government and opposition forces. Many were rendered more vulnerable to abuses such as human trafficking by the death or disappearance of spouses and other male relatives. In areas of Iraq and Syria that they controlled, IS forces continued to hold thousands of Yazidi women and girls captive, subjecting them to sexual violence, enslavement, including sexual slavery, and forced conversion.

Minority rights

Members of ethnic, religious and other minorities continued to face repression in a number of countries, exacerbated by the increased political polarization that both fuelled and flowed from the armed conflicts that dominated the region. In Saudi Arabia, the authorities continued to clamp down on the Shi’a minority, detaining and imprisoning Shi’a activists and executing a leading Shi’a cleric. In Iran, the authorities imprisoned scores of peaceful activists belonging to ethnic minorities, and maintained a raft of discriminatory restrictions that denied members of religious minorities equitable access to employment, education, political office and exercise of their economic, social and cultural rights. In Egypt, Coptic Christians, Shi’a Muslims and Baha’is faced continuing discrimination in law and practice and a new law restricted the building and repair of churches. In Kuwait, the authorities continued to withhold citizenship from more than 100,000 Bidun long-term residents, who remained stateless and unable to access a range of state services.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people

LGBTI people faced arrest and imprisonment on charges of “debauchery” or “indecency”, and persecution under laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual relations in Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Morocco and Tunisia.


A heavy shroud of impunity prevailed, under which parties to armed conflicts perpetrated war crimes, other grave violations of international law and gross human rights abuses. Elsewhere, state authorities committed unlawful killings, torture and other human rights violations without accountability.

In some cases, impunity continued for crimes committed decades ago. In Algeria, the authorities continued to protect state forces responsible for serious crimes in the 1990s by criminalizing calls for justice, thus turning the law on its head. In Morocco, 10 years after the landmark Truth and Equity Commission reported on decades of grave violations, state policy still firmly shielded from justice those responsible. Israel’s government agreed to pay compensation to the families of Turkish nationals killed by Israeli soldiers in 2010 but failed to ensure accountability either for the extensive war crimes and other grave violations of international law that Israeli forces committed during recent armed conflicts in Gaza and Lebanon or for unlawful killings, torture and other violations that Israeli soldiers and security officials continued to commit against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The government of Palestine ratified Rome Statute amendments giving the International Criminal Court jurisdiction over the “crime of aggression”. Neither the Palestinian government nor the Hamas de facto administration in Gaza took steps to ensure accountability for crimes committed by Palestinian armed groups in previous conflicts, including indiscriminate rocket and mortar attacks on Israel and summary killings of alleged “collaborators”.

In Egypt, the security forces continued to commit serious violations with impunity, targeting alleged supporters of the banned Muslim Brotherhood and other critics and opponents for arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance and torture. An amendment to the Police Authority Law prohibited security forces from “ill-treating citizens”. But the authorities took no serious steps to hold members of the security forces accountable for unlawful killings and other serious violations committed during years of turmoil since the popular uprising in 2011.

In Bahrain, the international condemnation sparked in 2011 by the authorities’ heavily abusive response to popular protests led the government to create, and thereafter to vaunt, official mechanisms mandated to investigate alleged human rights violations by the security forces and ensure accountability. These continued to function in 2016, albeit not in a sufficiently adequate and effective manner, and a small number of low-ranking members of the security forces faced prosecution as a result of investigations. However, by the end of the year, no senior officers or officials responsible for torture, unlawful killings and other excessive use of force in 2011 had been held to account.

Tunisia stood out as the only state in the region undertaking a serious transitional justice process, with its Truth and Dignity Commission reporting that it had received tens of thousands of complaints concerning human rights violations committed between 1955 and late 2013 and undertaking televised, public sessions. Yet a government-proposed law that would offer former officials and business executives immunity if they repaid their proceeds from corruption in former years threatened to undermine the Commission’s work.

The UN General Assembly also provided a glimmer of hope in December by establishing an independent international mechanism to ensure accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria since March 2011. In December too, the UN Security Council demonstrated rare unity when it reaffirmed that Israel’s establishment of settlements in Palestinian territory it has occupied since 1967 have no legal validity and constitute a flagrant violation of international law and an obstacle to peace and security. Rather than exercise its veto, the USA abstained while the Council’s 14 other member states supported the resolution. Despite these developments, however, the future as regards justice and accountability remained bleak at an international level, with four of the UN Security Council’s five permanent member states – France, Russia, the UK and the USA – actively supporting forces that continued to commit war crimes and other grave violations of international law in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, and themselves implicated in serious violations.

Death penalty

All countries in the region retained the death penalty but there were wide disparities in the range of offences penalized by it and in its application. No new death sentences were handed down in Bahrain, Oman or in Israel, which has abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes only. Although courts continued to hand down death sentences in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, the authorities there maintained long-standing policies of refraining from executing people. By contrast, the governments of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq remained among the world’s foremost executioners: their victims were often sentenced after grossly unfair trials. Some – in Iran, the majority – were sent to their deaths after being convicted of non-violent drugs offences; some were sentenced for crimes committed when they were children. On 2 January the Saudi Arabian authorities executed 47 prisoners at 12 separate locations; on 21 August, the Iraqi authorities executed 36 men sentenced after a perfunctory trial that failed to address their allegations of torture. Executions were also carried out in Egypt, where unfair military and other courts have handed down hundreds of death sentences since 2013.

Standing up for humanity

While 2016 saw some of the worst forms of human behaviour, it was also a year in which the very best of human conduct shone through. Countless individuals stood up in defence of human rights and victims of oppression, often putting their own lives or freedom in jeopardy to do so. They included medical workers, lawyers, citizen journalists, media workers, women’s and minority rights campaigners, social activists and many others – far too many to name or to list. It is their courage and determination in the face of dire abuses and threats that offer hope for a better future for the people of the Middle East and North Africa region.

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