Human Rights in Middle East and North Africa - Review in 2019
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Human Rights in Middle East and North Africa - Review in 2019

The full report documenting the state of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa during 2019 is available here. It is composed of a regional overview and 19 country entries, subdivided by key human rights themes.

Mass protests shook the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in 2019, notably in Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Authorities used excessive force – most outrageously lethal force causing hundreds of deaths in Iran and Iraq – as well as arbitrary detentions in a bid to quash them. Governments across the region heavily restricted freedom of expression and civil society activities, with some particularly clamping down on those criticizing the authorities on social media. Hundreds of human rights defenders were targeted.

There were widespread patterns of violations by security forces in the context of the criminal justice system, including torture and other ill-treatment and enforced disappearances, most notably in Egypt, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria. In general, security forces enjoyed impunity. The most significant initiative to shed light on and seek redress for abuses of security forces, albeit past rather than current abuses, was undoubtedly Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission, which concluded its work in 2019 and made recommendations that were relevant to governments across the region.

Actors in the region’s armed conflicts committed war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, in some cases restricting humanitarian access that affected health care and other basic services. Other military powers fuelled violations through illicit arms transfers and direct military support to belligerents. In the context of widespread impunity, progress towards an investigation by the International Criminal Court into the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories was welcome news. Lebanon and Jordan continued to host over 3 million refugees from Syria, but blocked the entry of new arrivals and, in Lebanon’s case, expelled thousands who had entered “illegally”. Military offensives and other fighting internally displaced hundreds of thousands of people in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Reforms were announced in several countries, particularly in the Gulf, to improve protection for migrant workers, but they continued to face exploitation and abuse. Like the two previous years, 2019 saw a few welcome developments at a legislative and institutional level with respect to women’s rights and violence against women, but the severe repression of women’s rights defenders in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia cast a long shadow over them. Authorities across the region heavily repressed the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, arresting scores of individuals because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity and subjecting some men to forced anal examinations.


Mass protests shook countries across the Middle East and North Africa, as well as many other places across the world, in 2019. Those in Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon, like their equivalents in Sudan, coalesced into long-running waves of contestation that challenged the entire political system and called for profound institutional reform; those in Iran might have done had they not been so violently repressed. The ability of largely peaceful protesters to maintain momentum over weeks and months was striking in a context where many assumed that the repression and armed violence that followed the uprisings in the region a decade ago – Iran in 2009, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria in 2010-2011 – had intimidated populations from taking to the streets in numbers to demand their rights and challenge injustice.

Smaller protests also broke out elsewhere in the region, including Egypt, where they represented a rare challenge to the current president, the Gaza Strip (against the de facto Hamas authorities), Jordan, Morocco and Western Sahara, Oman and Tunisia. In these and the bigger waves of protests in Algeria, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, many protesters demanded an end to corruption, while demanding better living and working conditions and greater respect of socio-economic rights. Some called for gender equality and an end to gender-based violence; women’s rights groups in Algeria, for instance, called for the repeal of the discriminatory Family Code. Some were campaigning on environmental concerns.

The impact of Israel’s 52-year-old occupation of Palestinian territories and its illegal 12-year-old air, land and sea blockade of the Gaza Strip, which amounted to collective punishment, continued to be the focus of demonstrations by Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Both the occupation and the blockade severely impacted freedom of movement and health services, particularly in Gaza, and led to the demolition of hundreds of homes in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the ensuing displacement of hundreds of Palestinians. The situation was exacerbated by Israel’s expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank and the US government’s announcement that – in contradiction with international law – it no longer considered those settlements as illegal.

Authorities employed a range of tactics to repress protests. Amnesty International recorded credible allegations of unnecessary or excessive use of force, such as the deployment of rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons and baton-wielding officers, against peaceful demonstrators, by security forces during demonstrations in 10 countries in 2019. In Iran and Iraq, security forces resorted extensively to firing live ammunition at protesters, causing hundreds of deaths – over 800, according to Amnesty International’s latest figures – and thousands of injuries. Israeli military and security forces killed dozens of Palestinians during demonstrations in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, continuing a long-standing pattern.

Security forces arbitrarily arrested thousands of protesters across the region, particularly in Algeria, Egypt, Iran and Iraq, detaining many and accusing them of security-related offences. Governments also sought to disrupt communication networks. In Iran, authorities implemented a near-total internet shutdown during protests in November in a bid to prevent people from sharing images and videos of the lethal force used by security forces. In Egypt, authorities disrupted online messaging applications to thwart further protests.

Governments in the MENA region must respect the right to protest peacefully, rein in security forces, particularly to stop them using live ammunition when there is no imminent risk to life and open independent and impartial investigations into killings of protesters. They should also address the rights-based demands of protesters.

Freedom of expression

Authorities across the MENA region heavily restricted freedom of expression. According to Amnesty International’s figures for 2019, which are by no means comprehensive, individuals were detained as prisoners of conscience in 12 countries in the region and 136 people were arrested solely for their peaceful expression online. Some governments particularly clamped down on those criticizing the authorities or challenging state policy on social media. In Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco and Western Sahara, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, journalists, bloggers and activists who posted statements or videos deemed critical of the head of state or other authorities on social media found themselves targeted for arrest, questioning and prosecution. In many cases, they were then detained; in some, they were convicted and sentenced to prison terms.

Human rights defenders were subjected to a range of attacks by governments. Amnesty International recorded 367 human rights defenders being subjected to detention and 118 to prosecution in 2019; the true numbers are likely to be considerably higher. In Iran alone, at least 240 human rights defenders were arbitrarily detained. In Saudi Arabia, by the end of the year, virtually all the country’s human rights defenders were in detention without charge, or were on trial or serving prison terms. In Egypt, human rights defenders were increasingly targeted for arrest and torture or other ill-treatment following the 20 September protests. The Israeli authorities used a range of measures, including raids, incitement campaigns, movement restrictions and judicial harassment, to target human rights defenders, journalists and others who criticized Israel’s continuing occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Syrian Golan Heights.

New evidence emerged in 2019 about the sophistication of digital attacks against human rights defenders globally, including in the MENA region. Amnesty International found, for instance, that two Moroccan human rights defenders had been targeted repeatedly by surveillance technology developed by the Israeli company NSO Group since 2017. It had previously documented the targeting of activists from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as an Amnesty International staff member, with malware from the same source. The justification for the production of this technology, and the purchase and use of it by government clients, is that it is used to fight crime and terrorism; the profile of those targeted belies this claim. Amnesty International supported legal action to take the Israeli ministry of defence to court, demanding that it revokes the export licence of NSO. Facebook and WhatsApp filed a lawsuit in a US federal court against it, alleging that, working on behalf of Bahrain, the UAE and other countries, NSO had targeted 1,400 private devices, whose users included journalists, human rights activists and political dissidents in multiple countries, including Bahrain and the UAE.

Widespread targeted phishing attacks also continued against human rights defenders, including those who had taken extra steps to secure their online accounts, such as by using more secure email providers or enabling two-factor authentication on their online accounts. Attackers created websites that imitated the log-in prompt of an online service with the objective of luring a victim into visiting the malicious page and entering their username and passwords, thereby transmitting these credentials to the attackers.

Meanwhile, a Reuters investigation exposed the UAE’s involvement in an initiative in which US intelligence operatives reportedly helped the UAE keep human rights activists and others under surveillance across the globe with no judicial oversight.

Authorities also resorted to censoring the internet. In Egypt, the authorities added the websites of broadcasters BBC and Alhurra to the list of 513 websites already blocked. The Palestinian authorities in the West Bank blocked access to 59 websites on security grounds; all of them shared content critical of the authorities. In Iran, Facebook, Telegram, Twitter and YouTube remained blocked.

MENA governments must release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally, tolerate peaceful criticism both offline and online, and stop harassing human rights defenders by judicial and other means. Governments worldwide should follow the recommendation of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression to implement a moratorium on the sale and transfer of surveillance equipment until a proper human rights regulatory framework is put in place.

Criminal justice systems

There were widespread patterns of violations by security forces in the context of the criminal justice system. Within the MENA region in 2019, there were credible allegations of torture or other ill-treatment in state custody in at least 18 countries, particularly during the interrogation phase and often to extract “confessions”. In Egypt and Iran among other countries, prison authorities also used prolonged solitary confinement or denial of medical care to punish prisoners held for politically motivated reasons; such practices violate the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment. There were deaths in state custody that were credibly alleged to have resulted from torture or other ill-treatment in at least seven countries.

There were credible allegations of enforced disappearance by the state in at least eight countries. In Egypt, hundreds of dissidents were forcibly disappeared for up to 183 days. In Iran, some of those arrested following protests in November were subjected to enforced disappearance. In Yemen, Huthi forces subjected some of the scores of the critics and opponents it arbitrarily detained to enforced disappearance. In Syria, tens of thousands of people remained disappeared and security forces continued to hold thousands of detainees arrested in previous years without trial, often in conditions that amounted to enforced disappearance.

In countries including Egypt, Iran, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia and Syria, exceptional courts, such as military, revolutionary and security courts, were used extensively, leading to trials that grossly violated fair trial standards. Trials before ordinary criminal courts could be just as problematic. Across the region, courts convicted defendants on the basis of torture-tainted evidence. In some countries, notably Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the death penalty was imposed and implemented following such trials.

Some of the most serious violations were carried out in the context of operations authorities qualified as counter-terrorism campaigns or security measures. In a few countries, governments had legitimate reasons to take measures to protect civilians from abuses by armed groups. In Iraq, the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS) continued to target civilians in assassinations and bomb attacks. In Egypt, armed groups in Sinai conducted sporadic attacks that killed or injured people, although at a lesser rate than in previous years. However, not only did the measures taken against alleged members of such groups often involve gross human rights violations, authorities used the pretext of security to conduct thinly veiled attacks against civil society (as described above).

In general, security forces enjoyed wide-ranging impunity. The most significant initiative to shed light on abuses of security forces, albeit past rather than current abuses, was undoubtedly Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission, which concluded its work in 2019. By the end of its mandate, the Commission had transferred 173 cases to specialized criminal chambers after receiving more than 62,000 complaints from victims. At least 78 trials, involving cases of torture, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances, began before these chambers during the year.

Many of the Commission’s recommendations could be applied to states across the region, including the reform of judicial and security sectors, the creation of independent bodies to oversee the work of security services and accountability for crimes perpetrated.

Armed conflict

Armed conflicts continued to afflict the lives of civilians in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen, where fluctuating levels of violence reflected shifting alliances on the ground and the interests of external military powers. In Gaza and southern Israel, sporadic bursts of armed hostilities flared up between Israel and Palestinian armed groups.

The conflicts’ multiple actors committed war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. Some actors carried out direct attacks against civilians or civilian infrastructure. In their military campaign in areas of north-western Syria controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, an armed group, Syrian government forces targeted civilian homes, bakeries, medical facilities and rescue operations, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians, including rescue and medical workers. In Yemen, Huthi forces, which controlled large parts of the country, targeted civilian infrastructure, including airports, in Saudi Arabia, causing civilian casualties, and claimed responsibility for attacks on oil processing facilities in the east of the country.

Almost all actors carried out indiscriminate attacks that killed and injured civilians in the form of air strikes, in the case of those with air power, and shelling of residential areas with artillery, mortars and rockets. In Syria, these actors included, in addition to Syrian government forces, Turkey and allied Syrian armed groups during the military offensive launched in October in the north-east of the country against a Kurdish-led alliance, in which scores of civilians were killed. In Libya, many of the nearly 300 civilians killed as a result of the armed conflict in 2019 were killed in indiscriminate attacks using inaccurate explosive weapons in populated civilian areas. Many fell victim to fighting in and around Tripoli between the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA), which launched an offensive to take control of the capital and surrounding areas in April. In Yemen, both Huthi and anti-Huthi forces shelled residential neighbourhoods, while bombings by the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE killed and injured hundreds of civilians.

Restriction of humanitarian access remained a tactic of some actors, undermining the economic and social rights of civilians in areas affected. In Syria, according to the UN, government forces failed to approve around half of its requests to carry out humanitarian missions to monitor, assess and accompany aid deliveries. Elsewhere the fighting itself aggravated humanitarian needs. In Libya, the battles in and around Tripoli interrupted access to health care, electricity and other basic services. In Yemen the conflict continued to have a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities.

Military powers inside and outside the region played a pernicious role, fuelling violations through illicit arms transfers and direct military support to belligerents and refusing to investigate their armed forces’ own involvement in violations of international law. In Libya, rival factions increasingly relied on foreign military backing to change the balance of power. The GNA’s primary sponsor, Turkey, provided it with armoured fighting vehicles and armed drones and the LNA’s primary sponsor, the UAE, provided it with Chinese-manufactured drones and operated them on its behalf, all in flagrant violation of a comprehensive UN arms embargo in place since 2011.

In Syria, Russia maintained its direct support of military campaigns by government forces that violated international law, while Turkey backed armed groups that engaged in abductions and summary killings. In Syria and Iraq, Iran provided military support to government forces and militias responsible for serious violations. The USA and its coalition allies, meanwhile, continued to shirk their responsibility to investigate hundreds of civilian deaths during their bombing campaigns to defeat IS.

There was little accountability for war crimes and other grave violations of international law committed during or as a result of armed hostilities. The announcement by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court that a preliminary examination into Palestine had concluded that war crimes had been committed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and that an investigation should be opened once the Court’s territorial jurisdiction had been confirmed was therefore a welcome historic step, offering a crucial opportunity to break the cycle of impunity.

Given the obstacles ahead, it is crucial that all governments support the Court and other international justice mechanisms to pave the way to truth, justice and reparations for the victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the region. Parties to ongoing armed conflicts there must abide by international humanitarian law, particularly by ending direct attacks against civilians or civilian infrastructure and indiscriminate attacks and refraining from using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in civilian areas. Military powers must halt arms transfers where there is a significant risk that they will be used in violation of international law; regrettably, such risks are high in all the ongoing conflicts in the region.

Refugees and internally displaced people

Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey continued to host the majority of the 5 million refugees from Syria who had fled the country since the start of the crisis in 2011, illustrating the failure of the international community to shoulder their burden-sharing responsibilities. Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey all blocked the entry of new refugees. The dire humanitarian conditions there – exacerbated by the shortage of humanitarian aid, the inability of refugees to find jobs and administrative and financial obstacles to obtain or renew residency permits – pushed tens of thousands of refugees to return to Syria. Lebanon deported thousands of refugees to Syria following an announcement in April that it would expel refugees who entered “illegally”, in violation of its non-refoulement obligations.

The situation for tens of thousands of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in Libya remained bleak, as they were exposed to arbitrary arrest and abduction by militias and were regularly the victims of human trafficking and abuses by criminal groups. Those detained were kept in inhuman conditions and faced overcrowding as well as shortages of food, water and medical treatment.

There were new waves of displacement through the year. In Syria, the military offensives in the north-west and north-east of the country displaced over half a million people, swelling the total number of internally displaced people to 6.6 million. In Yemen, renewed fighting between Huthi and anti-Huthi forces in the southern governorate of Dhale’ led to thousands of people being displaced, contributing to a total of over 3.5 million. In Iraq, over 1.5 million people remained internally displaced as a result of the armed conflict against IS, the majority in camps and informal settlements following secondary displacement. In Libya, the fighting in and around Tripoli displaced more than 140,000 people.

Governments in the region must halt direct and constructive refoulement of refugees and asylum-seekers to Syria and other countries, while Western and other states must take on much greater burden-sharing responsibility, including through resettlement.

Migrant workers

Reforms to improve protection for migrant workers were announced in several countries, particularly in the Gulf, where they make up a very high proportion of the workforce. Qatar promised to abolish the kafala (sponsorship) system, which ties migrant domestic workers to their employers, and took some measures to overcome barriers faced by migrant workers when seeking justice for abuses and to combat systemic abuse during their recruitment. Jordan also announced it would be reviewing its kafala system. The UAE removed the job title criteria for sponsorship, allowing more residents to sponsor family members to live in the country.

Nonetheless, migrant workers in Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE continued to face exploitation and abuse as a result of existing kafala systems. Domestic workers generally remained excluded altogether from the protections provided by labour laws.

Legal reforms to protect migrants’ rights must go further. As a start, authorities in the Gulf and elsewhere must abolish kafala systems completely.

Women and girls

Like the two previous years, 2019 saw a few welcome developments at a legislative and institutional level with respect to women’s rights and violence against women. Such changes, while limited relative to those needed, owed much to the efforts of the women’s rights movement in the region. However, their achievements were undermined by the severe repression of women’s rights defenders in some countries, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia, the weak implementation of previous reforms, generalized discrimination in law and practice against women, notably in matters of marriage and divorce, inheritance and child custody, and inadequate action against sexual and other gender-based violence.

Saudi Arabia undertook long-overdue major reforms to the discriminatory male guardianship system, easing major restrictions on women’s freedom of movement, but women still need the permission of a male guardian to marry. Ironically, five women human rights defenders spent the whole of the year in detention, partly for calling for these very reforms. Iran enacted a new law allowing Iranian women married to men with foreign nationality to pass on Iranian citizenship to their children on condition that they passed a security screening.

However, this small step had to be set against the intensification of the authorities’ crackdown against women’s rights defenders campaigning against discriminatory forced veiling laws and bans on women entering football stadiums.

In welcome developments, Jordan and Tunisia followed up on steps taken in 2018 to improve protection from violence for women and girls; in doing so, they revealed the size of the challenge facing them. After the Tunisian authorities established a complaints mechanism in 2018, they received tens of thousands of complaints from women who had experienced domestic violence. In neighbouring Libya, authorities were either unwilling or incapable of tackling gender-based violence at the hands of militias and armed groups.

A shelter for women at risk of being killed by family members established in Jordan in 2018 protected dozens of such women during the year. “Honour” killings took the lives of over 20 Palestinian women and girls in the neighbouring West Bank and Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, Oman strengthened the criminalization of female genital mutilation.

Authorities need to accelerate the trend towards greater recognition of women’s rights in law and translate legal commitments to address violence against women into action that delivers accountability against perpetrators.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people

Authorities across the region heavily repressed the rights of LGBTI people. Security forces arrested scores of individuals on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. In Tunisia, police arrested at least 78 men under a Penal Code provision that criminalizes “sodomy”, according to a local NGO; at least 70 were convicted and sentenced to up to a year in prison. In Kuwait, police arrested seven trans people and referred them for investigation. Eight LGBTI individuals were arbitrarily arrested or ill-treated by Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, according to a local NGO.

The authorities in some countries subjected some men to forced anal examinations to determine whether had engaged in same-sex sexual relations; dozens of such cases were recorded in Egypt and Tunisia. Such examinations violate the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment.

Authorities must repeal provisions criminalizing same-sex sexual relations, scrap anal examinations and enact legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.