Middle East and North Africa: More protection and guarantees needed for people defending human rights

Human rights activists in the Middle East and North Africa still face imprisonment, torture, persecution and repression for seeking to uphold the rights of others, more than ten years after the UN called on all states to support the work of people defending human rights, Amnesty International said today.

“Across the region, those who stand up for human rights and expose violations by state authorities often incur great risks by doing so,” said Malcolm Smart, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme. “Governments should be heralding the crucial role of human rights defenders in promoting and defending universal rights. Instead, too often, they brand them as subversives or trouble-makers and use oppressive means to impede their activities. People are languishing in jails across the region simply for peacefully exercising their right to expression, association or assembly.”

In a comprehensive report Challenging Repression Amnesty International draws on numerous cases to highlight the precarious situation of human rights defenders who are intimidated, harassed, threatened, arrested and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment or death after unfair trials. They are held with no access to the outside world for days or weeks, without charge or trial, and tortured. Others are repeatedly arrested and subjected to different and combined types of violations. Some are forced to sign confessions to crimes they say they have not committed, or pledges to stop their human rights activities. 

National laws are routinely used to silence them and penalize their activities. They are often charged with offences such as “insult”, “slander”, “dissemination of false information” and “anti-state propaganda”. In Iran, the authorities can draw on at least nine laws, many of which are vague and overlapping, to penalize criticism or alleged insult or defamation of state officials and others.

Decades-long states of emergency are also invoked to hand down severe punishments after unfair trials before exceptional courts such as in Egypt and Syria.  

The environment for human rights defenders in the region has generally worsened since the US-led “war on terror”, which provided an additional pretext to silence dissent and to adopt counterterrorism laws. 

The UAE Decree Law on the fight against terrorist crimes penalizes even non-violent attempts to “disrupt public order, undermine security, expose people to danger or wreak destruction of the environment”. Similarly, the Anti-terrorism Law adopted in 2003 in Tunisia contains a very broad definition of terrorism, extending it to cover acts such as illegitimately “influencing state policy” and “disturbing public order” which could seriously impinge upon the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

Some human rights defenders such, as people working in the media, legal professionals and women activists face particular risks because of their profession or the cause they are defending. Media workers are closely scrutinized because of the potentially wide impact of their work. Legal professionals face harassment because of their proximity to defendants, with authorities often associating them with the cause of their clients. Women human rights defenders frequently face reprisals in a region in which traditional, conservative and patriarchal values continue to dominate.  

Despite this environment and the repression, the persistence of activists to combat human rights violations has slowly led to a change. In Iran, campaigning by the women’s movement, including the Campaign for Equality, led to the removal of two controversial articles from a draft Family Protection Law under discussion by the Majles (parliament) in mid 2008. Bloggers in Egypt have been instrumental in exposing torture and other ill-treatment in police stations. They have posted several videos, taken on mobile phones, of torture and other ill-treatment.  

Even in conflict areas, human rights defenders have played a vital role. For example, Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations have been working together litigating cases before the Israeli Supreme Court. As a result, the Israeli Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling which effectively outlawed the use of torture by Israeli forces. 

In a region where governments persistently fail to respect human rights, the role of human rights defenders is all the more crucial. In order to continue their work, human rights defenders must be able to count on the support of the international community until their campaigns are acknowledged and their aspirations realized. 

“It is high time that governments across the region recognize the crucial contribution of human rights defenders and take steps to support their work,” said Malcolm Smart. “They must immediately end the persecution of defenders and also remove the legal and other obstacles that are used to block or restrict their legitimate activities to promote and protect universal human rights.”