The killing of Palestinian protesters by Israeli forces in Gaza and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi Arabian consulate glaringly illustrated the unaccountability of Middle Eastern and North African states that resorted to lethal and other violence to repress dissent.
The crackdown on civil society actors and political opponents increased significantly in Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia. In all, dozens of women human rights defenders there were targeted for advocating women’s rights or protesting against violence against women or sexual harassment. Across the region, authorities used arbitrary detention, excessive force against protesters and administrative measures to restrict civil society. Despite the repression, 2018, like 2017, saw limited positive developments at a legislative and institutional level with respect to women’s rights and violence against women. Developments in Lebanon and Tunisia raised faint hopes of the beginnings of change in the general situation in which same-sex sexual relations are criminalized across the region; however, authorities in these and other countries arrested and prosecuted people for their real or perceived sexual orientation. Armed hostilities in both Iraq and Syria decreased. As a result, fewer civilians were killed, but many continued to suffer the impact of serious violations, including war crimes, committed by all parties to the conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen particularly, as well as the devastating humanitarian situations that arose from or were exacerbated by their actions. Significant developments aimed at addressing past violations occurred in Lebanon and Tunisia. Ethnic and religious minorities faced persecution by states and armed groups in countries including Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
There were some positive developments at a legislative level in Morocco, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with respect to migrant and/or domestic workers, but workers in these and other countries continued to face exploitation and abuse and sub-Saharan migrants, as well as refugees and asylum-seekers, were subjected to a widespread crackdown in Maghreb countries. Restrictions on access to water for drinking and other household use in marginalized communities in Iran, Iraq and Tunisia raised concerns about discrimination and fuelled protests. Across the region, government measures in the name of security led to arbitrary detention and unfair trials, torture and other ill-treatment, denaturalization and border control orders, as well as, in Egypt, the use of banned weapons and extrajudicial executions. There were some limited positive developments with respect to the death penalty, but high numbers of individuals continued to be executed in Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, many after being sentenced to death in unfair trials. The political crisis in the Gulf that started in 2017 continued to impact the human rights of thousands of individuals living across the region, separating families and disrupting education.
REPRESSION OF DISSENT
LETHAL AND OTHER VIOLENCE
Two heavily mediatized events – the killing of scores of Palestinian protesters by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on 2 October – glaringly illustrated the unaccountability of Middle Eastern and North African states that resorted to lethal and other violence to repress dissent. According to a local human rights organization, at least 180 were killed, among them 35 children, in the Gaza protests, which started in March and called for the right to return of refugees to land from which they were displaced 70 years earlier, and an end to the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Both events led to scrutiny and pressure for accountability, but not concrete action towards it. In the first case, the UN Human Rights Council established a commission of inquiry to look into the killings, many of which were unlawful, and other abuses, but the Israeli authorities characteristically refused to co-operate and past practice indicated that any domestic investigations would be deeply flawed and fail to deliver justice.
In the second, senior officials in the governments of Saudi Arabia’s Western allies questioned the evolving official narrative about the killing and made statements to emphasize the importance of accountability. However, they failed to respond positively to civil society calls for a UN investigation, which, given the allegation that the kingdom’s crown prince was involved in the crime and the subservience of its judiciary to the palace, would have been the only process capable of exposing the truth about who ordered the murder.
In Syria, the government disclosed the death of some of those subjected to enforced disappearance in previous years by updating civil status records, but failed to provide the families with remains. Tens of thousands of people, including peaceful activists and government opponents, humanitarian workers, lawyers and journalists remained disappeared.
Elsewhere, states used excessive force to repress demonstrations. In Iran, where tens of thousands of men and women took to the streets throughout the year to protest against poverty, corruption, repression and authoritarianism, security forces beat unarmed protesters and used live ammunition, tear gas and water cannons against them, causing deaths and injuries. In Iraq, security forces in Basra killed over a dozen protesters and injured hundreds of others when they fired live ammunition and tear gas to disperse a series of protests demanding employment opportunities and better public services. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian security forces beat demonstrators peacefully protesting against the actions of their respective authorities.
The crackdown on civil society actors and political opponents increased significantly in three of the region’s most powerful states: Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Arbitrary detention of activists and government critics had a chilling effect on freedom of expression across the region. Authorities often used counter-terrorism and security-related laws, including cyber-crimes legislation, to justify arrests and bring prosecutions.
In Iran, the authorities arbitrarily detained thousands of individuals, subjecting hundreds to unfair trials, lengthy prison sentences, torture and other ill-treatment. They detained, prosecuted or continued to imprison at least 112 women human rights defenders, some in reprisal for their work, some for peacefully protesting against the abusive, discriminatory and degrading practice of forced hijab (veiling) by taking off their headscarves in public.
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In Egypt, the authorities arbitrarily arrested at least 113 people solely for peacefully expressing critical opinions, including many senior political figures who had publicly criticized the president or attempted to run against him in the presidential elections. They arrested over 30 human rights defenders, in some cases subjecting them to enforced disappearance for periods of up to 30 days. Two women were arrested and convicted by courts after they spoke out against sexual harassment in Egypt on their Facebook accounts.
In Saudi Arabia, the authorities harassed, arrested and prosecuted government critics, academics, clerics and human rights defenders. In May, they launched a wave of arrests that included at least eight women human rights defenders who had campaigned against the ban on women driving and the male guardianship system. By the end of the year, virtually all Saudi Arabian human rights defenders were in detention or serving prison terms, or had been forced to flee the country. In the Maghreb, the Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian authorities all used penal code provisions to detain, prosecute and, in some cases, imprison journalists.
In the Gulf, authorities in Bahrain and the UAE kept high-profile human rights defenders in jail on speech-related charges, while in Kuwait and Oman, government critics and protesters were arrested arbitrarily and, in some cases, prosecuted. Iraqi, Jordanian, Lebanese and Palestinian authorities also arbitrarily detained activists and others for voicing criticism of them or peacefully taking part in demonstrations. Israeli authorities used such measures to target activists, including human rights defenders, who criticized Israel’s continuing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
MUZZLING OF MEDIA AND ASSOCIATIONS
New legislation threatening freedoms of expression, association or peaceful assembly came into effect in some countries. The Egyptian president ratified two laws muzzling independent media by giving the state almost total control over print, online and broadcast media. The Palestinian president issued decrees that restricted freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and limited the ability of civil society organizations to operate freely. The new penal code in Oman criminalized forms of association “aimed at combating the political, economic, social or security principles of the state”.
Authorities banned demonstrations and/or blocked the activities of civil society or political associations in North Africa, particularly in Algeria, Egypt and Morocco, and the Gulf, particularly in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. In some countries, such as Iran, Iraq and Jordan, they blocked social media or disrupted access to the internet.
Dozens of women human rights defenders were targeted for advocating for women’s rights or protesting against violence against women or sexual harassment, particularly in Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, 2018, like 2017, saw limited positive developments at a legislative and institutional level with respect to women’s rights and violence against women. While these were not sea changes, they were a tribute to years of struggle by the women’s rights movement.
In the Maghreb, laws that included provisions combating violence against women came into effect. The Palestinian authorities repealed a provision that had allowed individuals suspected of rape to avoid prosecution and imprisonment if they married their victims. Similar welcome measures had been taken in Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia in 2017.
In Jordan, following a long-standing campaign by Jordanian women’s rights organizations, the government opened a shelter for women at risk of family violence in the name of “honour”. Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on women driving. The step was a testament to the bravery of women human rights defenders who, for decades, drew international media attention to the prohibition and faced state persecution, including, in a development of bitter irony, before and after the ban was lifted in 2018. The government announced that women did not need the permission of a male guardian to start their own business, but it was unclear whether the reform was implemented in practice. In general, women were still required to have permission from a male guardian to enrol in higher education, seek employment, travel or marry. Jordan and Qatar both adopted measures that allowed the children of female nationals married to foreign fathers to acquire permanent residency, but left them still unable to acquire citizenship.
Entrenched discrimination against women in law and in practice, notably in matters of marriage and divorce, inheritance and child custody, remained a major issue in the region. Women and girls also remained inadequately protected against sexual and other gender-based violence. Their situation in conflict zones were of particular concern. In Libya, authorities failed to protect women from gender-based violence at the hands of militias and armed groups; this and smear campaigns on social media forced many women to withdraw from the public space altogether. In Yemen, the protracted conflict exacerbated discrimination against women and girls and left them with less protection from sexual and other violence, including forced marriage.
RIGHTS OF LESBIAN, GAY, BISEXUAL, TRANSGENDER AND INTERSEX (LGBTI) PEOPLE
DEVELOPMENTS IN LEBANON AND TUNISIA
Developments in two countries raised faint hopes of the beginnings of change in the general situation in which samesex sexual relations are criminalized across the region. In Lebanon, a district court of appeal ruled that same-sex consensual sex was not a criminal offence. In Tunisia, a draft law that included the decriminalization of samesex sexual relations was submitted to the parliament.
However, governments in these and other countries continued to heavily limit the enjoyment of the rights of LGBTI people in law and practice. In Lebanon, according to reports, police harassed and abused LGBTI people, especially in refugee and migrant communities, sometimes making use of a penal code provision that criminalizes “sexual intercourse contrary to nature”. In Tunisia, according to a local nongovernmental organization (NGO), police arrested at least 115 individuals in relation to their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, 38 of whom were later convicted of charges related to engaging in consensual samesex sexual relations. They also subjected men accused of such relations to forced anal examinations, in violation of the prohibition of torture and other illtreatment.
In Egypt, the authorities detained at least 13 men for “public indecency” or “habitual debauchery” on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. Palestinian security forces in the West Bank arbitrarily arrested and ill-treated five LGBTI activists, according to a local NGO. In Oman, same-sex sexual relations continued to be criminalized under the new penal code issued in 2018.
In Libya, Syria and Yemen, the conflicts’ multiple actors continued to commit war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. Military forces with air power carried out indiscriminate air strikes and direct attacks on civilian homes, hospitals and medical facilities, sometimes using internationally banned cluster munitions. They included: in Libya, the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army; in Syria, Syrian government forces, with the support of Russia, on the one hand, and US-led coalition forces, on the other; and, in Yemen, Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces. Armed groups arbitrarily carried out indiscriminate attacks that killed civilians, such as by shelling residential neighbourhoods, and abducted and detained scores of civilians, subjecting some to torture and other ill-treatment.
They included: in Libya, a wide range of competing militias, whose clashes resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties; in Syria, armed opposition groups, some receiving Turkish military support; and in Yemen, Huthi and allied forces, and UAE-backed Yemeni forces. In Syria, government forces continued sieges that deprived hundreds of thousands of access to medical care, other basic goods and services and humanitarian assistance. In Yemen, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition continued to impose excessive restrictions on the entry of essential goods and aid, while the Huthi authorities obstructed aid movement within the country, deepening the humanitarian crisis. The UN reported in June that around half the population, 14 million people, were at imminent risk of famine; cholera affected the entire country.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PEOPLE
In Iraq, almost 2 million people remained displaced. Families with perceived ties to the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS) were regularly prevented from returning to their homes or places of origin as a result of threats from neighbours, tribal and local authorities, and Iraqi forces. Those who managed to return said they were subjected to forced displacement and other abuses. Families, particularly those headed by women, were stigmatized and collectively punished for having perceived links with IS owing to factors outside their control. In IDP camps, many were denied access to food, water and health care. Women with perceived IS ties were subjected to sexual violence, primarily by armed actors affiliated with military and security forces in the camps.
In Libya, thousands of Libyan families remained internally displaced. Tawerghan families internally displaced since 2011 attempted to return to the town of Tawergha following an official decree, but were blocked by armed groups. A camp housing over 500 Tawerghan families was attacked by a militia, resulting in the forced eviction of around 1,900 internally displaced people. In Syria, by the end of the year, 6.6 million people had been internally displaced since the start of the crisis in 2011. Thousands lived in makeshift camps that did not provide an adequate standard of living. Women whose husbands or fathers had been killed or gone missing during the conflict faced serious obstacles in claiming their property as the deeds were often in the name of their male relatives. Meanwhile, a new law threatened the rights of people who lived in certain informal settlements.
There were a couple of minor positive developments relating to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, where a government measure facilitated birth registration for them, and Jordan, where an official campaign was launched to rectify the status of those living informally in urban areas. However, these were vastly overshadowed by the precarious nature in which the over 5 million refugees and asylum-seekers from Syria found themselves. Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, the countries hosting most of the refugees, continued to block the entry of new refugees. The authorities in Lebanon and Turkey said that over 300,000 refugees returned to Syria.
The dire humanitarian conditions in neighbouring countries – exacerbated by the lack of humanitarian aid, the inability of refugees to find jobs, and administrative and financial obstacles to obtain or renew residency permits – pushed refugees to return. The number of resettlement places and other safe and legal routes for refugees offered by Western and other states fell far below the needs identified by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.
ACCOUNTABILITY AND TRANSITIONAL JUSTICE DEVELOPMENTS IN LEBANON AND TUNISIA
Significant developments aimed at addressing past violations occurred in Lebanon and Tunisia. The Lebanese parliament passed a law creating a national commission to investigate the whereabouts of thousands of persons who went missing or were forcibly disappeared during the 1975-1990 armed conflict in Lebanon. Associations of families of the victims concerned, along with partner organizations, had campaigned for such a development for over three decades. Tunisia witnessed the passing of a key milestone in its transitional justice process. Its Truth and Dignity Commission finalized its work investigating past human rights violations despite an attempt by the parliament to end its work prematurely. Its final report identified individuals responsible for grave human rights violations and the reasons underlying grave violations and presented recommendations to ensure their non-recurrence. It referred 72 cases to trial before 13 specialized criminal chambers. These included cases of enforced disappearance, death under torture and killings of peaceful protesters.
However, there was generalized impunity across the region for both past and ongoing violations. To take one glaring example that Amnesty International highlighted through its work, 2018 marked the 30th anniversary of the enforced disappearance and secret execution of thousands of imprisoned political dissidents in Iran. Despite the fact that these acts amounted to ongoing crimes against humanity, those responsible had evaded justice and in some cases had held or continued to hold powerful positions in Iran’s government and judiciary.
MINORITIES STATE PERSECUTION
There was continuing state persecution against ethnic and religious minorities in the region. In Iran, hundreds of Azerbaijani Turks and Ahwazi Arabs, including minority rights activists, were arrested and detained in connection with peaceful cultural gatherings and protests. In Saudi Arabia, the public prosecution repeatedly called for the execution of several Shi’a activists on charges related to the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. In Algeria, authorities harassed members of the minority Ahmadi religious movement, subjecting dozens of them to trial or investigation, and ordered the closure of at least eight churches or other places of Christian worship.
In Egypt, the government continued to restrict the right of Christians to worship in law and practice. It granted full registration to only 588 out of almost 3,730 churches and associated buildings that had applied for it under a new law that required approvals from several state bodies, including security services.
Israel passed a new law that described the Israeli state as being only for the Jewish people, confirming the status of the almost one fifth of the population who are Palestinian citizens of Israel as second-class citizens.
ARMED GROUP ATTACKS
Among many other abuses, IS claimed responsibility for suicide bombings and other deadly attacks targeting Shi’a Muslims in Iraq, a majority there but a minority in the region, and Coptic Christians in Egypt, leading to the deaths and injury of dozens of civilians.
LABOUR AND MIGRATION
MIGRANT LABOUR AND DOMESTIC WORKERS
There were some positive developments at a legislative level in Morocco, Qatar and the UAE with respect to migrant labour and/or domestic workers, but migrant workers continued to face exploitation in these and other countries, including Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman and Saudi Arabia, in large part due to kafala (sponsorship) systems, which limited their ability to escape abusive working conditions.
In Morocco, the parliament passed a new law on domestic workers, entitling domestic workers to written contracts, maximum working hours, guaranteed days off, paid vacations and a specified minimum wage. Despite these gains, the new law still offered less protection to domestic workers than the Moroccan Labour Code, which does not refer to domestic workers. In Qatar, a new law partially removed the exit permit requirement, allowing the vast majority of migrant workers covered by the Labour Law to leave the country without seeking their employers’ permission. However, the law retained some exceptions, including the ability of employers to request exit permits for up to 5% of their workforce. Exit permits were still required for employees who fell outside the remit of the Labour Law, including over 174,000 domestic workers in Qatar and all those working in government entities.
In the UAE, the authorities introduced several labour reforms likely to be of particular benefit to migrant workers, including a decision to allow some workers to work for multiple employers, tighter regulation of recruitment processes for domestic workers and a new low-cost insurance policy that protected private sector employees’ workplace benefits in the event of job loss, redundancy or an employer’s bankruptcy.
In the Maghreb, sub-Saharan migrants, as well as refugees and asylum-seekers, faced a crackdown. In Algeria, the authorities subjected thousands to arbitrary detention, forcible transfer to the far south of Algeria and expulsion to neighbouring countries. Over 12,000 nationals of Niger and more than 600 nationals from other sub-Saharan African countries, including regular migrants, refugees and asylumseekers, were summarily expelled to neighbouring Niger, according to international organizations monitoring the situation. In Morocco, thousands of sub-Saharan migrants, including children and pregnant women, were unlawfully arrested and transported to remote areas in the south of the country or close to the Algerian border.
The situation for refugees, asylumseekers and migrants in Libya remained bleak. The authorities continued to unlawfully detain refugees, asylumseekers and migrants, mainly those intercepted at sea, in centres that, while official, were largely controlled by militias. Refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants were kept in appalling conditions, subjected to forced labour, torture and other ill-treatment, and verbal abuse by guards, often to extract money from their families in exchange for their release. Women in particular were subjected to rape.
The right to work and organize in trade unions was undermined in a number of countries. In Iran, thousands of workers staged peaceful demonstrations and strikes in protest at unpaid wages, poor working conditions and other grievances. Authorities arrested hundreds of peaceful protesters and strikers, sentencing many to prison terms and flogging. Bans on independent trade unions persisted. In Egypt, the authorities forcibly dispersed strikes and held trade unionists in prolonged pre-trial detention. They also removed the names of hundreds of outspoken, independent candidates from ballot papers for elections for leadership roles in independent and state labour unions.
HEALTH, WATER, SANITATION AND HOUSING WATER
Restrictions on access to water for drinking and other household use in marginalized communities in Iran, Iraq and Tunisia raised concerns about discrimination and fuelled protests. In Iran, thousands of people in Khuzestan province, populated mostly by Iran’s Ahwazi Arab minority, demonstrated against water shortages and poor quality water, including untreated water that had led to around 350 people contracting intestinal infections. In Iraq, tens of thousands of residents in the southern governorate of Basra were reported to have been poisoned and hospitalized by polluted drinking water, fuelling ongoing protests against government corruption and mismanagement of the neglected south. In Tunisia, water shortages and inadequate water distribution resulted in repeated water cuts in several regions, prompting protests.
OCCUPATION AND BLOCKADE
Israel’s illegal air, land and sea blockade of the Gaza Strip entered its 11th year, restricting the movement of people and goods into and out of the area, and collectively punishing Gaza’s 2 million residents. Throughout much of the year, the Gaza Strip suffered fuel shortages that resulted in a maximum of four hours of electricity per day. Israel reduced to a record low the number of medical permits issued to Gazan residents to allow them to enter Israel and the West Bank for treatment. Denial of medical permits led to the deaths of at least eight Palestinians, according to a local NGO. The situation was exacerbated by punitive measures imposed by the West Bank-based Palestinian authorities, which decreased electricity and water subsidies in Gaza and restricted the entry of medicine.
Meanwhile, Israel demolished 148 Palestinian properties in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, 139 for lack of permits and nine for punitive reasons, according to a local NGO; 425 people, including 191 children, were left homeless as a result. The Israeli Supreme Court approved the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar village and forcible transfer of its residents to make way for illegal Jewish settlements. The village was home to 180 members of the Bedouin community and a school that educated 170 children in the area.
COUNTER-TERROR AND SECURITY
Government measures in the name of security led to gross human rights violations across the region.
COUNTER-TERRORISM OPERATIONS IN EGYPT
In Egypt, the Ministry of the Interior said that more than 164 people were shot dead in exchanges of fire with security forces during the year. Neither prosecutors nor other authorities investigated these incidents or allegations that many of the victims were unarmed and in police custody before being shot. Videos emerged that revealed the Egyptian air force’s use of cluster munitions, banned under international law, in the military campaign in Sinai.
ARBITRARY DETENTION, TORTURE AND OTHER ILL-TREATMENT AND UNFAIR TRIALS
Arbitrary detention and prosecutions after unfair trials were frequently recorded in security cases. Bahrain saw its first military trial of civilians under its new system of military jurisdiction over national security cases. In Egypt, courts issued death sentences and lengthy prison sentences after unfair mass trials and military trials. In Iraq, thousands of men and boys who were arbitrarily arrested and forcibly disappeared by central Iraqi and Kurdish forces while fleeing IS-held areas between 2014 and 2018 remained missing.
Israeli authorities placed in detention or continued to detain thousands of Palestinians from the Occupied Palestinian Territories in prisons in Israel in violation of international humanitarian law. According to a local NGO, Israel held 480 Palestinians as administrative detainees at the end of the year. Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees held on grounds of security by forces in these and other countries were commonly reported.
DENATURALIZATION AND BORDER CONTROL ORDERS
Bahrain imposed denaturalization as a criminal penalty against those convicted in national security cases, stripping around 300 individuals of their nationality in 2018. In Tunisia, the authorities used border control orders to restrict the right to freedom of movement of thousands of individuals. Such measures were often imposed in a discriminatory manner based on appearance, religious practices or previous criminal convictions and without providing the reason or obtaining a court order.
There were some limited positive developments with respect to the death penalty in both law and practice. However, high numbers of individuals continued to be executed in Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, many after being sentenced to death in unfair trials. The State of Palestine acceded to the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty; it was the first state in the region to do so. However, no action was taken to translate this commitment into practice.
A new law in Saudi Arabia stipulated a maximum prison sentence of 10 years for juvenile offenders in cases where they might otherwise be sentenced to death; however, it excluded crimes punishable by death under Shari’a (Islamic law). At least four juvenile offenders remained at risk of execution at the end of the year. In Iran, the number of drug-related executions dropped following amendments to the anti-narcotics law. However, courts continued to impose death sentences, as well as other cruel punishments such as flogging, amputation and blinding, and numerous executions were carried out after unfair trials, some in public. A number of juvenile offenders were executed. Bahrain and Kuwait did not carry out executions in 2018, having resumed them in 2017 after hiatuses of several years. Nonetheless, like all other states in the region except for Israel, they continued to hand down death sentences.