Middle East and North Africa Regional Overview

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MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA 2021

The second year of the pandemic continued to expose the failure of many governments across the region to prioritize adequate access to health, including Covid-19 vaccines, for their populations, with the notable exception of some Gulf countries.

Freedom of expression remained severely restricted as governments introduced further draconian legislation criminalizing free speech; they continued to censor the internet and invest in digital surveillance equipment. Human rights defenders faced criminal prosecutions, imprisonment, administrative restrictions, threats and intimidation. Civil society organizations saw their activity criminalized. Security forces across the region used unlawful force to crush peaceful protests.

Overcrowding and insanitary conditions put prisoners in the region at increased risk of Covid-19, a situation that was exacerbated by inadequate healthcare and torture or other ill-treatment in prisons. Impunity prevailed for members of security forces, militias and armed groups reasonably suspected of crimes under international law and serious human rights violations.

Parties to armed conflicts committed war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. Authorities restricted humanitarian aid in Syria and Yemen, exacerbating the poor state of healthcare systems which were already depleted. Other military powers fuelled violations through illicit arms transfers and direct military support to belligerents.

Authorities continued to arrest and indefinitely detain refugees and migrants, often without legal grounds. Jordan and Lebanon continued to host over 3 million refugees from Syria but thousands of them continued to be deported or to return due to a range of push factors. Authorities across the region failed to protect low paid workers from job or wage loss. Migrant workers were particularly vulnerable given that the kafala (sponsorship) system ties their residency to employment in many countries.

Impunity for violence against women, ranging from sexual harassment to so-called “honour” killings, continued unchecked by any state commitment to hold perpetrators to account. Authorities heavily repressed the rights of LGBTI people, arresting many for their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity and subjecting some men to forced anal examinations. Across the region, members of religious and ethnic minorities faced entrenched discrimination.

Right to health

In Egypt, Iran, Libya and Tunisia, Covid-19 vaccine roll-outs were characterized by lack of transparency and consultation, delays in prioritizing at-risk groups, and failure to ensure equitable and fair access for marginalized groups, including refugees and migrants, internally displaced persons, prisoners, the homeless and other undocumented people. Access to vaccines was also often affected by political considerations. In Iran, delays in the vaccine roll-out were largely attributed to the Supreme Leader’s January decision to ban vaccines produced in the UK and USA; once the ban was lifted in August, vaccinations accelerated to reach over 80% of the population receiving the first dose by the end of the year. In Tunisia, by mid-July daily confirmed deaths per million was the second highest in the world and a dearth of vaccines meant only 6% of the population had been vaccinated. Yet after President Kaïs Saïed dissolved parliament and claimed exceptional powers, vaccine roll-out accelerated and by the end of the year 46% of the population had been vaccinated. In an act of institutionalized discrimination, Israel left out around 5 million Palestinians under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza from its vaccine campaign.

Tunisia and Morocco introduced mandatory vaccine passes for all those entering public or private workplaces, and for travel outside of the country. In Tunisia, the decree on the vaccine pass infringed on other rights, allowing employers to suspend unvaccinated workers without pay.

With the exception of Gulf states and Israel, the second year of the pandemic exposed the shortcomings of health systems across the region, and the challenges of accessibility and affordability of adequate healthcare. In Lebanon, the government failed to ensure access to fuel for critical health facilities, including hospitals, or roll out any social protection plan in the midst of an economic collapse. In November it lifted subsidies on medicines without ensuring access to essential supplies for those unable to afford spiralling prices, including patients with severe chronic conditions. In Egypt, a national budget adopted in June failed to meet the constitutionally mandated allocation of 3% of GDP to health, and reduced spending on health insurance and medicine.

The Syrian government actively contributed to ongoing shortages in the health sector in north-east Syria by restricting delivery of humanitarian aid, impacting cancer and diabetes patients. In Libya, where armed groups and militias continued to attack health care and humanitarian workers, several Covid-19 isolation facilities were closed due to damage or lack of equipment and infrastructure.

Freedom of expression

Authorities across the region continued to arrest, detain and prosecute individuals solely for their peaceful expression, often using subjective penal code provisions criminalizing “insult” to prosecute criticism of the authorities, including their response to the pandemic, and imprison critics. A court in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq sentenced five activists and journalists to six years’ imprisonment each for acts related to their use of social media and journalistic work, under vaguely worded laws, while the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) justified speech-related prosecutions as necessary for “national security reasons”. In one particularly flagrant case, in Saudi Arabia Abdulrahman al-Sadhan was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment and a travel ban of equal duration for his tweets that were critical of the government’s economic policies. In Morocco, a court sentenced YouTuber Jamila Saadane to three months in prison for “insulting” state institutions after uploading videos accusing the authorities of covering up prostitution networks and human trafficking. In Algeria, the authorities increasingly used vaguely worded terrorism-related charges to prosecute people for their legitimate political speech or activism.

Governments across the region introduced further draconian legislation criminalizing free speech. In Libya, parliament passed a cybercrime law that severely limits free expression online, allows for government surveillance and censorship, and punishes with imprisonment the dissemination of content deemed “immoral”. In Egypt, the president ratified a law criminalizing the publication of information on pandemics on vaguely worded grounds. The Iranian authorities arrested and prosecuted six people for discussing legal action against the government’s failure to secure access to Covid-19 vaccines. The Tunisian Ministry of Health barred all but a selected list of public sector health workers from speaking publicly about the Covid-19 pandemic, threatening them with disciplinary action or criminal prosecution if they do not comply.

Governments across the region continued to censor the internet. Authorities in Egypt and Palestine persisted in blocking access to websites and the Iranian authorities blocked social media platforms.

Right to privacy

Governments also continued to invest in expensive digital surveillance equipment such as Pegasus spyware by surveillance company NSO Group to target human rights defenders. In July, Forbidden Stories, a coalition of news organizations with the technical support of Amnesty International, revealed the extent to which Pegasus spyware was being used across the region, with the governments in Bahrain, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates being identified as potential clients. In July, a Moroccan court sentenced journalist Omar Radi, who was often critical of the authorities, to six years in prison on charges of espionage and rape after a trial which did not meet international fair trial standards. He had been targeted for surveillance by the Moroccan authorities through a network injection on his iPhone between January 2019 and January 2020.

Human rights defenders and freedom of association

Human rights defenders across the region continued to pay a heavy price for their bravery with the authorities seeking to silence and punish them for their work. Saudi Arabian authorities resumed their relentless crackdown on all dissent with a spate of sentences: courts sentenced five defenders to prison terms of up to 20 years on charges solely related to their human rights work, often combined with lengthy travel bans. In Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the Israeli Ministry of Defence designated six prominent Palestinian civil society organizations as “terrorist”, based on secret information which they could not see or challenge, effectively criminalizing them and crippling their activity. This while Israel continued to prevent international human rights monitors and investigators, including from the UN, entry.

In Egypt, human rights defenders remained subject to politically motivated criminal investigations, extrajudicial probation measures, unjust imprisonment, travel bans, asset freezes and arbitrary inclusion on the “list of terrorists”, which in effect banned them from civic work. In Libya, militias and armed groups ramped up their attacks on civil society activists through abductions, threats and intimidation ahead of presidential elections, which were indefinitely postponed on 22 December, two days before they were scheduled to begin.

Protests and the unlawful use of force

Despite frequent bans on public gatherings as part of government Covid-19 measures, people staged protests throughout the year in many countries in the region, usually to demand socio-economic rights. In Tunisia, police arrested more than 1,500 people during the January wave of demonstrations. Protest movements in Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon continued throughout the year as protesters faced arrest, beatings and at times prosecutions solely for participating in peaceful demonstrations.

Security forces across the region used unlawful force in dispersing protests, often using excessive or unnecessary force. In Iran, security forces used unlawful force, including live ammunition and birdshot, to crush mostly peaceful protests, leading to at least 11 deaths and hundreds of injuries including loss of eyesight. They also carried out mass arbitrary arrests of protesters and bystanders and tampered with internet access during protests. In Iraq, KRG authorities arrested over 100 individuals for taking part in protests; and Iraqi security forces resorted to excessive use of force, including live ammunition, to disperse protests between January and May. In Lebanon, in a rare occurrence in January, security services used live ammunition in the northern city of Tripoli after clashes over the economic collapse, detained dozens and subsequently brought them before the military justice system. Jordanian authorities responded with force, including heavy use of tear gas, against protesters who had mobilized against worsening economic conditions, and arrested members of the teachers’ trade union to prevent a solidarity march.

In May and June, Israeli police used excessive force against Palestinian citizens of Israel demonstrating against evictions in East Jerusalem and military strikes on Gaza, and carried out mass arrests of organizers and participants of protests. Most of those arrested were charged with misdemeanours unrelated to violence. The death in custody of a prominent critic of the West Bank Palestinian authorities sparked demonstrations across Palestinian towns which the authorities met with excessive and unnecessary force. Demonstrators and bystanders were arrested and allegedly tortured.

Detainees’ rights

Prisoners across several countries were held in cruel and inhuman detention conditions, characterized by overcrowding, poor ventilation and hygiene, and lack of sufficient food and water putting them at increased risk of Covid-19 and other infectious diseases. Overcrowding was common due to arbitrary detention practices, including prolonged pretrial detention without effective appeal such as in Egypt, indefinite detention for migration status, such as in Libya, or administrative detention, such as in Israel and Palestine. In some countries, prison visits were banned during national lockdowns and at times for longer, without providing prisoners with alternative means of communicating with their families.

Across the region, authorities failed to provide detainees with adequate healthcare, sometimes deliberately to punish dissent. Many governments failed to ensure the timely vaccination of prisoners: in Iran, prisoner vaccination did not begin until August. In Egypt, some prisoners held for political reasons including those who were at risk due to their older age or pre-existing medical conditions were excluded from the prisoner vaccine roll-out.

Torture and other ill-treatment

Torture and other ill-treatment in official and unofficial places of detention continued in at least 18 countries, including during interrogation to extract “confessions” and indefinite solitary confinement in dire conditions. Authorities in Egypt, Iran, Libya and Saudi Arabia failed to carry out investigations into the causes and circumstances of suspicious deaths in custody following reports of torture, including deliberate denial of healthcare. In Lebanon 26 cases were reported of Syrian refugees, including four children, held on terrorism-related charges, facing torture by military intelligence officers and others. The authorities failed to investigate the torture claims even when detainees told the court they had been tortured. Prominent political critic Nizar Banat died in the custody of Palestinian Preventive Security forces after they arrested and tortured him in Hebron, southern West Bank. An autopsy found fractures, bruises and abrasions all over his body.

Legislation in several countries in the region retained corporal punishment including flogging, amputation, blinding, stoning and crucifixion. Floggings were carried out in Iran and Libya.

Death Penalty

Countries in the region retained the death penalty, including for offences not involving intentional killing and for acts protected under international law including consensual same-sexual relations. Death sentences were passed after grossly unfair trials by counter-terror, military, emergency or revolutionary courts in Egypt, Iran, Libya and Saudi Arabia. Executions were carried out in at least six countries, sometimes in secret without last family visits.

In Iran and Saudi Arabia, authorities executed young men convicted of crimes committed when they were under the age of 18.

Impunity

Impunity for members of security forces, militias and armed groups reasonably suspected of crimes under international law and serious human rights violations, including unlawful killings, torture, enforced disappearance and rape, prevailed across the region. In Libya, authorities continued to integrate into state institutions, appoint and promote commanders and members of abusive militias and armed groups, including those under sanction by the UN Security Council. Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, wanted by the ICC for his role in the violent suppression of protests against his father’s rule in 2011, remained at large and presented himself as a candidate for presidential elections. In Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, rose to the presidency instead of being investigated for crimes against humanity related to the mass enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions of 1988. In Lebanon, authorities repeatedly obstructed throughout the year the investigation into the Beirut port explosion of 2020, taking numerous steps to shield politicians and officials from the investigative judge’s summons.

In Tunisia, President Kaïs Saïed’s July dissolution of parliament was followed by 10 new military trials of civilians, four for criticizing the president, a marked increase compared to the previous years. Ten trials against members of security forces for human rights violations as part of the transitional justice process, dragged on for a third year without verdict.

At the international level, some steps were taken in the pursuit of accountability. In October, the UN Human Rights Council extended the mandate of the Fact-Finding Mission to investigate crimes under international law committed in Libya since 2016. August saw the start of the trial of former Iranian official Hamid Nouri, arrested in Sweden for alleged involvement in prison massacres in 1988, under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

At least four European states investigated and prosecuted individuals suspected of committing war crimes or other crimes under international law in Syria through their national courts. February saw the sentencing in Germany of a former Syrian security officer for crimes against humanity for his role in aiding and abetting the torture of detained protesters in Damascus.

In a retrograde move, however, intensive lobbying by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain forced the termination of the UN’s Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen, the only international, impartial investigative mechanism for international humanitarian law violations in Yemen.

Apartheid

Israel maintained a system of oppression and domination over Palestinians through territorial fragmentation, segregation and control, dispossession of land and property, and denial of economic and social rights, which amounted to the human rights violation and internationally wrongful act of apartheid. Israel perpetrated unlawful acts against Palestinians with the intent to maintain this system, including forcible transfers, administrative detention and torture, unlawful killings, denial of basic rights and freedoms and persecution which constituted the crime against humanity of apartheid.

Armed conflict

Years of armed conflict and insecurity continued to afflict the lives of civilians in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen, where fluctuating levels of violence by state and non-state actors reflected shifting alliances on the ground and the interests of external backers. The conflicts’ multiple actors committed war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.

Almost all parties 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 Libya, while the national ceasefire mostly held, sporadic localized clashes between armed groups and militias in residential areas led to casualties among civilians and damage to civilian infrastructure. In Yemen, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition as well as Huthi forces continued to conduct unlawful attacks killing and injuring scores of civilians, including hitting camps for internally displaced people, and civilian objects such food distribution facilities. In Syria, the government, supported by Russian forces, conducted attacks in north-west Syria that hit residential buildings, markets and hospitals.

The transfer of weapons used to commit war crimes and other violations continued. Russia, Turkey and the UAE violated the UN arms embargo on Libya, by retaining foreign fighters and military equipment in Libya. Armoured vehicles manufactured and exported from the UAE were used in raids against refugees and migrants in Tripoli in October.

Restriction of humanitarian access in Libya and Syria remained a tactic of some actors. Politically motivated sporadic attacks on water infrastructure by armed actors in Libya affected access to water for millions of Libyans. In Syria, government forces besieged thousands of civilians in Daraa al-Balad between June and September, during which time it prevented aid organizations from delivering food, medical supplies and other life-saving aid.

During the armed conflict in May, Israeli and Palestinian armed groups  committed apparent war crimes in the Gaza Strip. At least 242 Palestinians were killed, including 63 children, and thousands injured. More than 74,000 Palestinians were displaced. Palestinian armed groups in the Gaza Strip carried out unlawful attacks, firing thousands of indiscriminate rockets towards Israel, most of which were intercepted by Israel, but 13 people in Israel died as a result.

Rights of refugees, migrants and internally displaced people

Authorities continued to arrest and indefinitely detain refugees and migrants, often without legal grounds or allowing them to challenge the legality of their detention. In October, Libyan security forces and Tripoli-based militias used unlawful lethal force and other violence to arbitrarily round up over 5,000 men, women and children from sub-Saharan Africa.

In Libya, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, state and non-state actors continued to subject refugees and migrants to a litany of crimes including unlawful killings, indefinite arbitrary detention in life-threatening conditions, torture and other ill-treatment, rape and other sexual violence. In Libya thousands were forcibly disappeared following disembarkation by EU-backed Libyan coastguards, while at least 2,839 were forcibly expelled without due process and left at land borders with Chad, Egypt and Sudan. In Yemen, Huthi de facto authorities arbitrarily detained hundreds of migrant men, women and children, mostly Ethiopian and Somali nationals, in poor conditions for indefinite periods. In March, authorities responded to a hunger strike by firing projectiles into a building housing 350 migrants, igniting a fire that killed 46 male detainees. In June, the UAE arbitrarily detained at least 375 African migrant workers, held them incommunicado for up to six weeks in poor conditions, stripped them of all their belongings and then deported them. Syrian government forces subjected refugees, including children, who returned to Syria between 2017 and 2021 to arbitrary detention; torture and other ill-treatment, including rape and other sexual violence; and enforced disappearance.

In Qatar, authorities failed to properly investigate the deaths of migrant workers, thousands of whom had died suddenly and unexpectedly in the past decade despite passing mandatory medical tests before travelling to the country. This failure, which precluded any assessment of whether the deaths were work-related, denied the workers’ bereaved families the opportunity to receive compensation from the employer or authorities. In Egypt, authorities forcibly returned 40 Eritreans to Eritrea without due process or giving them the opportunity to claim asylum.

In Libya, Syria and Iraq, tens of thousands of internally displaced persons were unable to return to their homes due to insecurity, fear of reprisals, or lack of essential services. They faced additional barriers in securing access to healthcare including Covid-19 vaccines, education, housing and employment opportunities. The Iraqi government’s drive to close almost all camps for internally displaced people in the beginning of the year rendered thousands in secondary displacement or homeless.

Workers’ rights

Authorities across the region failed to protect low-paid workers from job or wage loss, including as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic. Governments also repressed workers’ right to strike and failed to protect workers unfairly dismissed for participating in strikes. In Egypt, authorities continued to penalize workers for expressing their opinions or for their alleged dissent. New legislation allowed for the automatic dismissal of public sector employees on the list of terrorists, while a court sanctioned the dismissal without compensation of a public sector company worker for publicly expressing his political opinions. However, 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.

Women’s and girls’ rights

Across the region, violence against women and girls went mostly unpunished by criminal justice systems. So-called “honour” killings continued to take place in Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and in Palestine with the authorities failing to take action to prosecute the perpetrators. Proposed legislation on addressing violence against women in Iran contained some welcome provisions including on the establishment of safe houses, but failed to define domestic violence as a separate offence, criminalize marital rape and child marriage, and favoured reconciliation over accountability in cases of domestic violence.

Additional legislative changes in Iran further undermined women’s reproductive rights, severely restricting access to contraception, voluntary sterilization services and related information. In Libya, authorities failed to provide protection or redress for women and girls from rape and other sexual and gender-based violence as well as killings, torture and unlawful deprivation of liberty by militias, armed groups, and other non-state actors. In Yemen, Huthi authorities pursued a campaign of detention and enforced disappearance of women and girls, targeting those perceived to be challenging Huthi-enforced gender norms.

Women across the region continued to face entrenched discrimination in law, including in relation to marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance and, additionally in Saudi Arabia and Iran, employment and political office. Proposed legislative changes to personal status laws in Egypt further undermined women’s autonomy and retained discriminatory provisions.

LGBTI people’s rights

Across the region, LGBTI people faced arrest and prosecution, and at times anal testing amounting to torture, on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Criminal courts continued to treat consensual same-sex sexual relations as a crime, often issuing sentences against men, and sometimes women, either under public decency laws or dedicated provisions. In Egypt, a court convicted four men of engaging in same-sex sexual relations and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from six to nine years. Authorities also failed to protect LGBTI people from violence by non-state actors. A young man who self-identified as a non-binary gay was murdered in Iran after his military exemption card identified him as having a “perversion”. Two police officers in Tunisia insulted and violently assaulted the LGBTI activist Badr Baabou, who heads the prominent Tunisian LGBTI rights group DAMJ, telling him the beating was retaliation for filing complaints against police and “defending whores” and gay people, about whom they used derogatory language.

In a partially positive move, the Moroccan parliament passed a law stating that the gender assigned at birth to hermaphrodite” newborns can be changed later in life but did not extend to allowing transgender people to transition.

Religious and ethnic minorities

Across the region, members of religious minorities faced entrenched discrimination in law and practice including in their right to worship. In some countries, including Egypt and Iran, members of religious minorities and individuals born to parents identified as Muslim by authorities were arrested, prosecuted and arbitrarily detained for professing their faith or expressing non-sanctioned beliefs. In Iran, three Christian converts were sentenced to imprisonment on the basis of new legislation prescribing up to five years’ imprisonment for insulting “divine religions” or for engaging “in proselytizing”.

Ethnic minorities in Iran and Libya faced discrimination curtailing their access to employment, political office and essential services including education and healthcare, and violating their linguistic and cultural rights. In Libya, students from the Tabu tribe in al-Kufra were unable to access the city’s only university based in a neighbourhood controlled by rival armed groups. In Iran, ethnic minorities remained disproportionately affected by death sentences imposed for vaguely worded charges such as “enmity against God”.

Recommendations

Authorities should ensure that the healthcare they provide, including vaccines, is delivered without discrimination, that healthcare workers are adequately protected and that any restrictions on rights to combat the pandemic are strictly necessary and proportionate.

Governments must halt all investigations or prosecutions related to peaceful expression, repeal subjective provisions that criminalize “insult”, and decriminalize defamation. They must also recognize their obligations to respect and guarantee the right to defend human rights by ensuring that human rights defenders are able to work free from arbitrary arrest and prosecution, threats, attacks, and harassment.

Governments must end the litany of crimes against refugees and migrants. They should respect and protect the right to asylum, ending the arrest and arbitrary detention of refugees and migrants solely on the basis on their migration status. They should end all deportations of refugees and ensure they are protected from refoulement. Governments should also extend labour law protections to migrant workers, including migrant domestic workers, and abolish the kafala system.

Parties to armed conflicts must abide by international humanitarian law, in particular ending direct attacks against civilians or civilian infrastructure and indiscriminate attacks. Military powers must halt arms transfers where there is a significant risk that they will be used in violation of international law, as was the case in the ongoing conflicts in the region.

Authorities should ensure that their law enforcement officers comply with international standards on the use of firearms and less-lethal weapons, investigate the unlawful use of force and hold law enforcement officers to account, and uphold the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.