Middle East And North Africa
On 27 December, as 2008 drew to a close, Israeli jets launched an
aerial bombardment of the Gaza Strip, where 1.5million Palestinians
live, crowded into one of the most densely populated areas of the
planet. In the following three weeks,more than 1,400 Palestinians were
killed, including some 300 children, and some 5,000 were wounded.
Israeli forces repeatedly breached the laws of war, including by
carrying out direct attacks on civilians and civilian buildings and
attacks targeting Palestinian militants that caused a disproportionate
toll among civilians.
Israel said it launched the attacks in order to stop Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups firing rockets at towns and villages in southern Israel. In 2008, seven Israeli civilians were killed by these mostly homemade, indiscriminate rockets or in other attacks by Palestinians from Gaza; three Israeli civilians were killed during the three-week conflict that began on 27 December.
The sudden conflict followed an 18-month period in which the Israeli army had subjected the inhabitants of Gaza to an unremitting blockade, preventing virtually all movement of people and goods in and out of the territory and stoking a growing humanitarian catastrophe. The blockade throttled almost all economic life and led growing numbers of Palestinians to become dependent on international food aid; even terminally ill patients were prevented from leaving to obtain medical care that could not be provided by Gaza’s resource- and medicine-starved hospitals.
“What should we do? If we rebuild they may destroy it again. And there is no cement in Gaza, no building materials to be had.” - A Palestinian man speaking to Amnesty International delegates in Gaza, January 2009.
This latest round of bloodletting again underscored the high degree of insecurity in the region and the failure of military forces, on both sides, to abide by the basic requirements of distinction and proportionality that are fundamental to the principles of international humanitarian law. It underlined also the continuing failure of the two sides, and of the international community, to resolve the long, bitter conflict, to bring peace, justice and security to the region, and to enable all people in the region to live in the dignity that is their human right.
This continuing struggle between Israelis and Palestinians, together with the presence of US troops in Iraq, anxieties about Iran’s nuclear intentions, evident divisions between Islamists and secularists, and the tension between some cultural traditions and rising popular aspirations, all contributed to a climate of political insecurity across the Middle East and North Africa region. Added to this in 2008 was growing economic and social insecurity as the global financial crisis took hold and rising food prices impacted those already living in or close to poverty. This was highlighted by a rash of strikes and other protests by workers in the private and public sectors, such as in Egypt, and months of unrest in Tunisia’s phosphate-rich Gafsa region. In these countries and others, many people lived in extreme poverty, living on the margins as rural poor or in heavily congested urban slums, victims in practice of gross inequalities in access to basic rights – adequate housing and shelter, health care and education, work and the opportunity to secure a better, rights-rich life for themselves and their families.
In Iraq, a now much less reported war continued to blight the lives of millions, notwithstanding a welcome reduction in the number of attacks on civilians. The almost constant state of conflict in the country prevented many from pursuing their livelihoods and providing a secure future for their families. More than two million people were still internally displaced within Iraq while two million others were refugees abroad, principally in Syria and Jordan. Violent religious and ethnic sectarianism continued to divide communities and impact on daily life. Armed groups opposed to the government carried out suicide and other bomb attacks, often targeting places such as crowded markets. Meanwhile, thousands of Iraqis continued to be detained without charge or trial by US forces, some for more than five years. Thousands more were detained by Iraqi government forces; many were tortured, somewere sentenced to death for alleged terrorist crimes, often after trials that were grossly unfair, including some who were executed. At the end of 2008, all detainees held by US forces were due to be handed over to Iraqi government custody under a joint agreement between the USA and Iraq. The agreement contains no human rights safeguards.
The death penalty was used extensively by the authorities in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, but there were welcome signs of a growing repugnance of it among other Arab states. This was most evident in December when eight Arab states decided not to vote against a key UN General Assembly resolution calling for a worldwide moratoriumon executions, helping secure its adoption by a large majority. Increasingly, the authorities in Iran, one of a tiny minority of states where juvenile offenders continue to be executed, and in Saudi Arabia, where a discriminatory justice system resulted in the execution of a disproportionately high number of poor foreign nationals, appeared out of step with the views of the wider international community.
Violence against women and girls
Women within the region faced additional insecurity, through discrimination under the law and in practice, and violence, often at the hands of their male relatives. At its most acute, such violence saw women killed in so-called honour crimes, as in Iraq, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Syria.Women migrant domestic workers were particularly vulnerable to sexual and other abuse by employers as they were often unprotected by labour laws. In both Jordan and Lebanon women domestic workers died in suspicious circumstances amid speculation that some had been killed, had fallen to their deaths while attempting to escape their places of work, or had resorted to suicide in desperation. In the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq, the high incidence of cases of women being burned to death, either at their own hand or others’, suggested the same.
“I believe that lashing sentences are a source of shame and constitute disparagement for all Iranians who believe in justice and equality. Further, these types of sentences are a sign of the violence which is perpetuated against women in our society.” - Sussan Tahmasebi, a member of the Campaign for Equality in Iran, referring to punishments handed down to women’s rights activists.
In other states there were positive developments reflecting growing appreciation among governments that women cannot continue to be relegated to a formof second-class status. The Egyptian authorities banned the practice of female genital mutilation; the governments of Oman and Qatar made legal changes to give women equal status with men in various housing and compensation matters; and the Tunisian government acceded to a key international treaty on women’s rights and introduced a “hotline” for women facing domestic violence.
Asylum-seekers, refugees and irregular migrants
Nowhere in the region was insecurity more evident than among the communities of refugees and asylum-seekers who still had no permanent status or home –many after decades of waiting in poverty.
Thousands of Iraqi refugees lived a hand-to-mouth existence in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and other countries, increasingly poverty stricken and desperate but threatened with deportation if they took paid work. In Iraq, the government demanded that 3,000 Iranian émigrés, long resident at Camp Ashraf, should leave the country, although it seemed unlikely that any country would be willing to receive them and that they would be at serious risk if forcibly returned to Iran. Some 80 Iraqi refugees who fled their country in 1991, at the time of the first Gulf War, spent a further year confined in a fenced and guarded camp established by the Saudi Arabian authorities, who continued to refuse them asylum. In Lebanon, around half of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees there remained in overcrowded camps dotted about the country 60 years after they or their forebears first arrived. The government began action to rectify the status of the most vulnerable – those who exist without official papers and so are barred from legally marrying or registering their children’s births – but there were continuing legal and other obstacles that prevented Palestinian refugees accessing their rights to health, work and adequate shelter.
In various states, authorities forcibly returned refugees and others, in breach of international law, to countries where they risked torture or execution. The Yemeni authorities returned hundreds of asylum seekers and sent at least eight people back to Saudi Arabia despite fears for their safety. In January, the Libyan government announced its intention to deport all “illegal migrants” and later carried out mass expulsions of Nigerians, Ghanaians and others. In June, it was reported that the government had attempted to deport more than 200 Eritreans by informing them that they were to be flown to Italy, when the real intention was to return them to their own country, from which many had fled to avoid military conscription.
The Egyptian authorities also took abusive action. As well as mass deportations – summarily sending at least 1,200 asylum-seekers back to Eritrea – border guards shot dead at least 28 people who tried to cross from Egypt and seek sanctuary in Israel. Hundreds more were apprehended and jailed after trials before military courts. The Israeli authorities were no less uncompromising; they deported back to Egypt scores of asylum-seekers andmigrants who did make it across the border, despite fears some of them would then be sent back to Sudan, Eritrea or other countries in which they could face torture or execution.
“Please do not abandon us to the claws of tyranny and blind power. I fear for myself, my children and especially my husband, who is in detention.” - Woman in Saudi Arabia writing to Amnesty International, August 2008.
In Morocco/Western Sahara, the authorities rounded up and expelled thousands of suspected irregular migrants; some were reported to have been subjected to excessive force or other ill-treatment, and some to have been dumped without adequate food or water in inhospitable terrain close to the country’s southern borders. The Algerian authorities tightened their controls on migrants, equipping themselves with new legal powers to summarily expel foreigners deemed to be in the country illegally.
Exclusion, discrimination and deprivation
In many countries, particular communities were excluded from accessing their human rights on an equitable basis with the mainstream population. Some of these communities comprised foreign nationals, refugees and asylum-seekers and legal and irregular migrants, exacerbating their insecurity – as illustrated above. Others were members of ethnic, religious or other minorities, stigmatized on account of their beliefs or identity.
In the Gulf, the Qatar government continued to deny nationality to hundreds of members of the al-Murra tribe, some of whom were involved in a failed coup attempt in 1996. As a consequence, they were barred from accessing social security, health care and employment rights. In Oman, people belonging to two tribes, Aal Tawayya and Aal Khalifayn, remained marginalized and were hampered from obtaining official identity documents, settling family matters such as divorce or inheritance, and registering businesses due to a government decision in 2006 to reduce their status to that of akhdam, servants.
In Iran, the authorities continued to prohibit the use of minority languages in schools and to crack down on minority activists – Ahwazi Arabs, Azerbaijani Iranians, Baluchis, Kurds and Turkmen – who campaigned for greater recognition of their rights, and to arbitrarily exclude members of suspect minorities from state employment. In Syria, the Kurdish minority, comprising up to 10 per cent of the population, was subject to continuing repression. Tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds continued to be rendered effectively stateless and so denied equal access to social and economic rights.
Personal religious beliefs that differed from the state were not tolerated in some countries, and their practitioners excluded from full participation in society, or physically punished. In Algeria, evangelical Christian converts from Islam were prosecuted although freedom of conscience is guaranteed by the Constitution; in Egypt, Christian converts from Islam and Baha’is were reported still to face difficulties in practice in obtaining official cards recognizing, or at least not misrepresenting, their faith, despite Supreme Administrative Court rulings; in Iran, the authorities continued to harass and persecute Baha’is and members of other religious minorities, detaining Sunni clerics and sentencing one Sufi religious leader to five years in prison and flogging for “spreading lies”.
In the Gulf states, migrant workers from the Indian sub-continent and other parts of Asia were a main stay of the oil-rich economies, providing labour and skills for construction and in the service industries. Often, however, such contract workers were required to live and work in grossly unsatisfactory conditions, excluded from any state protection against exploitation and abuse. If they protested against their conditions, as in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the authorities’ response was to round them up and deport them.
Homosexuality remained a taboo subject throughout most of the region
and men suspected of being gay were targeted in several countries. In
Egypt, men suspected of consensual sexual acts with other men were
assaulted in detention, forced to undergo anal examinations and
HIV-testing against their will. Some were chained to their beds when
confined to hospital before being sentenced to prison terms on charges
of debauchery. In Morocco/Western Sahara, six men were imprisoned for
“homosexual conduct” after being publicly accused of attending a “gay
marriage” in 2007.
In September, a rockslide killed more than 100 residents of an informal settlement in Cairo, highlighting the precarious existence of the already deprived urban poor in cities across the region. The tragedy, it seems, was a predictable one. Water leaking from a nearby hillside had given warning of possible disaster – and in fact the area had experienced landslides before – but the authorities failed to take action until it was too late. Throughout the region, there were other communities of both urban and rural poor who appeared condemned to a cycle of deprivatio – lacking adequate housing, health care or access to paid work – and disempowerment, with little or no say in the decisions that affected their lives. Certainly, they had no say in how to protect themselves from further impoverishment.
In the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, Palestinians already living in poverty were made homeless as a matter of deliberate policy. In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Israeli forces demolished many Palestinian homes on the grounds that they had been built without permits, while generally refusing to issue such permits to Palestinians, evicting hundreds of people. In the Jordan Valley, they brought in bulldozers to flatten villagers’ homes and animal pens, depriving them of their livelihood, while elsewhere Palestinians were cut off from their agricultural lands by the construction of the fence/wall and were prevented from travelling to work, study or even to obtain hospital treatment by numerous Israeli army checkpoints and road-blocks. In the Gaza Strip, the three-week Israeli offensive that began on 27 December destroyed or badly damaged some 20,000 Palestinian homes and damaged schools and workplaces, as well as killing hundreds of Palestinian civilians. Meanwhile, Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank continued to expand and develop, in breach of international law.
All across the region, those who spoke up in defence of their own or others’ rights ran the risk of persecution at the hands of over-powerful secret police who were frequently allowed by their political masters to break the law with impunity. Governments generally were intolerant of dissent and appeared fearful of criticism and challenge, and the public exposure of corruption or other misdoings.
Throughout the region, state authorities used the need to be “secure” against “terrorism” as ameans of sowing fear, insecurity and repression. Armed groups carried out violent attacks in several countries, including Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, but governments used often deliberately vague and sweeping counter-terrorism laws to clamp down on their political opponents and to stifle legitimate criticismand dissent. The over weening power of the Mukhabarat, security and intelligence services, permeated the region. Usually, these secret police reported directly to the heads of state or government and were allowed licence to arrest, detain and interrogate suspects, and often to torture and otherwise ill-treat them with impunity. Amnesty International received substantive reports of torture from several countries, including Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, the UAE and Yemen. There were also reports of torture of Palestinians arrested by Israeli forces, and in the West Bank and Gaza respectively, of Palestinians being detained and tortured with impunity by rival Fatah and Hamas security forces.
Everywhere, even in relatively more open states, journalists and editors knew they had to operate within certain margins if they were not to place themselves at risk of prosecution, closure of their newspaper or worse. In Egypt, an editor was sentenced to imprisonment for commenting on the health of the President; in Algeria, journalists were prosecuted after reporting on alleged corruption in official circles and a leading human rights lawyer was harassed on a charge of bringing the judiciary into disrepute. In Libya, a political dissident detained in 2004 after calling for political reform in a media interview remained in custody.
In Morocco/Western Sahara, where criticism of the monarchy remains taboo, human rights defenders were prosecuted for a peaceful protest deemed offensive to the King, although he subsequently issued them a royal pardon, and an 18-year-old student received a prison sentence after a slogan he wrote on a wall about his favourite football team was deemed to insult the monarchy. In Syria, where the government is intolerant of virtually any dissent, those targeted included bloggers accused of “spreading false news” or “weakening national sentiment”, under catch-all laws designed to deter and suppress expression. The governments of Kuwait and Oman moved to tighten controls on expression through the internet, while the authorities in Iran, Tunisia and other states routinely blocked critical internet sites and cut internet connections between local human rights NGOs and the outside world.
In Egypt and Tunisia, the authorities’ response to workers’ protests about economic conditions was to put them down with excessive force and mass arrests. Similarly, Moroccan security forces broke up a protest blockade of the port of Sidi Ifni and launched a crackdown against those suspected of organizing or supporting it.
“When I became more involved in human rights, I found it has a much wider scope than torture, though all of it arises from the original basic rule, which the universal declaration of human rights also upholds; and that is respect for human dignity.” - Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamad, speaking to Amnesty International in December 2008. An Egyptian lawyer and human rights activist, he was tortured and served five years in prison in the 1980s for his political beliefs.
Human rights defenders and those advocating for greater rights – for women, minorities and others – or greater political freedom or access to social and economic rights, were very much in the frontline, all across the region. Inmost countries, however, human rights defenders continued to face major obstacles. In Syria and Tunisia, independent human rights organizations had to operate in a legal limbo, required by law to obtain an official registration that the state authorities, in practice, refused to allow. In Iran, a leading human rights NGO jointly founded by UN Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi was closed down by government order, ironically as it was about to host an event commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Accountability remained sorely lacking in the region for any of the human rights abuses people faced on a daily basis. Plunged further into insecurity, excluded from decision-making processes, ignored – or repressed – when attempting to be heard, people in the Middle East and North Africa saw their hardships perpetuated throughout 2008.
Impunity remained a cornerstone of policy in much of the region. In Morocco/Western Sahara, for example, the process of establishing the truth about enforced disappearances during the rule of King Hassan II appeared to have stalled. In Algeria, the authorities continued to block any investigation of the grave abuses committed during the internal conflict of the 1990s. In Iran, Lebanon, Libya and Syria, the authorities failed to take any effective steps to investigate or remedy gross abuses of the past. Unsurprisingly, these were also among a number of governments who failed to show any enthusiasm for investigating new allegations or incidents, such as the reported killing of 17 prisoners and others by Syrian security forces at Sednaya Military Prison.
But in the face of such varied, and often seemingly insurmountable problems, all across the region, many individuals –men, women and even children – worked to realize their and others’ rights.Many were indomitable, even in the face of serious risks to their lives and livelihoods. In Algeria, relatives of victims of enforced disappearances during the country's “dirty war” of the 1990s continued to press for the truth and for justice in the face of unrelenting government obduracy and harassment. In Iran, women – and men – promoted a One Million Signatures petition to demand an end to legal discrimination against women, despite repeated harassment, arrests and assaults by state officials acting in breach of the law, while others campaigned for an end to executions of juvenile offenders.
In these countries and others, human rights defenders were in the vanguard of promoting change, but there were also signs that some of those holding political power also recognize the need for change, for reform, and for doing more to uphold human rights. The Bahrain government, for one, used the opportunity of the UN Universal Periodic Review process to kick start a programme of human rights reform that, if implemented, will stand as a powerful example to its neighbours. In Lebanon, the Minister of Justice promoted a law to abolish the death penalty, while the Algerian government was one of the key supporters of the call for a global moratoriumon executions. Slowly but surely, there were signs in 2008 that a new generation is emerging, more aware of their rights and of what should be open to them, and with a growing resolve to achieve them.
Select a Country Report
Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories
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