Tuesday, December 15, 2009

2009 Report on Human Rights in the Arab World: Bastion of Impunity, Mirage of Reform | 08/12/2009

    7:25 AM   No comments

2009 Report on Human Rights in the Arab World: Bastion of Impunity, Mirage of Reform | 08/12/2009

"Embrace diversity, end discrimination"
Human Rights Day 2009

"A man spends his first years learning how to speak and the Arab regimes teach him silence for the rest of his life"
Algerian writer Ahlem Mosteghanemi, Memory in the Flesh

Bastion of Impunity, Mirage of Reform
2009 Report on Human Rights in the Arab Region

Press Release

Today the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies released its second annual report on the state of human rights in the Arab world for the year 2009. The report, entitled Bastion of Impunity, Mirage of Reform, concludes that the human rights situation in the Arab region has deteriorated throughout the region over the last year.

The report reviews the most significant developments in human rights during 2009 in 12 Arab countries: Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Yemen. It also devotes separate chapters to the Arab League and an analysis of the performance of Arab governments in UN human rights institutions. Another chapter addresses the stance of Arab governments concerning women’s rights, the limited progress made to advance gender equality, and how Arab governments use the issue of women’s rights to burnish their image before the international community while simultaneously evading democratic and human rights reform measures required to ensure dignity and equality for all of their citizens. .

The report observes the grave and ongoing Israeli violations of Palestinian rights, particularly the collective punishment of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip through the ongoing blockade and the brutal invasion of Gaza at the beginning of 2009 which resulted in the killing of more than 1,400 Palestinians, 83 percent of them civilians not taking part in hostilities. The report notes that the plight of the Palestinian people has been exacerbated by the Fatah-Hamas conflict, which has turned universal rights and liberties into favors granted on the basis of political affiliation. Both parties have committed grave abuses against their opponents, including arbitrary detention, lethal torture, and extrajudicial killings.

The deterioration in Yemeni affairs may presage the collapse of what remains of the central state structure due to policies that give priority to the monopolization of power and wealth, corruption that runs rampant, and a regime that continues to deal with opponents using solely military and security means. As such, Yemen is now the site of a war in the northern region of Saada, a bloody crackdown in the south, and social and political unrest throughout the country. Moreover, independent press and human rights defenders who expose abuses in both the north and south are targets of increasingly harsh repression.

In its blatant contempt for justice, the Sudanese regime is the exemplar for impunity and the lack of accountability. President Bashir has refused to appear before the International Criminal Court in connection with war crimes in Darfur. Instead, his regime is hunting down anyone in the country who openly rejects impunity for war crimes, imprisoning and torturing them and shutting down rights organizations. Meanwhile the government’s policy of collective punishment against the population of Darfur continues, as well as its evasion of responsibilities under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the north and south, making secession a more likely scenario, which may once again drag the country into a bloody civil war.

In Lebanon, the threat of civil war that loomed last year has receded, but the country still suffers from an entrenched two-tier power structure in which Hizbullah’s superior military capabilities give the opposition an effective veto. As a result, the state’s constitutional institutions have been paralyzed.

In this context it took several months for the clear winner in the parliamentary elections to form a government. Now, even after the formation of a government, the unequal military balance of power between the government and the opposition will prevent serious measures to guarantee all parties accountable before the law, and greatly undermine the possibility of delivering justice for the many crimes and abuses experienced by the Lebanese people over the last several years.

Although Iraq is still the largest arena of violence and civilian deaths, it witnessed a relative improvement in some areas, though these gains remain fragile. The death toll has dropped and threats against journalists are less frequent. In addition, some of the major warring factions have indicated they are prepared to renounce violence and engage in the political process.

In Egypt, as the state of emergency approaches the end of its third decade, the broad immunity given to the security apparatus has resulted in the killing of dozens of undocumented migrants, the use of lethal force in the pursuit of criminal suspects, and routine torture. Other signs of deterioration were visible in 2009: the emergency law was applied broadly to repress freedom of expression, including detaining or abducting bloggers. Moreover, the Egyptian police state is increasingly acquiring certain theocratic features, which have reduced some religious freedoms, and have lead to an unprecedented expansion of sectarian violence within the country.

In Tunisia, the authoritarian police state continued its unrestrained attacks on political activists, journalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, and others involved in social protest. At the same time, the political stage was prepared for the reelection of President Ben Ali through the introduction of constitutional amendments that disqualified any serious contenders.

In Algeria, the emergency law, the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, and the application of counterterrorism measures entrenched policies of impunity, grave police abuses, and the undermining of accountability and freedom of expression. Constitutional amendments paved the way for the installment of President Bouteflika as president for life amid elections that were contested on many levels, despite the lack of real political competition.

Morocco, unfortunately, has seen a tangible erosion of the human rights gains achieved by Moroccans over the last decade. A fact most clearly seen in the failure if the government to adopt a set of institutional reforms within the security and judicial sectors intended to prevent impunity for crimes. Morocco’s relatively improved status was also undermined by the intolerance shown for freedom of expression, particularly for expression touching on the king or the royal family, or instances of institutional corruption. Protests against the status of the Moroccan-administered Western Sahara region were also repressed and several Sahrawi activists were referred to a military tribunal for the first time in 14 years.

As Syria entered its 47th year of emergency law, it continued to be distinguished by its readiness to destroy all manner of political opposition, even the most limited manifestations of independent expression. The Kurdish minority was kept in check by institutionalized discrimination, and human rights defenders were targets for successive attacks. Muhannad al-Hassani, the president of the Sawasiyah human rights organization, was arrested and tried, and his attorney, Haitham al-Maleh, the former chair of the Syrian Human Rights Association, was referred to a military tribunal. The offices of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression were shut down, and Syrian prisons still hold dozens of prisoners of conscience and democracy advocates.

In Bahrain, the systematic discrimination against the Shiite majority was accompanied by more repression of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Human rights defenders increasingly became targets for arrest, trial, and smear campaigns. Some human rights defenders were even subjected by government agents to threats and intimidation while in Europe.

In Saudi Arabia, the report notes that the Monarch’s speeches urging religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue abroad have not been applied inside the Kingdom, where the religious police continue to clamp down on personal freedom. Indeed, repression of religious freedoms is endemic, and the Shiite minority continues to face systematic discrimination. Counterterrorism policies were used to justify long-term arbitrary detention, and political activists advocating reform were tortured. These policies also undermined judicial standards, as witnessed by the prosecution of hundreds of people in semi-secret trials over the last year.

In tandem with these grave abuses and the widespread lack of accountability for such crimes within Arab countries, the report notes that various Arab governments and members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference have been working in concert within UN institutions to undermine international mechanisms and standards for the protection of human rights. On this level, Arab governments have sought to undercut provisions that bring governments to account or seriously assess and monitor human rights. This is most clearly illustrated by the broad attack on independent UN human rights experts and NGOs working within the UN, as well as attempts to legalize international restrictions on freedom of expression through the pretext of prohibiting “defamation of religions.”

In the same vein, the Arab League and its summit forums offered ongoing support for the Bashir regime in Sudan despite charges of war crimes, and members of the organization used the principle of national sovereignty as a pretext to remain silent about or even collaborate on grave violations in several Arab states. Little hope should be invested in the Arab League as a protector of human rights regionally. Indeed, the Arab Commission on Human Rights, created by the Arab Charter on Human Rights (a weak document compared to other regional charters), is partially composed of government officials, and the secretariat of the Arab League has begun to take measures to weaken the Commission, including obstructing the inclusion of NGOs in its work, intentionally undermining its ability to engage in independent action, even within the stifling constraints laid out by the charter.

Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHR)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Jewish town won't let Arab build home on his own land

    6:18 AM   No comments
Aadel Suad first came to the planning and construction committee of the Misgav Local Council in 1997. Suad, an educator, was seeking a construction permit to build a home on a plot of land he owns in the community of Mitzpeh Kamon. The reply he got, from a senior official on the committee, was a memorable one.

"Don't waste your time," he reportedly told Suad. "We'll keep you waiting for 30 years."

For Suad it's now been 12 years of fighting the committee's red tape to build a home on his own land. The reason, as far as he and his family are concerned, is singular: The local council doesn't want Arabs, with or without the legal amendments legalizing such objection that passed preliminary reading in the Knesset this week.

"We didn't invade the plot and we didn't take over the land," Suad says. "My grandfather has been here since the Turks. We have a land registry document proving ownership of three acres."

Suad's plot is on the northern edge of the hilltop community, founded in 1979. In 1984, Suad's land, along with others, was redefined as a development area rather than agricultural land. The land was divided into two plots. Suad and his family, who have been living in shacks on the site, were not informed.

"In 1990 we got a notice to pay capital gains taxes on the land, and they only told us about the changes when we asked for an explanation," he says.

The plots were split between the family and the Israel Land Administration. Only one plot was owned by the family - half an acre, minus half a square meter owned by the ILA.

Having paid the tax, Suad asked for a written confirmation of the change. "This usually takes a couple of days," he says. "They dragged it on for 8 months." While repeatedly refusing to sell the land or swap it for a plot outside Kamon, Suad was told that his plot is jointly owned by the ILA, because of the 50 square centimeters.

"They asked me for a document stating the ILA was giving up their part in the plot," Suad says. "It took the ILA another 4 years."

In 2007, the planning committee finally gave the construction permit, under four conditions: Suad would promise to demolish his shack, the future house would be moved by some 12 meters, Suad would contribute a part of the land to public needs, and he himself would ensure the house is connected to all infrastructure. Suad agreed to everything, but then found that no sewage line extended to his land. His suggestion to install a cesspit was rejected, despite this being a common practice in the community.

"I even offered to pave the 150 meters of the road at my own expense," Suad said. "We were supposed to meet about it on December 8, but then they told me the meeting was off."

"It's clear that the threat I heard in 1997 is coming true. They don't want us here. But I'll keep fighting until my children and I live on our private land," he said.

The Misgav Local Council rejected the accusations. The council said Suad's plot is located far from the other homes of the community and has no roads, sidewalks, lighting, water or sewer. All these would need to be connected through other plots, some of which are privately owned, the council said.

The council also said Suad's construction permit was conditioned on coming up with a plan to connect the plot to infrastructure, which he failed to produce in sufficient detail, or to accompany it with permits.

Source: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1134898.html

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Other Occupation: Western Sahara and the Case of Aminatou Haidar

    2:31 PM   No comments
By Stephen Zunes

Aminatou Haidar, a nonviolent activist from Western Sahara and a key leader in her nation's struggle against the 34-year-old U.S.-backed Moroccan occupation of her country, has been forced into exile by Moroccan authorities. She was returning from the United States, where she had won the Civil Courage Award from the Train Foundation. Forcing residents of territories under belligerent occupation into exile is a direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which both the United States and Morocco are signatories.

Her arrest and expulsion is part of a broader Moroccan crackdown that appears to have received the endorsement of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Rather than joining Amnesty International and other human rights groups in condemning the increase in the already-severe repression in the occupied territory during her visit to Morocco early this month, she instead praised the government’s human rights record. Just days before her arrival, seven other nonviolent activists from Western Sahara – Ahmed Alansari, Brahim Dahane, Yahdih Ettarouzi, Saleh Labihi, Dakja Lashgar, Rachid Sghir and Ali Salem Tamek – were arrested on trumped-up charges of high treason and are currently awaiting trial. Amnesty international has declared them prisoners of conscience and called for their unconditional release, but Clinton decided to ignore the plight of those and other political prisoners.

Almost exactly one year ago, Haidar was in Washington D.C. receiving the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights award. The late Senator Ted Kennedy, while too ill to take part in the ceremony personally, said of Aminatou Haidar, “All who care about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law for the people of the Western Sahara are inspired by her extraordinary courage, dedication and skilled work on their behalf."

Patrick Leahy, speaking in place of Kennedy, praised Haidar’s struggle for human rights against Moroccan repression and promised that, with the incoming Obama administration, “Help was on the way.” Unfortunately, Obama ended up appointing Clinton, a longtime supporter of the Moroccan occupation, to oversee his foreign policy.

It is not surprising that Morocco sees Haidar as a threat and that Clinton has not demanded her right to return to her homeland. Not only is her nonviolent campaign an embarrassment to a traditional American ally, but having an Arab Muslim woman leading a mass movement for her people's freedom through nonviolent action challenges the widely held impression that those resisting U.S.-backed regimes in that part of the world are misogynist, violent extremists. Successive U.S. administrations have used this stereotype to justify military intervention and support for repressive governments and military occupations.

Moroccan Occupation

In 1975, the kingdom of Morocco conquered Western Sahara on the eve of its anticipated independence from Spain in defiance of a series of UN Security Council resolutions and a landmark 1975 decision by the International Court of Justice upholding the right of the country's inhabitants to self-determination. With threats of a French and American veto at the UN preventing decisive action by the international community to stop the Moroccan invasion, the nationalist Polisario Front launched an armed struggle against the occupiers. The Polisario established the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in February 1976, which has subsequently been recognized by nearly 80 countries and is a full member state of the African Union. The majority of the indigenous population, known as Sahrawis, went into exile, primarily in Polisario-run refugee camps in Algeria.

By 1982, the Polisario had liberated 85 percent of the territory, but thanks to a dramatic increase in U.S. military aid and an influx of U.S. advisers during the Reagan administration, Morocco eventually was able to take control of most of the territory, including all of its major towns. It also built, thanks to U.S. assistance, a series of fortified sand berms in the desert that effectively prevented penetration by Polisario forces into Moroccan-controlled territory. In addition, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Morocco moved tens of thousands of settlers into Western Sahara until they were more than twice the population of the remaining indigenous Sahrawis.

Yet the Polisario achieved a series of diplomatic victories that generated widespread international support for self-determination and a refusal to recognize the Moroccan takeover. In 1991, the Polisario agreed to a ceasefire in return for a Moroccan promise to allow for an internationally supervised referendum on the fate of the territory. Morocco, however, refused to allow the referendum to move forward.

French and American support for the Moroccan government blocked the UN Security Council from providing the necessary diplomatic pressure to force Morocco to allow the promised referendum to take place. The Polisario, meanwhile, recognized its inability to defeat the Moroccans by military means. As a result, the struggle for self-determination shifted to within the Moroccan-occupied territory, where the Sahrawi population has launched a nonviolent resistance campaign against the occupation.

Nonviolent Resistance

Western Sahara had seen scattered impromptu acts of open nonviolent resistance ever since the Moroccan conquest. In 1987, for instance, a visit to the occupied territory by a special UN committee to investigate the human right violations sparked protests in the Western Saharan capital of El Aaiún. The success of this major demonstration was all the more remarkable, given that most of the key organizers had been arrested the night before and the city was under a strict curfew. Among the more than 700 people arrested was Aminatou Haidar, then 21 years old.

For four years she was "disappeared," held without charges or trial, and kept in secret detention centers. In these facilities, she and 17 other Sahrawi women underwent regular torture and abuse.

The current Sahrawi intifada began in May 2005. Thousands of Sahrawi demonstrators, led by women and youths, took to the streets of El Aaiún protesting the ongoing Moroccan occupation and calling for independence. The largely nonviolent protests and sit-ins were met with severe repression by Moroccan troops and Moroccan settlers. Within hours, leading Sahrawi activists were kidnapped, including Haidar, who was brutally beaten by Moroccan occupation forces. Sahrawi students at Moroccan universities then organized solidarity demonstrations, hunger strikes, and other forms of nonviolent protests. Throughout the remainder of 2005, the intifada continued with both spontaneous and planned protests, all of which were met with harsh repression by Moroccan authorities.

Haidar was released within seven months as a result of pressure from Amnesty International and the European parliament. Meanwhile, nonviolent protests have continued, despite ongoing repression by U.S.-supported Moroccan authorities. Despite the continued disappearances, killings, beatings and torture, Haidar has continued to advocate nonviolent action. In addition to organizing efforts at home, she traveled extensively to raise awareness internationally about the ongoing Moroccan occupation and advocate for the Sahrawi people's right to self-determination. For this reason, she has been forced into exile from her homeland.

U.S. Increases Backing for Morocco

As the repression grew, so did U.S. support for Morocco. The Bush administration increased military and security assistance five-fold and also signed a free-trade agreement, remaining silent over the deteriorating human rights situation in the occupied Western Sahara while heaping praise on King Mohammed VI's domestic political and economic reforms.

However, the occupation itself continues to prove problematic for Morocco. The nonviolent resistance to the occupation continues. Most of the international community, despite French and American efforts, has refused to recognize Morocco's illegal annexation of the territory.

As a result, the Moroccan kingdom recently advocated an autonomy plan for the territory. The Sahrawis, with the support of most of the world's nations, rejected the proposal since it is based on the assumption that Western Sahara is part of Morocco, a contention that the UN, the World Court, the African Union, and a broad consensus of international legal opinion have long rejected. To accept Morocco's autonomy plan would mean that, for the first time since the founding of the UN and the ratification of the UN Charter more than 60 years ago, the international community would be endorsing the expansion of a country's territory by military force and without consent of the subjected population, thereby establishing a very dangerous and destabilizing precedent.

In addition, Morocco's proposal contains no enforcement mechanisms, nor are there indications of any improvement of the current poor human rights situation. It's also unclear how much autonomy Morocco is offering, since it would retain control of Western Sahara's natural resources and law enforcement. In addition, the proposal appears to indicate that all powers not specifically vested in the autonomous region would remain with the kingdom.

Despite this, Secretary of State Clinton appeared to endorse Morocco’s plans for annexation under the name of autonomy. In an interview during her recent visit she refused to call for a referendum on the fate of the territory in accordance with a series of UN Security Council resolutions. Instead, she backed Moroccan calls for “mediation,” which would not offer the people of the territory a say in their future, as required by international law and reaffirmed in the case of Western Sahara by a landmark opinion of the International Court of Justice.

Meanwhile, key House Democrats have weighed in support of Morocco's right of conquest as well, with Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-NY, who chairs the Subcommittee on the Middle East, joining Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD signing a letter endorsing Morocco’s autonomy plan. Prominent Republicans signing the letter included Minority Leader John Boehner, R-OH; House Republican Whip Roy Blunt, R-MO; and former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-IL. Indeed, more than 80 of the signers are either committee chairmen or ranking members of key committees, subcommittees and elected leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives; yet another indication in this post-Cold War era of a growing bipartisan effort to undermine the longstanding principle of the right of self-determination.

It is particularly ironic that Morocco’s autonomy plan has received such strong bipartisan support since the United States rejected a more generous autonomy plan for Kosovo and instead pushed for UN recognition of that nation's unilateral declaration of independence. This double standard is all the more glaring given that Kosovo is legally part of Serbia and Western Sahara is legally a country under foreign military occupation.

Next Steps

Given the reluctance of the Obama administration to publicly demand that the Moroccans end their forced exile of Aminatou Haidar and release political prisoners, their freedom may depend on the willingness of human rights activists to mobilize on their behalf. Indeed, this may be the only hope for Western Sahara as a whole.

Western Sahara remains an occupied territory only because Morocco has refused to abide by a series of UN Security Council resolutions calling on the kingdom to end its occupation and recognize the right of the people of that territory to self-determination. Morocco has been able to persist in its defiance of its international legal obligations because France and the United States, which wield veto power in the UN Security Council, have blocked the enforcement of these resolutions. In addition, France and the United States served as principal suppliers of the armaments and other security assistance to Moroccan occupation forces. As a result, nonviolent action by the citizens of France, the United States and other countries that enable Morocco to maintain its occupation would be as least as important as the Sahrawis' nonviolent resistance against Morocco's occupation policies. Such campaigns played a major role in forcing the United States, Australia and Great Britain to cease their support for Indonesia's occupation of East Timor. Solidarity networks in support of Western Sahara have emerged in dozens of countries around the world, most notably in Spain and Norway, but not yet in the United States, where it could matter most.

A successful nonviolent independence struggle by an Arab Muslim people under Haidar's leadership could set an important precedent. It would demonstrate how, against great odds, an outnumbered and outgunned population could win through the power of nonviolence in a part of the world where resistance to autocratic rule and foreign military occupation has often spawned acts of terrorism and other violence. Furthermore, the participatory democratic structure within the Sahrawi resistance movement and the prominence of women in key positions of leadership could serve as an important model in a region where authoritarian and patriarchal forms of governance have traditionally dominated.

The eventual outcome rests not just on the Sahrawis alone, but whether the international community, particularly those of us in the United States, decide whether such a struggle is worthy of our support.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco and serves as a senior policy analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus.

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