Human rights in the Middle East were in retreat again last year, but the mass protests in Tunisia that brought down the government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali may coax the region’s mostly authoritarian governments into easing restrictions, Human Rights Watch says.
Many of the region’s governments imposed new restrictions on media freedom and did little to discourage torture and arbitrary arrests in 2010, New Yorkbased HRW said in its annual report on the state of human rights around the world.
Discrimination and harassment of immigrants, guest workers and minorities remained the norm, even if a few countries, such as Kuwait and Lebanon, implemented reforms.
In Jordan, HRW criticized King Abdullah for dissolving parliament in 2009, halfway through its four-year term, and ruling by decree through most of last year. Jordan continued to arbitrarily withdraw citizenship from Jordanians of Palestinian origin, rendering them stateless and without rights to education, health care or property.
“Tunisia is a bright spot in what was otherwise a very, very dark year in the Middle East in 2010,” Nadim Houry, director of HRW’s Beirut office, told The Media Line.
“Whether the Tunisian experience will be replicated in other countries and what its exact impact will be, it’s too early to say. It’s pushing activists, giving them more faith in their ability to make change happen and is also pushing a lot of authoritarian rulers to rethink their model.”
Unrest has broken out in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen after nearly a month of protests in Tunisia forced Ben Ali to step down January 14 after ruling for 23 years.
On Tuesday, demonstrators took to the streets in Egypt, demanding political and economic reforms and carrying signs reading “Tunisia is the solution.”
In 2010, Tunisia got low marks on human rights, which HRW called “dire” in its report, and around 100 people died during protests. A new government, composed by some of Ben Ali’s allies and the opposition has yet to bring about reforms, as it struggles to contain continued unrest.
The governments of the region have acted to crack down on the Internet and other electronic media, HRW said. In Iran the government systematically blocks websites that carry political news and analysis.
It also slows down Internet speeds and employs the Revolutionary Guards to target dissident websites.
Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture and Information heavily censors print and broadcast media. Internet critics who cross vague “red lines” face arrest, the report said. Syria blocks popular websites such as Google’s blogging engine, Facebook and YouTube.
Twitter played a critical role in spread news of Iranian protest following disputed presidential elections in 2009 and it is reprising that role in Egypt. Tunisia’s rebellion has been tagged “the Facebook revolution.”
“It has made important contributions,” Houry said about the new media. “It doesn’t mean that this will be sufficient, but it has created an important space for activists and people to express their regions.”
Among the countries that saw a sharp deterioration in their human rights record, Iranian authorities cracked down on dissidents, journalists and bloggers following protests over 2009’s disputed election.
HRW estimated that more than 1,000 people have fled the country seeking asylum.
Torture is routinely used to extract confessions that are used to impose long prison sentence, it said.
The United Arab Emirates was faulted by HRW for allowing conditions of
its huge population of migrant workers to deteriorate as the
confederation’s building boom imploded and put many of them out of work.
Trapped in labor camps without food or sanitation, many were unable to
find new jobs or return home, HRW said in the report.
In the few places where human rightsfriendly reforms were made, enforcement was thin, said Houry.
“In some countries where there were openings in the last few years, such
as Libya, we’ve seen those openings close,” he said. “In countries
where we saw some improvement, such as women’s rights in Saudi, these
reforms were quite precarious.
They have not really consolidated reform with any institutional changes.”
Lebanon is among the freest and most democratic countries in the region,
but like many in the region it suffers from an inability to bring human
rights violators to justice.
Although many observers have expressed concern that Hizbullah, together
with its Syrian and Iranian backer, is cementing its hold on Lebanon,
Houry said he confident basic freedoms would be preserved.
“Lebanon has an old tradition of respecting freedom of expression,” he
said. “Right now we haven’t seen it endangered. The bigger challenge in
Lebanon is the age-old debate of accountability.”