By Likhita Banerji

The Arab Uprising is often described as an extra-ordinary civilian demand for regime change and for overthrowing of the status quo.  What is often ignored is the fact that the Arab Uprising was an unprecedented assertion of demanding human rights, enmeshed with the political question. The Human Rights question was enmeshed with the political one. For the young people at the forefront of the revolution, regime change, freedom from repression and democratisation were seen as precursors to achieving civil liberties. However, this key fact has been neglected: today, conflict and negotiations in the middle-east are a game of juggling partisan solutions. This plays out in powerful international actors picking sidesand pushing for multi-lateral peacetalks where the politics of which sideshould have a seat on the table is a threat to meaningful engagement. The attempts at the Syrian and Yemeni peace negotiation are an unfortunate caricature of this phenomenon where the question of the human rights, their advocates and thus, by extension, civil societys aspirations are relegated to the sidelines.

In recent years, the question of the fate of human rightsdefenders has become grim in the Middle-East. They face crackdowns in the form of new laws restricting freedom of assembly, association and expression, arbitrary detention, disappearances and torture. The role of human rights in the Arab Spring, advocated by human rightsdefenders was a key building block of the Arab Uprisings. There was a need felt for more civil-liberties which was not extinguished with the fading of the uprisings. The States recognise the power of dissenting leaders (human rightsdefenders) armed with facts. The recent increase in civil-society crackdown, therefore, is not one of accident. It is a calculated exercise to stifle civil-society in order to prevent another assertion for freedoms.

In Bahrain, critics of the government are jailed and prosecuted. Human rightsdefenders are jailed based on security-related charges. A new law was passed in 2014 which further restricts freedom of assembly, association and expression. Human rights defendershave been coerced to confess their crimes while in detention and trials have not met far-trial standards. The leader of the principal opposition group was also arrested in 2014 on charges related to terrorism. 

In Syria, the famous Human Rights activist Mazen Darwish, from the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression recently got released along with two of his other colleagues. They were tried by a counter-terrorism court. In Egypt, in August 2015, President Sisi also passed new restrictions on journalists reporting on terror. A counterterrorism law also defined terrorist entitiesbroadly, such that it could even be applied to NGOs. In Yemen, following the demands from the Arab Uprisings in 2011, the draft constitution on Yemen which was completed in January 2015 contains protections to the freedom of association, expression and assembly. However, the ongoing war in Yemen, where international players and non-state actors are heavily involved have contributed to a dismal human rightssituation. Saudi Arabia notoriously abuses and prosecutes Human Rights defenders, such as blogger Ralf Badawi who was arrested and flogged – its recent nomination as head of a panel on the UNHRC caused international outrage. Both Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan have also recently imposed new requirements for organisations’ registration, though without changing their legal framework. In Jordan, laws restricting freedom of association through laws punishing those who undermine governance” were passed in 2011, and in Oman, citizens have to request government approval for all public gatherings, with regular arrests of those gathering without this approval. 

In recent years, following the The Arab Uprising, the systematic trends of using law reforms to punish human rightsdefenders under provisions of terrorism and threats to national security, human rights abuses such as detention and torture, as well as abuses by non-state actors (in Yemen, Syria, Palestine and Iraq) are motivated by the desire to stifle dissent and prevent any repetition of the uprisings.

This is because the role of Human RightsDefenders in the Uprisings is a complex, yet undeniable one. Before the Arab Uprising, Human Rights’ organisations existed in the Middle-East but were not a major focus of attention of the rulers. This was primarily because they did not play a very prominent role due to a lack of access to regional and international mechanisms as well as the absence of domestic independent judiciaries. However, during the Uprisings, they were directly involved in the support and organisation of the revolution, while also playing a crucial role in a new rights’ educated generation.The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) played a key role in the Arab Uprisings through their affiliated organisations such as The Tunisian League of Human Rights and the Damascus Center for Human Right’s studies. The Arab Uprisings were youth-led demands for freedom which embraced the human rights ideal. It was essentially a movement where the demand was for despotic, paternalistic leaders to be removed peacefully, through reform, and replaced, not by similar personalities, but by a form of democracy. Thus, in this sense, it was a leaderless struggle where human rightsdefenders played a significant role by allying with youth activists and with the main oppositions parties. 

The result of the rise in prominence of these Human Rights Organisations led them to be a major focus of attention, which is one the key reasons for the brutal crackdown previously described.

Despite this, the involvement of world powers to solve these issues, primarily in Syria and Yemen, ignores the historical truth of the Arab Uprising rooted in a human rightsstruggle. The civilian demand for freedom from violence has been shunned to the side, as an eventuality to deal with later. This has always been a feature of foreign diplomacy in the Middle-East. For instance, the USA (during Nixon and Kissingers time) historically propagated the step-by-stepapproach, where negotiations can happen only on one track, while the pressing and difficult-to-address issues are ignored. This was the case in the Arab-Israeli negotiations (ignoring the pressing issue of a comprehensive two-state solution in Palestine) and more recently in Iran (ignoring to a certain degree, Irans human rightsabuses and regional terror activities in order to sign the Nuclear Deal). The peace process is a highly partisan one where it is often forgotten that replacing one regime with another is not an option for civil society in the middle-east, as shown by the Arab Uprisings. Partisan solutions do not meet their demands for greater human rights, freedom from violence and a solution that reflects realities on the ground.

Evidence of historical trends in the uprisings, the mainstreaming of the human rightsquestion, the crackdown on human rightsdefenders and their subsequent absence in peace processes, all point to the fact that human rightsand human rightsdefenders of the Middle-East need to be involved and considered as the focus of negotiations. They are essential to a lasting solution, not only for peace, but for an eventual societal rebuilding based on egalitarian ideals, where accountability for crimes committed against the people of the Middle-East does not remain a distant unachievable dream.

Featured Image Credit: Denis Bocquet, Flickr CC. License can be found here.