Towards freedom in the Arab world, ten years on

The need for a special rapporteur

The Arab Human Development Report 2004 was published with as subtitle Towards Freedom in the Arab World. The report, published by UNDP, the Arab Fund for Economic and Social development and the Arab Gulf Programme for UN Development Organizations, concluded that freedoms, particularly those of opinion, expression and creativity, were under pressure in most Arab countries.

Journalists were repeatedly targeted for prosecution on the grounds of opinions they had expressed. Political activists and human rights defenders were attacked. There was censorship on literary and artistic works. It was not allowed to organize meetings and gatherings without explicit green light from the authorities.

The freedom to form associations was often violated by denying organisations permission to operate or by dissolving existing ones. Most restrictions had been directed against grassroots human rights organizations. The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council GCC did and still do not allow the formation of political parties.

Ten years later (and an Arab spring later) the “freedom deficit” is still there. The deficit may even be bigger than 10 years ago.

Some people argue that lack of freedom; despotism is an inherent characteristic of the East and freedom a fundamental quality of the West. Some, like Geert Wilders and other right-wing-politicians in Europe, argue that Arabs or Muslims are not capable of being democrats and that there is a contradiction between Islam and Democracy. I think that the collective clamour for freedom and dignity during the Arab spring revolutions proved the opposite. Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinian, Tunisians, Moroccans, Yemeni’s, and Iraqi’s, people from the Gulf: millions and millions of Arabs called for freedom and dignity. Writers, poets, musicians and journalists in the Arab world yearn for freedom. Not only freedom in the sense of political or civil freedoms, but also the liberation from ignorance, fear, poverty, disease and hunger. Freedom in the narrow political sense and freedom in a more comprehensive form, defined as free from all factors that undermine human dignity, are –by the way- closely related. Good governance and political and civil liberties are very much linked, and without good governance the human dignity, the dignity of the individual, is compromised.

Disaster

Interestingly the Arab Human Development Report 2004 warned for a disaster scenario if the repressive situation in Arab countries would continue. The Report, written by Arab experts and intellectuals, warned for intensified societal conflict. “In the absence of peaceful and effective mechanisms to address injustice and achieve political alternation, some might be tempted to embrace violent protest, with the risk of internal disorder”, according to the Report.

Ten years later we do have bloody conflicts in large parts of the Arab world: in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. It may be a simplification to blame the freedom deficit for all problems and conflicts in the region. But the lack of political and civil participation, the lack of accountability and the lack of fundamental freedoms have certainly contributed to the sorry state the Arab world is in now.

It is sad that a new term entered recently the vocabulary of Human Rights and Freedom of Expression defenders in the Middle East: ‘post Arab spring oppression’. Leaving aside countries in war like Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, this oppression is maybe strongest felt in Egypt where the human rights situation is at its worst since more than 30 years. In the Gulf, especially Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, freedom of expression is restricted, and human rights activists are frequently targeted. Activists have been imprisoned and in some cases stripped of citizenship.

The anti terror operations against ISIL served in some cases as a pretext to clamp down on political dissent, while the alliance with the US, the EU and other Western powers made it harder for these countries to criticize human right abuses of their Arab allies.

Special Rapporteur

One of the ideas I discussed earlier with Arab press freedom and human rights NGO’s, is the creation of the institution of an Independent Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Media Freedom in the Arab World. Similar institutions do exist in other parts of the world. There is for instance the OSCE-representative on Freedom of the Media in Europe. There is the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression of the Organization of American States. (OAS) In Africa there is the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information. And the UN-Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression monitors developments in this field globally.

The question is: why not an Independent Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Media Freedom in the Arab World, using standardized agreed upon monitoring criteria? Most Arab governments are not keen to have such an institution. But it could be a very useful mechanism for independent human rights and press freedom groups. It could empower them in monitoring and denouncing violations. It could arm them against accusations that they are politicised or serving certain political interests.

I’m aware that the Arab Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Media Freedom still needs a lot of discussion; a lot of work and maybe this institution will remain unfeasible and unachievable in the coming years. But in the meantime Arab NGO’s could join forces by working on projects like the publishing of a joint annual report about the state of Freedom of Expression and Media Freedom in the Arab world.

(Summary of presentation during Workshop on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly, 20-22 April 2015 European Union / League of Arab States, Brussels)

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