News / Middle East

Column: The Value of Human Rights Advocacy with Friends and Foes

Students who are supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted President Mohamed Morsi shout slogans in front of Cairo University, March 26, 2014.Students who are supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted President Mohamed Morsi shout slogans in front of Cairo University, March 26, 2014.
x
Students who are supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted President Mohamed Morsi shout slogans in front of Cairo University, March 26, 2014.
Students who are supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted President Mohamed Morsi shout slogans in front of Cairo University, March 26, 2014.
With Ukraine still dominating the headlines and the carnage in Syria overwhelming other stories from the Middle East, there was still a news item this week from Egypt that was breath-taking in demonstrating how far that country has fallen in terms of respecting basic human rights.
 
An Egyptian judge sentenced 529 people to death in connection with the death of one police officer in anti-government protests last summer. While the verdicts can be appealed, the sentences appeared to be part of the military government’s efforts to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood from the political scene and to force the public to rally around president-in-waiting, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
 
The executions, if they take place, would come on top of the regime’s killing of more than 2,500 people and the arrest of more than 16,000 since the military toppled President Mohamed Morsi last July 3. As Michelle Dunne and Scott Williamson wrote this week for the Carnegie Endowment, “these numbers exceed those seen even in Egypt’s darkest periods since the 1952 military-led revolution that would bring Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. They reflect a use of violence that is unprecedented in Egypt’s modern political history.”
 
Secretary of State John Kerry, reacting to the verdicts, said Wednesday that he was “deeply troubled” by the decision and by “the start of a new trial for nearly 700 more people in the same courtroom…The interim government must understand the negative message that this decision, if upheld, would send to the world about Egypt's commitment to international law and inclusivity.”

Human rights criticism by the West is often seen in targeted countries as reflecting double standards and cultural relativism. Iran, for example, bristles when the United States and Europeans chide it for one of the highest rates of capital punishment in the world.
 
According to the latest report by the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, Iran executed at least 624 people last year including at least 302 accused of trafficking in or possessing narcotic drugs. Iran, which has refused to allow Shaheed to visit the country, argues that its human rights record does not merit a “special rapporteur” and that the death sentences are necessary to deal with the flood of narcotics  from Afghanistan, which more than a decade of US-led military intervention has failed to stem.
 
The Iranian government is also hyper-sensitive about criticism of its detention of political dissidents and civic activists – nearly 900 of whom remain in jail, according to Shaheed – and about charges that the regime discriminates against women and religious and ethnic minorities.
 
According to journalist Robin Wright, who was in Iran earlier this month when European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton visited Iran and met with a group of women activists, billboards went up around Tehran as soon as Ashton left showing her face melding in to that of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Wright said the caption on the billboards asked “Where were you on human rights when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against us” during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war?
 
Indeed, Western countries – many of whom provided the precursors for those chemical weapons to Iraq – were shamefully silent about Saddam’s atrocities during that period when Iran was seen as the greater danger to the international order and Western values.
 
Double standards and historical second-guessing aside, however, there is a value in pursuing a human rights agenda with both allies and adversaries in hopes of prodding them into changing their ways.
 
That includes criticizing the Barack Obama administration for its over-zealous surveillance of foreign and domestic private communications, going after Iran and China for their heavy reliance on capital punishment and after Egypt for its counterproductive and ultimately doomed campaign to expunge the Muslim Brotherhood from the country’s political and social fabric.
 
Criticism of foreign governments works best when it is combined with engagement. The change in president in Iran, for example, from the Holocaust-denying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the less strident Hassan Rouhani, has opened the way for Ashton and other Europeans to visit Iran to talk about issues beyond a nuclear deal.
 
Marietje Schaake, member of a small European Parliament delegation that went to Iran in December, told a Washington audience this week that the delegation had stressed to the Iranians that, “there is not some zero sum equation between focusing only on the nuclear issue and forgetting about the plight of the Iranian people who live under systematic repression.”
 
While Rouhani has prioritized the nuclear issue and cannot dictate policy to the judiciary, which is run by a cleric directly appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian leadership as a whole does respond to international pressure and cares about its image abroad. It was no accident that the regime freed about 80 political prisoners last September just before Rouhani came to New York for the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly. Among those freed was Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer who was awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought while she was in jail in 2012.
 
Schaake said her delegation visited Sotoudeh in December, which created a stir in the Iranian media for several weeks – as did Ashton’s meeting with women activists. This kind of debate within Iran is valuable, Schaake said, and an added benefit of greater Western engagement with the Islamic Republic.
 
Another sign that Iran is listening to outside criticism was a remark made by Mohammad Javad Larijani – the head of the Iranian government’s official human rights body and the brother of the head of the judiciary – that Iran was considering abolishing the death penalty for drug-related offenses. If it does, Schaake said, that would enable the European Union – which bans capital punishment – to contribute materially to Iran’s efforts to deal with the scourge of narcotics coming from Afghanistan.
 
From the days of the old Soviet Union to the current stand-off over Crimea, US officials have raised human rights concerns when dealing with the Russian leadership.
 
How a country treats its own citizens should not stand in the way of cooperation on other issues of mutual concern, such as de-escalating the crisis over Ukraine, resolving differences over Iran’s nuclear program or aiding Egypt’s campaign against true violent extremists in the Sinai and the streets of Cairo. But that is no excuse for being silent when governments violate the basic human rights of their populations. Speaking up – both privately and publicly if private entreaties do not work – is the least the international community can do to show solidarity with those persecuted for their nonviolent expression of political, religious and personal beliefs.

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

You May Like

ASEAN Ministers Set to Push for South China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' More

Puerto Rico Defaults on $58M Debt Payment

Payment was due Saturday, default is first in country's 117 years as a United States possession More

Turkish Public Fears Jihadists More Than Kurds

Turkey facing twin threats of terrorism by Islamic State and PKK Kurdish separatists, says President Erdogan’s ruling AK Party More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Communityi
X
Sharon Behn
August 03, 2015 2:23 PM
A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs