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

As US Strikes Syria, China Sees Parallels at Home

Beijing is debating how much support to give international coalition against IS militants and trying to figure out how many Chinese nationals may have joined group overseas More

CDC: Ebola Could Infect 1.4 M by 2015

US health officials say if efforts to curb the outbreak are not increased, cases will soar dramatically by early next year More

Video USAID Provides $231 Million for Girls Education in 5 Countries

US Agency for International Development partners with celebrities to call attention to importance of education for girls worldwide More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbiti
X
September 22, 2014 9:20 PM
NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbit

NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video For West Ukraine City, Conflict Far Away Yet Near

The western Ukrainian city of Lviv prides itself on being both physically and culturally close to Western Europe. The Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country are 1,200 kilometers away, and seemingly even farther away in their world view. Still, as VOA’s Al Pessin reports, the war is having an impact in Lviv.
Video

Video Saving Global Fish Stocks Starts in the Kitchen

With an estimated 90 percent of the world’s larger fish populations having already vanished, a growing number of people in the seafood industry are embracing the concept of sustainable fishing and farming practices. One American marine biologist turned restaurateur in Thailand is spreading the word among fellow chefs and customers. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Chinese Admiral Key in China’s Promotion of Sea Links

China’s President last week wrapped up landmark visits to India, Sri Lanka and Maldives, part of a broader campaign to promote a new “Maritime Silk Road” in Asia. The Chinese government’s promotion efforts rely heavily on the country’s best-known sailor, a 15th century eunuch named Zheng He. VOA's Bill Ide reports from the sailor’s hometown in Yunnan on the effort to promote China’s future by recalling its past.
Video

Video Experts Fear Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’

Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid