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

    Video How Aleppo Rebels Plan to Withstand Assad's Siege

    Rebels in Aleppo are laying plans to withstand a siege by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in likelihood the regime cuts a final main supply line running west of city

    Scientists Detect Gravitational Waves in Landmark Discovery

    Researchers likened discovery to difference between looking at piece of music on paper and then hearing it in real life

    Prince Ali: FIFA Politics Affected International Fixtures

    Some countries faced unfavorable treatment for not toeing political line inside soccer world body, Jordanian candidate to head FIFA says

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growthi
    X
    February 10, 2016 5:54 AM
    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Civil Rights Pioneer Remembers Struggle for Voting Rights

    February is Black History Month in the United States. The annual, month-long national observance pays tribute to important people and events that shaped the history of African Americans. VOA's Chris Simkins reports how one man fought against discrimination to help millions of blacks obtain the right to vote
    Video

    Video Jordanian Theater Group Stages Anti-Terrorism Message

    The lure of the self-styled “Islamic State” has many parents worried about their children who may be susceptible to the organization’s online propaganda. Dozens of Muslim communities in the Middle East are fighting back -- giving young adults alternatives to violence. One group in Jordan is using dramatic expression a send a family message. Mideast Broadcasting Network correspondent Haider Al Abdali shared this report with VOA. It’s narrated by Bronwyn Benito
    Video

    Video Migrant Crisis Fuels Debate Over Britain’s Future in EU

    The migrant crisis in Europe is fueling the debate in Britain ahead of a referendum on staying in the European Union that may be held this year. Prime Minister David Cameron warns that leaving the EU could lead to thousands more migrants arriving in the country. Meanwhile, tension is rising in Calais, France, where thousands of migrants are living in squalid camps. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clowns

    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Families Flee Aleppo for Kurdish Regions in Syria

    Not all who flee the fighting in Aleppo are trying to cross the border into Turkey. A VOA reporter caught up with several families heading for Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria.
    Video

    Video Rocky Year Ahead for Nigeria Amid Oil Price Crash

    The global fall in the price of oil has rattled the economies of many petroleum exporters, and Africa’s oil king Nigeria is no exception. As Chris Stein reports from Lagos, analysts are predicting a rough year ahead for the continent’s top producer of crude.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.