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

Bernie Sanders Surge Reflects US Shift on Socialism

Although most analysts say it is unlikely he will get the Democratic nomination, Sanders' campaign opens up questions and issues that are otherwise marginalized More

Crowdfunding Helps Save Neil Armstrong's Spacesuit

Smithsonian turns to Kickstarter to raise more than $700,000 to help preserve the spacesuit worn by the first man to walk on the moon More

Video On IS Frontline, Kurdish Fighters Ready for Offensive

Peshmerga soldiers say although they need more heavy artillery, they are poised to take the fight to the Islamic State extremists on their turf More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Drowned Migrant Toddler Photo Triggers European Outragei
X
Henry Ridgwell
September 04, 2015 11:36 AM
The harrowing picture of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach appears to have galvanized Europe’s leaders into doing more to address the refugee crisis. France, Germany and Italy issued a joint call Thursday for compulsory quotas of refugees for all EU states. But there were chaotic scenes in Hungary as police tried to force migrants off a train heading for Austria. Henry Ridgwell has more. And a caution, some of the images in this report may be disturbing.
Video

Video Drowned Migrant Toddler Photo Triggers European Outrage

The harrowing picture of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach appears to have galvanized Europe’s leaders into doing more to address the refugee crisis. France, Germany and Italy issued a joint call Thursday for compulsory quotas of refugees for all EU states. But there were chaotic scenes in Hungary as police tried to force migrants off a train heading for Austria. Henry Ridgwell has more. And a caution, some of the images in this report may be disturbing.
Video

Video Russians Observe 11th Anniversary of Beslan School Attack

This week, Russians have been observing the 11th anniversary of the attack by Islamic militants on a school in Russia's North Caucasus region that killed more than 330 hostages, including 186 children. The three-day siege and massacre that started on September 1, 2004 took place in Beslan, a town in the republic of North Ossetia, and is one of the bloodiest terrorist acts ever in Russia. VOA's Mike Richman reports.
Video

Video Native Americans Debate: Father Serra, Saint or Sinner?

Pope Francis will canonize an 18th century missionary to Spanish California during a papal visit to the United States this month.  But some Native Americans have criticized the elevation to sainthood of the missionary priest, Junipero Serra. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan has more from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Calais School Offers Another Face of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Europe is facing mounting criticism over how it’s handling its biggest migration crisis since World War II. But not all Europeans believe building walls or passing repressive policies are the answer. A school for migrants in the French port city of Calais, is opening doors and building bonds across nationalities. VOA's Lisa Bryant reports.
Video

Video Kurdish Fighters on IS Frontline Ready for Offensive

Finger on the trigger, the Kurdish Peshmerga soldier stared across the dust at a village taken over by Islamic State extremists. The Kurdistan’s Khazir frontline, just 45 minutes from the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul. And at this point, the militants were less than two kilometers away. VOA's Sharon Behn reports.
Video

Video China Announces Troop Cuts at WWII Parade

Chinese President Xi Jinping Thursday announced plans to cut the world’s largest military force by 300,000 troops. The announcement was made during a massive military parade to commemorate victory over Japan in World War II. The event was shunned by most Western leaders and for some is raising fresh concerns about China’s military ambitions. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video Russia-Japan Relations Cool as Putin Visits China for WWII Anniversary

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Beijing for commemorations of the 70th anniversary of China's WWII victory over Japan. Putin is expected to visit Japan later this year, but tensions between Tokyo and Moscow over islands disputed since the war, and sanctions over Ukraine, could pour cold water on the plan. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Yemen ‘on Brink of Disaster’ as Medical Shortages Soar

Aid agencies warn Yemen is on the brink of humanitarian disaster – with up to half a million children facing severe malnutrition, and hospitals running out of basic medicines. There are fears Yemen's civil war could escalate as the coalition led by Saudi Arabia tries to drive back Houthi rebels, who seized control of much of the country earlier this year. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Apps Helping Kenyan Businesses Stay Ahead of Counterfeiters

Counterfeit goods in Kenya cost the government as much as $1 billion each year in lost tax revenues. The fake goods also hurt entrepreneurs who find it hard to carve out a niche in the market and retain customers. But as Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi, information technology is being used to try to beat the problem.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.

VOA Blogs