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Statement by Andrew Gilmour, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights at the Cairo Institute of International Studies Third Regional Forum of the Arab Human Rights Movement

4 November 2018, Tunis

Dear colleagues, members of civil society organizations and human rights defenders,

I would like to first thank the Cairo Institute for Human Rights for inviting me to speak at your important Third Regional Forum.  I regard it as a tremendous honour.  Human rights defenders are by definition brave and principled people, in many places threatened and punished for their work.  But I would say it takes a special degree of courage to be a human rights defender in the Arab world today.

I am sure I won’t be the only speaker to comment on the symbolism of having your meeting in Tunisia, as the birthplace of the Arab Spring.  Nor will I be the only person to mention Jamal Khashoggi, who before he was brutally murdered, or executed, wrote in his final article published after his death that only one country in the Arab world could be classified as “free” – and that was Tunisia.  Just three others he said (Jordan, Morocco and Kuwait) were seen as “partly free.”

The slogans that framed the Arab Spring and guided its sparks that spread to the rest of the Arab World were first coined by Tunisian youth calling for an end to tyranny and a new era of freedoms.  It was inspirational stuff, all the more so as it was a purely grassroots movement allowing the voice of those who had been suppressed for so long to shake the halls of power.

But where does the Arab human rights movement stand today, as we mark the eight-year anniversary of Mohamed Bouazizi’s astonishing and emblematic act of self-immolation?  It is clear that many of the best answers to that question will be provided by local actors, notably yourselves, who owned this process for change, who were part and parcel of it. But I will also mention the work of our office, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which has done what it could to support and accompany these actors through this process.

The initial calls for change collectively identified and so powerfully expressed by vast segments of society reflected the universality of human rights. They were untainted by short-term political considerations and they focused on the fundamentals: increased political participation; freedom of expression and assembly; women’s rights; an end to corruption and a fair distribution of resources; an end to mukhabarat rule, torture and arbitrary detention, amongst other demands.  They covered the entire spectrum of rights – civil and political and economic, social and cultural – confirming our belief in the fundamental indivisibility of those rights.

Through our offices in Tunis and Beirut in addition to various human rights mechanisms in Geneva, we have aimed to support local processes that would translate these changes into legislation more in line with international norms.  Our office has provided human rights training, when possible, to key segments including security and police forces, practitioners in various state institutions, youth and women from various social and economic backgrounds. It has also supported various transitional justice processes, which remain key for stability and ensuring accountability.

In Tunis, important anti-discrimination legislation was passed just last month. This is a pioneering example of positive change in the region that provides hope. Other important legislation ensuring and expanding protection of women is also commendable.

Despite some progress in a number of countries in the region, there is still an underlying sense that those gains remain fragile and unsustainable in the face of other more potent forces. There remains stiff resistance to some of the tenets of human rights and their universality. Many countries and political parties still do not feel ready to fully engage in implementing these principles, despite having ratified the main human rights instruments. Other forces continue to label human rights principles as somehow alien, imposed by the west, or part of a conspiracy to undermine Muslim societies and their stability and sovereignty.

Beyond these claims, in an even more worrying sign, the security discourse seems to have come back in full force and used to limit the civic space that was won by such efforts during the Arab Spring. Anti-terrorism legislation has unfortunately been used all too often as an obvious excuse to stifle dissent, opposition and criticism.

We are seeing evidence of this in the many cases of individuals detained and tortured just for speaking out, disappeared or killed.  Others are silenced by their compromised email and social media accounts, or the travel bans imposed on them.  Some NGOs and human rights defenders, activists, and experts have been labelled as “terrorists” or criminals by their governments, whether they are officially charged with terrorism, blamed for cooperation with foreign entities, or accused of damaging the reputation or security of the state.   We see this as part of a dangerous global trend to denigrate and discredit human rights defenders such as yourselves.

Also troubling is that States have frequently invoked counter-terrorism as the reason an organization or individual should be denied access to the UN – whether for sharing information with us or for attending a UN meeting.  In September when I addressed the Human Rights Council in Geneva to present the annual report of the Secretary-General on intimidation and reprisals for cooperation with the UN, I highlighted this significant obstacle.  We have seen our long-standing civil society partners, particularly in this region, placed on terrorist lists, become embroiled in bogus criminal charges, and have their operations curtailed.  At best this is a distraction from their main aim of promoting human rights, and at worse it has resulted in a shrinking population of civil society partners, notably from Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to name a few.  I mentioned this year the efforts to block the impressive Alkarama Foundation from participating at the UN, for example.

Last year in my speech to the Human Rights Council I referred to the specific case of an Egyptian human rights defender who was detained at Cairo airport on his way to meet UN human rights experts, and our fear that he was tortured.  Sixteen months on, he is still in prison.  I also mentioned that since June 2016 Bahraini civil society groups attempting to cooperate with the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms have been interrogated, intimidated, subject to travel bans, arrested or detained, beaten and even sexually assaulted, causing – as was intended –  an atmosphere of fear.

A second trend is that reprisals – whether for advocacy generally or for speaking out at the UN – are often disguised in legal and administrative obstacles. Selectively applied laws and policies, or new legislation that restrict the operations of organizations cooperating with the UN, are being used in many countries to undermine the legal legitimacy and ability of NGOs to acquire funding, especially from foreign donors.

I think we should see the Arab Spring as a general movement – a yearning for rights of all kinds, including the right not to live under brutal but also utterly corrupt forms of governance.  But though it was a general movement, it was one that had very divergent effects in different Arab countries. 

There can be little doubt that the initial slogans for equality and an end to repression found widespread echo among civil society actors (and even some government ones).  And these actors have since then been working to lay the ground for future progress.  I don’t need to tell this distinguished group of people how catastrophic the counter-reaction to the Arab Spring has been – whether in terms of total state collapse into civil war, serious crimes against humanity and war crimes; or whether the harshest methods of repression, systematic torture, or else mass death sentences that followed artificial trials.

As you will be aware, at the UN we have a new High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, former President of Chile.  She is a longstanding and passionate supporter of rights, as well as having personally experienced dictatorship and violations herself.  I have absolutely no doubt she will build on the remarkable legacy of Zeid Raad Al Hussein, who – with his courage, intellect and integrity – was in my view a credit to our office, to his country, and to the entire Arab world.  He took on governments – however powerful on the world stage – calling them out for committing human rights violations, and for this he was criticised by many of those governments from all corners of the globe.

But it seems to me there was a special level of vituperation and resentment levelled towards Zeid by the governments of his own region.  It was as if they seemed especially outraged that he – a fellow Arab – should dare to criticize them; as if he – a fellow Arab – was supposed to close his eyes and silence his mouth even when faced with some of the appalling crimes and violations carried out by Arab governments.   I am disappointed by that reaction – and I am sure you share that disappointment.

I think it is important to bear in mind, however, that the Arab world is far from alone in experiencing a profoundly alarming human rights situation.   This includes the Middle East and North African region.  In Israel, we see brave Israeli defenders of human rights – especially the human rights of Palestinians living under the harsh, humiliating and seemingly never-ending occupation that began in 1967 – experiencing threats and reprisals.  Just two weeks ago, the head of the impressive human rights NGO B’tselem was attacked and threatened after briefing the UN Security Council here in New York by the Israeli ambassador, and this was followed by major on-line attacks including by the Prime Minister of Israel.  In Turkey, we have seen crackdowns that include the arrest of huge numbers of journalists and also human rights defenders.  In Iran, we see many violations, including the pattern of executing people who committed crimes when they were children. 

And beyond the Middle East and North Africa, we are now often speaking about the global backlash against human rights – significant setbacks in Asia, Africa, America and Europe.   I joined the human rights movement – Amnesty International – as a schoolboy in 1979. In all that time since, I haven’t seen such an apparently systematic attack on human rights as we see now.

You are not alone, therefore – though I am fully aware, as I said before, that it takes particular courage to stand up for rights in the Arab world, given the frequency with which governments act so brutally and illegally towards people who champion freedoms, especially journalists and human rights defenders.

In this connection, I would like to quote a paragraph from an article written by Zeid in the Economist on the last day he served as High Commissioner, 30 August.  He listed some people he regarded as heroes in today’s world, including from your region:

“….from Bahrain for example: the Khawaja family, Nabeel Rajab, Maytham Al Salman and Ebtisam Al Sayegh, who have all have shown extraordinary courage in the face of considerable adversity. Hatoon Ajwad Al Fassi and Samar Badawi in Saudi Arabia: courageous leading voices for the rights of Saudi women, both currently in detention. Amal Fathy in Egypt and Radhya Al Mutawakel in Yemen are also two brave individuals who have put their own safety at risk as they have spoken out against injustice and on behalf of victims of human-rights violations.” 

These are just a few of the many – including those at your meeting today – who deserve the world’s and the region’s gratitude for what they and you do.

In the coming years, it is a major priority for our office to work to increase civil society space globally, even though we can see that the space for human rights engagement is shrinking in many places.  Our office will continue to support local actors, institutions and processes in the Arab world, and to document more serious violations, especially where war continues to rage, in an effort to promote accountability for war crimes.  And we will continue to speak out.

I look forward to seeing the outcome of your discussions in Tunis, which I am very sure will inform our own engagement in what more we can do to support you and work together.

Thank you again for this opportunity to speak to you – even if virtually.  And above all for the extraordinary work you do.  You have my deepest respect.

Thank you.