Lara Kajs | 31 January 2023 |
International human rights are universal. They represent values in society such as dignity, equality, and respect, and they ensure protection for all humanity, especially persons who may face abuse, neglect, and persecution. Human rights violations are the amber caution light or the proverbial canary in the coal mine, warning of impending danger and dysfunction. Domestic chaos and social instability are consequences of a country plagued by human rights violations. However, human rights offenses impact not only the country in which they occur but also the relationship that the country has with peer countries, especially when business as usual continues, despite the violations. And if the offending country acts with impunity, it is a bigger problem.
When Rights Are Pushed Aside
But the “business as usual” approach fails to address the systemic erosion of social and economic conditions that weaken the working classes, violate the rights of women and girls, isolate minorities, and leave tens of millions without hope for their future. When human rights are pushed to the side, it sends the message that a business transaction, whether a trade agreement or arms sales, is more important than the human rights record of a country and how it treats its people. In essence, it sends a message that suggests, “We will look the other way.”
Further, the “business as usual” approach enables corrupt and repressive rulers – and their cronies – to enrich themselves at the expense of their people. Common trading partners among the countries with habitual human rights violations include China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Brazil, and Russia – each of which has had its own issues with human rights abuses.
Protests for Change
The Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, marked the largest wave of mass protest in the region in history. Sparked by the failures of Arab governments and regimes, the protests revealed corrupt rule, human rights violations, economic inequity, and the desire of the people to have a voice in their government, rather than the strong-arm and brutal repression they had been subjected to for decades. The people of six countries: Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain exercised protests for change. However, gains that were made a decade ago, are now evaporating and instability in the region has worsened.
Tunisia’s democracy, which was celebrated as a success, is now in a fragile state and on the verge of unraveling. Lebanon is teetering on the brink of economic collapse largely due to state corruption, unsustainable economic policies, and financial waste. Libya, Syria, and Yemen are each steeped in a decade-long conflict. Libya is considered a failed state. Millions have fled across borders and many millions more are internally displaced from the conflict in Syria; Yemen has been destroyed as a result of internal conflict with the Houthi and airstrikes and ground assaults by the Saudi-led coalition and other opposition forces.
A second wave of Arab Spring protests in Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria, and Sudan, between 2018 and 2022, ended with even less to show for it. The protests emphasized the depth of public anger against regimes and revealed just how quickly stability can collapse.
Human Rights Denied
In 2022, the countries with the highest index value for human rights violations were Yemen, Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan, and Syria. Since the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the de facto Taliban government has set women and girls’ rights back a quarter century with its recent edict, refusing to allow nearly half the population the right to education.
In Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine, Russian officials and surrogates have perpetrated human rights violations, shelling, bombing, and attacking residential communities, hospitals, shopping venues, daycare facilities, and markets, as well as the destruction of infrastructure, electricity, heat, roads, and communication systems; all of which are war crimes.
Iran’s brutal acts of violence against peaceful protestors, ongoing denial of human rights, widespread oppression, arbitrary arrests of protestors, and state-sponsored violence against women, serve to keep the people of Iran intimidated and subdued. In recent months, Iran has escalated human rights violations with sham courts, exaggerated charges, and public executions.
One of the most atrocious violations of an individual’s human rights was the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi perpetrated by a Saudi hit squad and orchestrated by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Trade Agreements and Arms Sales vs. Human Rights
Every single one of these countries, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Egypt, and Lebanon has trade agreements, arms deals, and humanitarian support agreements with the US, the UK, France, and Germany, as well as many other global powers, even as their human rights policies are reprehensible.
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, I and II, repressive regimes have become more repressive. Regimes are more interested in increasing their own wealth rather than securing the rights of the people or addressing concerns such as poverty, or corruption. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad has been chlorine barrel bombing and using sarin gas on his own people for a decade. While in Yemen, there has been a resurgence of famine and cholera, while all warring parties in the conflict continue to dismantle infrastructure and terrorize the Yemeni people. While outside of conflict, unemployment is the leading cause of social unrest in the region; attributed to regime failures.
However, what happens in the Middle East rarely stays in the Middle East, and failed governance cannot be contained. One only needs to look at the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan, to see how failed regimes act as a catalyst for something far worse.
Accountability and transparency are necessary. Upholding the fundamental human rights of the people of any country is not a fluid line, to be moved when advocacy is not convenient. Human rights are absolute rights and are not cancellable. Countries should be more proactive in addressing human rights violations all the time, and not dismissing them when it interferes with a trade agreement or arms sale. Because without action to support even the most basic of human rights – the right to education; the right to food, shelter, and water; freedom from torture and persecution… it is just empty words.
Photo Credit: “EU humanitarian aid in Syria” – Syria is littered with landmines and unexploded bombs. EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid is licensed under CC by NC-ND 2.0