Keeping power in check: This week in Human Rights

Keeping power in check: This week in Human Rights
Blog: A weekly digest of the main human rights issues across the Arab World for the week February 7 - February 13, 2015.
7 min read
13 Feb, 2015

A deceptive charm

President Bashar al-Assad is on the charm offensive.

His interview this week with the BBC's Jeremy Bowen was part of a wider campaign laying out his stall as an indispensable force of moderation in the fight against the barbarism of the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as Isis).

"There's no barrel bombs; we don't have barrels," he said.

A bare faced lie.

There are a plethora of videos on YouTube filmed by Syrian troops themselves dropping the indiscriminate agents of death from helicopters, and in July last year Human Rights Watch documented 650 barrel bomb damage sites around the city of Aleppo alone. One is shown in the picture, above.

  Videos posted online purport to show Syrian air troops
attacking villages below. Al-Araby cannot independently
verify third-party content posted online [YouTube]

As Assad joked about barrel bombs on television, his army was unleashing a ferocious attack on the besieged rebel held town of Douma in the Damascus countryside.

Roughly 178 civilians were killed in the province between last Thursday and this Monday, and the reports of barrel bombs keep on coming.

The president's PR campaign fits snugly with the move among western policy makers to shift their focus to IS as the prime target in the country.

The sexual enslavement, beheadings and burnings by the extremist militia have also played into Assad's narrative of a popular president battling an imported insurgency rather than a narrow dictatorship crushing a popular uprising.

However, if the unlikely collection of bedfellows united in their enmity to IS fail to also stand up to the gross human rights violations of the Assad regime in Syria then they undermine the legitimacy of their mission and its chances of success.

Similarly, in Iraq, many Sunni communities have been subjected to years of sectarian motivated violence and humiliation.

Former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki may have been cast into the shadows but his fetid legacy lives on.

His successor, Haider al-Abadi, has said summary executions at the hands of Shia militias are "no less dangerous" than IS "terrorism" - and that he has no tolerance for them. However, with the Iraqi army in a shambles, he is ultimately dependent on these militias to lead the charge against IS.

Any strategy to tackle IS that does not tackle the atrocities that helped give rise to IS is no strategy at all.

Death on the high seas

More than 300 people perished on the stormy Mediterranean seas mid-week while fleeing war, poverty and persecution in search of a better life in Europe.

The four rubber boats carrying the migrants left from Libya but got caught in high waves and freezing temperatures.
     Those who died will largely remain nameless, rendered anonymous by their poverty.

Those who died will largely remain nameless, rendered anonymous by their poverty.

However, the sheer number of deaths has bought back into the spotlight the EU's decision last November to halt the expansive search and rescue mission, Mare Nostrum, which was run by the Italian navy.

Mare Nostrum was replaced with a significantly pared down Triton mission, which is confined to patrolling waters only up to 30 miles off the Italian coastline and is not designed for search and rescue.

Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, tweeted that the latest loss of life had been preventable. "The EU needs effective search and rescue. Triton does not meet this need," he posted.

Mare Nostrum was wound up amid rising anti-immigration sentiment in Europe, squabbling over funding and a belief that the mission encouraged more migrants to risk the perilous journey.

The UK's Home Secretary Theresa May was among the advocates for ending the search and rescue patrols - on the basis they were a "pull factor" for migration to the continent.

Last year, 3,200 people are estimated to have died on the traffickers' vessels on the Med and yet the number of desperate souls boarding the "death boats" keeps on rising - and Syrians and Palestinians are among the most prevalent among them.

An effective search and rescue mission on the Mediterranean cannot solve the profound economic and political failings forcing such vast armadas of humanity to risk everything on the high seas, but it could save a whole lot of lives that will otherwise needlessly be lost.

The first victim

The saying goes, "the first victim of war is the truth".

Perhaps it would be more precise to say, "the first victims of war are those who tell the truth".
     The first victims of war are those who tell the truth.

In Libya, armed groups have attacked, harassed, kidnapped and killed journalists with impunity for the past two years.

Nobody has been held to account for a single "silencing" of a journalist, whatever the means of that silencing may be.

And yet at a time when the country is fracturing amid bloody internecine battles, public officials are finding time to prosecute journalists through the courts for such incendiary crimes as, you guessed it, defaming public officials.

"The climate of impunity has allowed militias to assault, threaten, kidnap, or even kill journalists because of their reporting or views," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

Libya's conflict is grossly under reported and with well informed local journalists, writers and activists being either killed, silenced or exiled it is becoming harder and harder to keep alive that fragile victim of war, the truth.

Rape in Darfur

The catalogue of attacks spanned 36 hours in October 2014, and would amount to crimes against humanity if found to be part of a widespread or systematic attack on the civilian population.

"The deliberate attack on Tabit and the mass rape of the town's women and girls is a new low in the catalog of atrocities in Darfur," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. HRW's report into the atrocity was released this Wednesday.

Residents, local human rights monitors, government officials and staff of the AU-UN Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) were interviewed - and what emerges from their testimonies was a history of three distinct operations by the military that saw soldiers go house-to-house, loot property, arrest men, beat residents, and rape women and girls inside their homes.

Two army defectors separately testified that their superior officers had ordered them to "rape women".

War and violence has ravaged the Darfur region since 2003 after rebel groups rose up against the government accusing it of oppressing the non-Arab population.

The backlash has involved ethnic cleansing, the killing of tens of hundreds of thousands and, it seems, mass rape.

Gagging the truth

The video of Shimaa Sabbagh's death shows two masked, black-clad policemen pointing their rifles in her direction as gunshots ring out and a voice commands "fire".

As far as evidence goes, it's about as damning as it gets.

The killing of the unarmed Egyptian protester from the Socialist Popular Alliance Party just over a week ago caused outrage in Egypt and around the world.

With the storm surrounding the killing of the mother-of-two refusing to pass, the courts in Cairo have ordered a media gagging order on the story.

They claim it could affect the course of the investigations into her death.

Sabbagh's socialist comrades have accused the police of pre-meditated murder, while police officials have denied any involvement in her death, and yet, the courts seem intent on stopping the rest of us from finding out what happened and who, if anyone, will ultimately be held to account.

Glimmers of hope

Malak al-Khatib, a 14 year old Palestinian girl, garnered considerable local and international support after being arrested and imprisoned by the Israeli authorities on charges of stone throwing and possession of a knife.

Her case bought into the limelight the widespread detention of Palestinian children by occupying Israeli forces.

On Friday she was set free and returned to her family, but 213 children are still held in Majeddo, HaSharon and Ofer prisons.

In Egypt, the Al-Jazeera journalists Mohammad Fahmy and Baher Mohammad have "won the battle, but not yet the war".

After more than a year in prison the two men have been set free on bail - but will still have to face a retrial.

They are reunited with their families for now, but their freedom remain very much in balance.

According to Reporters Without Borders, 15 journalists remain locked up in Egypt's jails.

We'll be keeping our eye on human rights transgressions across the region and bringing you another weekly digest next Friday. If you want to share any information or bring our attention to any campaigns please Tweet us at @alaraby_en.