Keeping power in check: this week in human rights

Keeping power in check: this week in human rights
7 min read
16 Apr, 2015
Blog: A weekly digest of the main human rights issues across the Arab world: week 11-17 April, 2015.
The side of Bahrain they want you to see [Getty]

Torture and oppression at the Grand Prix

The cars, the glamour, the glitz.

This weekend's Formula One extravaganza brings to Bahrain everything it wants to project itself as a progressive and reformist state.

The fanfare however masks a much more unsettling reality.

A damning new report by Amnesty International details rampant abuses including torture, arbitrary detentions and excessive use of force against peaceful activists and government critics, which continue to take place in Bahrain.

"Four years on from the uprising, repression is widespread and rampant abuses by the security forces continue. Bahrain’s authorities must prove that the promises of reform they have made are more than empty rhetoric,” says Said Boumedouha, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme.

The report outlines a "chilling" crack down on dissent including the banning or violent dispersal of protests and the use of torture to extract “confessions”.

The detailed report and its shocking first hand accounts strikes a blow to Bahrain's campaign to assure the outside world that it has embarked on a campaign of reform towards a more inclusive and accountable form of government.

What changes have been enacted amount to more window dressing than substantive change.

Institutions such as the Ombudsman of the Ministry of Interior and the Special Investigation Unit, have been set up for oversight and to investigate human rights violations by the security forces. However, none are sufficiently independent, impartial or transparent.

What's more, legal reforms introduced to lift restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly have also come hand in hand with moves to strengthen and maintain repressive laws.

So not much to cheer there then... But at least the car race should be fun.

A graveyard at sea

Hundreds more human souls perished in the Mediterranean Sea this week in another migrant boat disaster as the irrepressible tide of human desperation and aspiration determined to find a better future in Europe surges unabated.

At least 3,500 people drowned close to European shores in 2014, many of them from Syria, Eritrea or sub-Saharan Africa. Already this year, 500 people have lost their lives at sea, and that’s before the summer period when the majority of people attempt the perilous crossing.

The EU's failure to address the problem is starting to look less like a policy failure and more like a morality vacuum.

Several prominent politicians across the continent argued last year that stopping the Italian led Mare Nostrum search and rescue mission would deter migrants from attempting the journey.

However, since Mare Nostrum was replaced with the significantly pared back Triton mission record numbers of migrants have braved the journey and record numbers have died.

The calculation that stopping efforts to rescue them would act as a deterrent has proven to be either cynical political posturing or a gross misunderstanding of the root causes of the problem.

With governments failing to step up to the plate and save lives the charity Medicin Sans Frontier alongside Migrant Offshore Aid Station are going to run a joint search, rescue and medical aid operation in the central Mediterranean between Africa and Europe from May to October.


“Europe has turned its back on people fleeing some of the worst humanitarian crises of our time,” says Arjan Hehenkamp, MSF’s general director.

“Ignoring this situation will not make it go away. Europe has both the resources and the responsibility to prevent more deaths on its doorstep and must act in order to do so.”

Flanked by chlorine gas and rape

Chemical weapons at the hands of a military autocracy or systemic rape within the ranks of religious extremists illustrate the ravaging extremes between which so much of Iraq and Syria are consumed.

Investigations appear to corroborate earlier reports that the Syrian air force dropped barrel bombs laden with chlorine gas in several separate attacks in Idlib in late March.

The US red line on the use of chemical weapons has evidently long since disappeared, with scant international attention given to the atrocity.

Syrian rescue workers reported that the attacks affected at least 206 people, including 20 civil defense workers. One attack killed six civilians, including three children.  

All of the strikes took place as the extremist opposition militia Nusra Front launched an operation in the city that ultimately led to the ouster of the army and government backed forces.

Across the now non existent border in Iraq the horrific extent of rape and sexual abuse by Islamic State group militants of Yazidi women is becoming clear.

Investigations by Human Rights Watch reveal a picture of organized rape, sexual assault, sexual slavery, and forced marriage by IS forces, with many Yazidi women still missing. 

IS kidnapped several thousand Yazidi civilians in Iraq’s northern Nineveh province in August 2014 with witnesses saying fighters systematically separated young women and adolescent girls from their families.

From testimonies of women who later escaped nearly all of them said they had been forced into marriage, sold - in some cases a number of times, or given as “gifts.”

The secret US kill list

In 2013, President Obama promised that before any US drone strike, “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”

Two years on and it is as opaque as ever exactly who makes it onto the US kill list and when the decision to strike is made.

A new report by the Open Society Justice Initiative, 'Death By Drone', casts serious doubt on whether the United States’ “near-certainty” standard is being met on the ground, and whether the U.S. is complying with international law.

Nine case studies documented in the report provide credible evidence that US airstrikes have killed and injured Yemeni civilians, with one drone strike killing 12 people, including a pregnant woman and three children, and another taking out a house containing 19 people, including women and children.

The Obama administration says it prefers capturing to killing but the stats suggest otherwise with the United States has conducted an estimated 215 drone strikes, which have killed 1,271 individuals since 2013, compared to around a dozen capture missions.

If Obama's intentions in this area are uncertain there is at least one thing that remains certain and that is the extreme secrecy surrounding the kill list and US drone policy.

Rights and security

The Arab uprisings erupted from a profound craving for recognition, dignity and humanity.

The instability and violence that ensued however has emboldened those very forces that strive to maintain an iron grip on power and castrate the power of the people they purport to serve.

The curtailing of civil rights and personal freedoms is not confined to the Arab world but from Paris to Nairobi to Toronto new powers and legislation to strengthen 'anti-terror' operations are on the table.

Reflecting on this climate UN experts warned this week that human rights and freedoms should not be sacrificed for political convenience in the fight against terrorism.

“It is only by strict adherence to international human rights standards that counter-terrorism strategies can ultimately succeed,” said Ben Emmerson, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism and Heiner Bielefeldt, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

UN member states have unanimously recognised that the protection of human rights and freedoms is a prerequisite to any effective counter-terrorism strategy. Security Council resolution 1963 states that terrorism would not be defeated by military force, law enforcement measures and intelligence operations alone.

The solutions to terrorism lie as much in dealing with its root causes as they do with its manifestations. Well that's theory at least, but time will tell how it will play out in reality.

An unhappy anniversary

The prominent Saudi activist and lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair has completed one year from his 15-year prison term that stems from his peaceful criticism of the Saudi government and his human rights advocacy.

When king Salman took the throne in January he issued an amnesty for some Saudi prisoners, but the order excluded prisoners convicted on certain charges including “crimes that impinge on national security.”

As such Abu al-Khair and other well-known human rights activists such as Mohammed al-Qahtani, Abdullah al-Hamid, and Fadhil al-Manasif continue their lonely spells in detention.

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.