Human Rights Policy in the Time of Revolution: Some Reflections on the ‘Arab Spring’

by Ghanim Al-Najjar

The ‘Arab Spring’ is widely seen as having been precipitated by two factors, the first of which is the obvious anger and frustration at the combination of oppressive dominant political actors or processes and widespread economic exclusion and inequities. A second important factor is the activism and investment in building consensus on regime-change from below by a range of political and civil society actors. These latter include human rights activists and organisations but many others, some (or even many) of whom are, at best, instrumentally or ambiguously committed to universal human rights principles.

Indeed, many of the basic demands – political freedoms, representative government, accountability, rule of law, etc. – of the movements in many parts of the Arab world resonate with core human rights ideas and principles. Yet, these human rights guarantees are far from secured within the transition processes to new regimes.

Conscious efforts are still required to keep human rights in focus in this period of transformation, a risky and slippery slope, in which events could easily precipitate a move in directions less amenable to positive human rights outcomes. It is critical to recognise that the transition represents a shift from human rights as a broad or general motivation for change to a focus on more specific social, economic and political problems. The challenge is two fold: (a) disagreements rather than agreements are more likely in terms of the analysis of and the solutions to these problems, and (b) the precise value or role of human rights in informing the range of analyses and policy solutions is not always immediately apparent or uncontested.

It is therefore critical that the prevailing atmosphere of general support (or at least the absence of hostility) for human rights across a wide cross-section of powerful socio-political actors is leveraged strategically. At the same time, it is particularly important to both strengthen groups already committed to human rights but also engage with those who may be less likely, in a different context, to support human rights–oriented policies. It is vital to “remind” the latter that committing firmly to broad human rights principles is a way to safeguard and secure the political space that has been created for them in the wake of popular movements. However such an engagement must be politically-informed and driven by two inter-related imperatives. The first is to translate a consensus on broad elements – such as the rule of law, freedom of expression, democratic accountability in governance and policy making, and pluralism – into firm constitutional guarantees with appropriate institutional safeguards. The second involves ensuring that an open dialogue nevertheless recognizes differences between the many different groups/actors but remains committed to collaboratively working through the democratic process.

The international human rights community has a key role to play in this context. The effectiveness of the international human rights community hinges on ensuring an informed engagement with a range of national actors across the region while at the same time monitoring possible displacement, directly or indirectly, of human rights considerations in favour of more political ones. This is especially important given the inconsistent responses of many powerful governments and inter-governmental bodies to the situation across the region. It is especially important to continue investigations into allegations of human rights violations as well as close monitoring to ensure that human rights protections are not bargained off in the face of negotiating complex challenges posed by political processes and reform. Facilitating the construction and strengthening of spaces that promote sound human rights analysis and dialogue is as critical as ensuring that key reforms within the broader law enforcement and the security sector, for example, are guided by human rights understanding.

The new wave of funding for state and civil society in the region presents a significant opportunity to achieve these goals but also poses definitive risks. International support must ensure that it does not undermine autonomy, or bear undue influence on local civil society. While support for smaller organisations is critical, reaching out to them also poses challenges. It is especially vital that human rights and development funding strengths and not severs the links between specific interventions and the dynamism of the larger political process.

About the Author:

Ghanim Al-Najjar is a professor of Political Sciences at Kuwait University and a renowned scholar of the Middle East. He is a human rights activist and a voice for democracy and political reform in his region.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.