International NGOs, the Arab Upheaval, and Human Rights: Examining NGO Resource Allocation

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When the unprecedented protests began in the Middle East (termed variously as the Arab spring, turmoil, upheaval, etc.), human rights issues were featured prominently. Journalists and social media reports emphasized demands to end the practices of the closed and totalitarian regimes that had controlled these societies and their populations for decades in countries like Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. In their statements and interviews, protest leaders and participants highlighted democracy and human rights as major objectives.

However, by the end of 2011, after the toppling of some regimes and amidst the ongoing conflict in others, the hopes for significant and lasting human rights reforms in these countries and in the regions had receded. In Tunisian and Egyptian election, the parties that received the greatest support were not associated with a strong commitment to the universal principles of human rights. The same situation exists in Libya and Yemen, were the post dictatorship political systems are even more uncertain. The language of human rights in the discourse of the Arab revolutions had all but disappeared.

In this paper, we will explore some of the factors that have contributed to this disappointing outcome. We note that political, religious and cultural factors are likely to have been instrumental. However, the international structures and institutions most closely associated with promoting universal human rights also share responsibility for the failure to realize these values. In order to reverse the current situation, a sustained and principled engagement with powerful frameworks is necessary.

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