Hope may spring eternal, but at some point reality intrudes. As 2011 draws to a close, reality has set in for the once promising Arab Spring. Rallies, violent clashes and persistent cries for basic human rights defined the Middle East this year. In 2012, the region surely will continue to have rallies, violent clashes and persistent cries for basic human rights.
The revolutions may have fulfilled their promise had the massively funded international human rights movement been prepared to assist the millions of individuals demanding change. But, for decades, organizations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International made no efforts to issue substantial reports on or build democratic mechanisms in Assad’s Syria, Gaddafi’s Libya, or other like-minded regimes.
Only when the news cycle shifted to the Arab Spring did the NGOs direct substantial resources to Arab countries. But it was too late. One year’s worth of attention does not make up for the failings of the previous 30. This depressing reality has resulted in almost no progress in this part of the world, where the moral principles embodied in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights are most sorely needed.
Despite the power of these NGOs, the officials that set their agendas have chosen to focus on the easy targets, including democracies, where they are least needed. As a result, when President Bashar Assad began slaughtering protesters in his country this year, HRW had no mechanisms in place to manage the situation and assist individuals fighting for human rights. Similarly, Amnesty International essentially ignored the Middle East’s most brutal regimes in its reporting during the 1990s.
This predicament of having no trained professionals to turn to in the field has consequences. Even two months after citizen- protesters were being murdered, HRW had to contract out its reporting in Syria because the NGO had no trained professional on the ground.
In fact, when the Arab Spring gained momentum early this year, HRW and Amnesty hastily rushed to expand to cover developments and violations in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere. The lack of preparation, foresight and capacity was obvious. Indeed, the international media had to rely entirely on local activists; as a source of information, the NGOs were irrelevant. As HRW’s Fred Abraham admitted, “The west of Libya is a black hole…. we have no idea what’s going on.”
If HRW and Amnesty did not invest in developing its capabilities in the closed and repressive societies of the Middle East, what were their priorities, and those of the entire NGO network in the region?
Their primary objective has been to use power and influence, including in the media, to wage political warfare against Israel – the lowest common denominator. These campaigns use the language, but not the substance of human rights, to advance this agenda.
The United Nations Human Rights Council (“Commission” before 2006) has served as the perfect vehicle for the NGO network. The UNHRC largely ignores the Arab and Islamic world, where these human rights principles are most sorely needed. Instead, it has conducted few education programs, led almost no campaigns, and issued short pro-forma “research reports” that highlight a lack of serious engagement. The Islamic regimes, in concert with the leaders of other closed societies, such as Cuba, Russia and China, have insured that their chronic violations are never discussed.
As a result, gross human rights violations, such as the murder of Coptic Christians, female genital mutilation and so called honor killings remain commonplace in the region.
If countries such as Yemen, Egypt, Libya and others had been able to transition into real, peaceful democracies, the region – and the rest of the world – would surely benefit. But the reality is that the “Arab spring,” which was proclaimed with great fanfare as marking the arrival of universal human rights in this part of the world, seems unlikely to actually achieve that.
The handful of real human rights activists in these countries have been silenced by terror, and new despotic regimes prepared to replace the old ones. In Syria, even if the Assad regime is eventually defeated, this is also unlikely to lead to an open and democratic society that respects individual freedoms.
The human rights movement has lost both direction and moral authority. A vast multi-billion dollar business, its leaders are politicians without mandates or accountability, cynically manipulating public opinion without principles. If this wasn’t the case, 2011 could have marked the beginning of a new era. Instead, human rights continue to elude most people in the region.
The writer is communications director of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institution dedicated to promoting universal human rights and to encouraging civil discussion on the reports and activities of nongovernmental organizations, particularly in the Middle East.