Middle East


Rethinking Human Rights

Participants at the Say No to NATO protest called by STWC and CND in front of the U.S. embassy in London on May 19. (Photo: Piero Cruciatti, Dreamstime.com)

The Arab Spring has once again raised pressing questions about the effectiveness of international human rights organizations. Along with the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and Western powers, these organizations are being increasingly castigated for their failure to stop violence in the Middle East-North Africa region generally, and in Syria in particular.

Despite the nobility of their cause, Western human rights organizations are losing legitimacy because they fail to assess the repercussions of their call to Western powers to take immediate action against human rights violations. All too often the response of Western powers is military intervention. This usually results in more of the loss of life and human rights abuses that the organizations were trying to prevent in the first place. Moreover, the goals of the human rights organizations are widely seen as synonymous with the agenda of the Western powers—regime change, securing a supply of oil, maintaining security of Israel and restraining terrorism in the region. This does not bode well for human rights organizations that need credibility to do effective work. The best way for these organizations to avoid being seen as handmaidens to Western governments is to anticipate how their findings will be used and do detailed cost-benefit calculations and to reform the UNSC.

Critics such as Mahmood Mamdani, professor at Makerere University in Uganda and Columbia University in New York, point to the recent NATO-led operations that have forced regime change in the guise of the "War on Terror" or Responsibility to Protect to show how such initiatives foster deeper anti-Western sentiment. 

Afghanistan became the first target of the War on Terror, and the human rights violations of the Taliban was used to justify the continuing NATO presence. More than a decade later, this war has left irreversible costs. According to a report by the U.N. Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights, a decade after the war began "the armed conflict in Afghanistan again incurred a greater human cost in 2011 than in previous years." The report documents 3,021 civilian deaths in 2011, an increase of 8 percent over 2010 (2,790 civilian deaths) and a 25 percent increase from 2009 (2,412 civilian deaths) caused by anti-government groups, such as the Taliban and al Qaeda, as well as Afghan and international military forces. Similarly, according to a report by Iraq Body Count, the total number of violent civilian deaths due to small arms gunfire, explosive weapons and air strikes recorded since the 2003 invasion exceeded 114,000 as of December 2011. These casualty rates indicate that neither of the governments in Kabul or Baghdad can secure peace in the absence of Western troops.

The recent military interventions of Western powers have also led to problems in countries facing the Arab Spring. For example, there are serious concerns over the initiation and conduct of NATO's air strikes against the Gaddafi regime in Libya. UNSC Resolution 1973 authorizes states to "take all necessary measures" to protect civilians in Libya. However, doubts remain over whether the word "necessary" included a military intervention by NATO forces. According to a report by Middle Eastern human rights groups led by the Arab Organization of Human Rights, NATO's attacks on towns and cities held by Gaddafi forces and their choice of targets such as a regional food warehouse could be categorized as "offensive actions." NATO's actions did not protect all Libyan civilians, just those allied with the rebels. Yet the Libya NATO intervention is still promoted as a human rights intervention that toppled a repressive dictator by the same powers that, for years, had turned a blind eye to his atrocities.

The direct cost of these attacks aside, NATO intervention has not achieved its goal of securing long-term peace and stability for the country. Instead, a year after the NATO strikes, Libya faces potential disintegration and partition. Also, Navi Pillay, chief of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, says that in Libya today there are still "torture, extrajudicial killings, [and] rape of both men and women."

Though Western humanitarian organizations criticize these acts of violence, these groups seem to accept this loosely defined, ad hoc framework for international intervention in future trouble spots, such as Syria. Of course, they rightfully highlight the brutality of the regime in Syria, but when these organizations ask the international community and UNSC to act, they often overlook how their advocacy could lead to an attack, resulting in large-scale consequences for the masses.

Thus, before prescribing the immediate involvement of the international community, these Western human rights organizations must make an in-depth cost-benefit analysis of the short-term, medium-term and long-term implications of intervention in countries like Syria. They need to alert the world to the risks of and ways to avoid the post-intervention chaos evident in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

The challenge is that, regardless of how inappropriate, inconsistent or ineffective the Western framework of human rights protection may be, the world cannot afford to lose Western participation in the call for justice. Therefore, it is important that Western human rights organizations, especially the most visible and influential ones, revisit their approach in the Middle East and beyond. For as long as these organizations continue to blindly support the business-as-usual practices of human rights protection led by the West, their legitimacy will continue to erode.

One way is to stop stigmatizing emerging democracies for not supporting intervention and to include them in the dialogue for solutions instead. Such an approach has not happened yet, but it is possible through the UNSC. Even though the Security Council is still the most important source of legitimacy for international action, this body has remained unaltered since 1965 and is overdue for reform. Western human rights organizations should advocate for the expansion of the council to facilitate a more inclusive and comprehensive range of human rights definitions and paradigms, in turn reorienting the mission of the Council. The perspectives and historic experiences of emerging countries such as India, Brazil and South Africa must be seriously considered. In essence, these new perspectives will change the terms of the current discourse on and timing of military intervention, and whether intervention is a fitting response to begin with.

The contemporary history of these emerging countries can offer insightful perspectives. For example, India, against all odds and despite its lingering poverty, has become a key democratic nation with myriad religions and ethnicities. Brazil overcame a long period of military rule that undermined the rights of its indigenous populations for years and, with a critical eye to its past, is reemerging. South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in the aftermath of a brutal apartheid regime, is a model of collective experience with key lessons for the international community.

The inclusion of these perspectives in the UNSC will make human rights organizations more effective, independent, and globally acceptable in their efforts to minimize violence around the world. Moreover, the inclusion of the perspectives of emerging countries will help in seeking appropriate solutions for the historically multi-ethnic and multi-religious people of the Middle East and North Africa. Without a healthy questioning of the consequences, and without the diverse perspectives of the emerging world, these well-meaning organizations will continue to be perceived as biased institutions seeking to propagate Western interests.

This feature was written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations (http://www.gatewayhouse.in/). Azadeh Pourzand is a senior researcher at Gateway House.