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Theoretical issues in the Arab human rights movement.

The gravity of the human rights situation in the Arab World calls for the presence of an Arab human rights movement with a clearly defined mandate and purpose. While other parts of the world, including many countries in the South, have seen the collapse of authoritarian regimes that had ruled over them in the recent past, no similar regime in an Arab country has vanished. To the contrary, despite the serious disasters these regimes have brought on some Arab countries, many now seem more entrenched than ever. Moreover, regimes which had embarked upon the path of political liberalization since the mid-Seventies, or in the late Eighties, have reversed their course, limiting the little political space which they had opened for autonomous political and social forces in their societies. An active and widely-based human rights movement would seem to be one of the agencies that could help establish, in the short term, more decent conditions of existence for the Arab peoples. However, the present state of the human rights movement, (even in its most optimistic assessment) can not be seen to be reaching its full potential.(1) For this movement to emerge as an effective force on the Arab political scene, as some would like, it is imperative for it to overcome many hurdles, some of which are external to the movement, while others are definitely of an internal nature.

This article discusses some of the internal difficulties faced by the Arab human rights movement, and examines how its lack of resolution on some critical issues has cast doubt on its credibility as a true champion of the human rights cause in Arab countries. The author would like to state that the following critique of the movement stems from a sympathetic position toward it and from a wish to see it gather more strength and penetrate more profoundly into the minds and souls of Arab citizens. The analysis in the following pages is based primarily on a reading of the annual reports and bi-monthly newsletter of the Arab Organization for Human rights (AOHR), the mother of human rights organizations in the Arab World.

The author has chosen in this essay to focus on theoretical issues because of the belief that theoretical questions are of utmost importance to any human rights movement, or to any political movement that is involved in the struggle against a well-established political order. Moreover, effective praxis for the Arab human rights movement is contingent upon a clear definition and theoretical analysis of its environment, goals and strategies. Theoretical rigor is not, of course, the only condition for the success of such movements, but it is undoubtedly important and even necessary.(2) Theoretical analysis is all the more important for the Arab human rights movement as many of its leaders, being former nationalists and Marxists, began their political training in movements which would seem in opposition to the human rights cause.

This essay will therefore outline four main theoretical issues requiring resolution by the Arab human rights organizations: 1) the issue of the universality of human rights, 2) the conceptualization of national sovereignty, 3) the indivisibility of human rights, and 4) Arab specific issues relating to the Shari'a.


Undoubtedly, the first theoretical question that is as yet unresolved by the Arab human rights movement, is the position it adopts with respect to the universal application of human rights, as embodied in many international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration, the two 1966 international covenants on political and economic rights, and the many other treaties and declarations of the United Nations. Ideally, the established position of the movement on this question would be to adhere to the universal concept as embodied in all these documents, with recognition of the specific cultural norms of Arab peoples. In reality, however, spokespersons for the movement often minimize the importance of critical divergences which the Arab human rights movement takes from the international human rights movement, particularly on such issues as the death penalty and certain personal rights. Some actions indicate a superficial adherence to the universal concept of human rights, and reveal the narrow nationalist and dogmatic ideologies stemming from the Marxist origins of many of the leaders.

In addition to divergences from the Universal Declaration of Human rights, the Arab human rights movement has also failed to practice universality by hierarchically ordering some rights above others. An examination of the different categories of human rights which the movement has acted upon could be seen to demonstrate that despite the declared belief in the indivisibility of human rights, most organizations belonging to the movement have given priority to certain categories over others. Thus, while spokespersons for the movement suggest a strong universalistic position, its actions demonstrate a moderate and cultural relativist position.(2)

Moreover, while recognizing the universal concept, some spokespersons for the movement also argue that the cultural uniqueness of Arab peoples requires specific and unique rights and conditions which would be legitimate only within an Arab context, such as the right of every Arab citizen to work in any Arab country, or the right to fight against Zionism. However, those who support this position are not always in favor of translating it into a regional Arab charter of human rights, lest such a document provide Arab peoples, who are under conditions of authoritarian regimes, less rights than what they already have under universal instruments already ratified by two- thirds of the Arab states.(3)


Prior to the convening of the International Conference on Human rights in Vienna in June 1993, representatives of Arab governments who met in the Arab League unanimously condemned what they called foreign interference in their countries' internal affairs in the name of human rights, which they considered a violation of their countries' sovereignty. If the interpretation of national sovereignty as advocated by Arab governments were to be accepted by the Arab human rights movement, there would be no way of exerting any international pressure on governments that continue to violate human rights. Governments would then be able to claim sovereignty to escape the charge that they are disregarding their responsibility to the international community, (a responsibility which emanates from the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human rights and the covenants of human rights and other instruments many of which have been ratified by Arab governments.)

Despite pressure from their governmental leaders, the one issue activists of the human rights movement in Arab countries did take a universalistic stand on, was the concept of the global nature of human rights and solidarity with the international human rights movement as a whole. The Arab Human rights Organization, as well as several other Arab human rights organizations who met in a preparatory meeting to the Vienna Conference, were of the view that human rights had become an international cause, supported by international organizations and non-governmental organizations in many countries. They argued therefore that it was the nature of the human rights cause to move people of different national, ethnic and religious or ideological backgrounds to condemn violations of human rights, no matter where they occurred, and to express solidarity with victims regardless of nationality or the type of government.

The position of the Arab human rights movement on this question should occasion no surprise. It is a correct interpretation of the nature of both human rights as a humanitarian cause and of the nature of human rights movements as groupings of people who feel a strong sense of solidarity with victims of human rights violations no matter where they occur. While the Arab human rights movement has taken a clear stand on the issue of universality based on its convictions of these tenets, strong reactions have occurred against this stand. Several voices have been raised, both from within the Arab human rights movement itself, and from Arab governments, accusing those sections of the Arab human rights movement that were receiving foreign funding of being tools in the hands of foreigners, enemies of the Arab peoples, with their leaders interested only in personal enrichment. Such charges have exaggerated the amount of foreign funding these organizations receive, and deliberately overlooked the fact that the governments of the countries themselves, were living on the foreign aid from Western governments.(4)

It is true that the AOHR is quite weak at present in those Arab countries where it can openly function, and is limited to a few members of the educated elite. In the face of various kinds of authoritarian governments, it relies heavily on the solidarity extended to it by international human rights movements, as well as well-intentioned governments who care about the human rights cause. It is true that several human rights organizations, active at both the national and the regional (Pan-Arab) level, do receive foreign funding for their activities, from both international organizations and national non-governmental organizations in Western countries. However, even if this were not the case and the Arab human rights movement were capable of relying on its own capacity to mobilize the resources necessary for its activities, and to generate sufficient domestic pressures on its governments when they violate human rights of their citizens, its position on this question of sovereignty would have been the same, as it is based on a true understanding of the nature of both the human rights cause and the human rights movement.

While adopting a universalistic position, these same organizations have not failed to observe that certain Western governments have used a double standard in their alleged defense of human rights, highlighting violations of human rights in countries with which those governments have conflicts, while closing their eyes to violations in their own territories or violations in countries politically aligned with Western governments. It is argued that a narrowly defined national interest, rather than a true commitment to the cause of human rights seems to be the standard for informing the practices of Western governments.(5) In the eyes of spokespersons for the Arab human rights movement, the harsh and uncompromising approach adopted by the UN Security Council, (dominated by the U.S. government in the post-cold war period), toward the Iraqi and Libyan governments, vis-a-vis its failure to even question Israeli practices in Occupied Arab lands, is a flagrant example of this double standard.(6)


Despite the declared attachment of the Arab human rights movement to the indivisibility of human rights, both the practices of several human rights organizations in Arab countries, as well as their discourse, suggest that they do, in fact, give priority to certain categories of rights over others, and also demonstrate partiality when ignoring some human rights violations while condemning others.

Peoples' rights, particularly to self-determination, peace and freedom from foreign intervention, are often viewed through extremely biased and partisan lenses. For example, the Permanent Committee of Human rights within the Arab League, (which is not part of the human rights movement), adopted a position of partiality by valuing Arab peoples' right to self-determination as paramount; particularly the rights of the Palestinian people. This position was later replicated by the Arab human rights movement.

Similarly, during the second Gulf crisis of 1990-1991, several human rights organizations in Arab countries, in the Mashreq and the Maghreb alike, took a united position; condemning the mobilization of the U.S.-led anti-Iraq military coalition as an aggressive act and flagrant interference in the internal affairs of the Arab countries, while remaining completely silent on the Iraqi regime's violation of the rights of the Kuwaiti people to self-determination and to live in peace. Feelings of solidarity with human rights victims should not be of a discriminatory nature, being extended to one people, for example, the people of Iraq, and denied to another people, the people of Kuwait. This inconsistent and biased position of several human rights organizations in Arab countries on the question of indivisibility and equality of human rights to all peoples, not only caused serious friction and splits within these organizations during the Second Gulf crisis, but also tarnished their image as organizations universally committed to the human rights cause.(7)

It is understandable why the human rights movements in Arab countries are concerned with the right of certain Arab groups to self-determination. Historically, the rights of many Arab peoples have been consistently violated by international powers who at the same time claimed an attachment to the principles of self-determination and equality among peoples. For example, many in the Arab World remember the promises of Great Britain to the leaders of the Great Arab Revolt of 1916 which were immediately betrayed, or the disappointment felt by the Egyptian nationalist leader, Sa'd Zaghloul, and his companions at the Versailles Conference at the end of the First World War.(8) Many also saw in the U.S.-led military mobilization during the Second Gulf crisis a clear demonstration of a super-power who was manipulating the noble cause of human rights in order to conceal its hegemonic designs for the Arab World.

The discourse of most human rights organizations in Arab countries also reveals a hierarchy of valuing civil and political rights over social and economic rights. The early reports of the AOHR referred only to violations of civil and political rights in Arab countries as seen in editorials and general comments in its news bulletin. While annual reports of the AOHR in recent years have dealt somewhat with the situation of economic and social rights in Arab countries, and social questions occasionally get some coverage in publications of other human rights organizations in Arab countries,(9) the dominant discourse of all these organizations deals with civil and political rights. Moreover, interventions which aim at influencing either public authorities or public opinion, are focused mainly on civil and political rights. This trend is somewhat surprising since the Marxist and the nationalist origins of many human rights leaders would seem to lead them to emphasize economic, social and cultural rights. However, it may be understood as a tilt by these organizations toward a liberal understanding of human rights.

Spokespersons for these organizations defend their emphasis on civil and political rights. They argue that redressing human rights is an immediate problem when compared with the long-term question of addressing economic and social rights. They also add that the social and economic realm is more static, whereas the situation of civil and political rights is more "eventful," requiring constant monitoring and intervention.(10)

While containing some valid points, such arguments still fail to satisfactorily explain why most of these organizations mobilize very little effort in defense of economic and social rights. While civil and political rights are definitely indispensable for the defense of all other rights, the author feels that the integration of social and economic rights could transform the human rights movement in Arab countries from being confined mainly to the ranks of the elite, to a truly widely-based popular movement. By demonstrating to the majority of Arab people that the human rights movement cares also about bread and butter issues which are of immediate concern to them, it would not be seen to limit its activities to those questions which are appreciated mostly by those who are heavily involved in the struggle for political power. It should be recalled that both political democracy and human rights causes gained ascendancy in Europe when they were seen to be necessary for the working classes who were engaged in a struggle focused mainly on "bread and butter issues."


It would be a mistake to believe that those in the Arab human rights movement are completely united on any of the issues that have been discussed in the preceding pages. It is perfectly legitimate that differences of judgment occur within the young Arab human rights movement on issues which have stimulated important debates within older human rights organizations in other countries and within the international human rights movement as a whole.

One major issue before the Arab human rights movement presently is the question of the application of the Islamic Shari'a. In many Arab countries few political parties dare take a stand against the Shari'a. Those who ordinarily see themselves as militants for the human rights cause support it wholeheartedly.

Few human rights organizations in the Arab countries dare lobby openly against it. Some assert that the principles of the Shari'a are interpreted differently by different people, allowing for the use of religion for political purposes. Accepting the implementation of Shari'a by Arab human rights organizations would involve facing thorny issues of tension or incompatibility between certain interpretations of the Shari'a. Examples of such thorny issues include the issues of apostasy leveled against intellectuals (as was the case of Professor Nasr Hamed Abou Zeid and other intellectuals in Egypt), gender equality, physical punishment (known as al-hudud), and rights of minorities.

The question of minorities in particular is much broader than the question of the Shari'a. For example, what should be the position of human rights organizations in Arab countries on the demand for self-determination raised by certain minority groups, such as the Southern Sudanese, Iraqi Kurds, or the Berber of several North African countries? Being largely committed to the Arab nationalist cause, Arab human rights movements are usually suspicious of such demands, viewing foreign hands behind those who claim such rights. Should these minorities be identified as peoples that have the right to self-determination with all the implications of such a right? Or should the Arab human rights movement continue to ignore this question, believing that national unity will fix these dissensions? A very tough question indeed, particularly at this historical moment when the Arab World is continually faced with the prospect of further fragmentation, and the humiliating marginalization of its peoples.(11)


The only way that the Arab human rights movements will be able to resolve and clarify its stand on these four key theoretical issues discussed in this essay is through constant dialogue at all levels among its members. The resolution of these critical questions will not come after only a few exchanges of views. One important guideline for this dialogue is to recognize areas of ambiguity, contradiction, and inconsistencies in the rhetoric, analysis and praxis of Arab human rights organizations. A more enlightened praxis remains impossible without well-defined conceptions of the theoretical context within which these movements occur.


1. Al-Munazzamah al-Arabiyah li Huquq al-Insan (Arab Organization for Human rights). Huquq al-Insan fi al-Watan al-'Arabi - Taqrir al-Munazzamah al-'Arabiyah li huquq al-Insan 'an halat Huquq al-Insan fi al-Watan al-'Arabi (Human rights in the Arab World - Report of the Arab Organization for Human Rights on the Human Rights Situation in the Arab World.) Cairo, 1987. Hereafter referred to as Taqrir.

2. Jack Donnelly. International Human rights. (Boulder, San Francisco and Oxford: Westview Press, 1993), pp. 110-124.

3. Taqrir, pp. 315-319.

4. See a discussion of this question in the two chapters by Mohammed El-Sayyid Sa'eid and Hany Shukrallha in Cairo Papers in Social Science. Special Issue: Human rights: Egypt and the Arab World 17, Monograph 3, (Fall 1994), pp. 53-87.

5. Nashrah, No. 56, p. 1.

6. Ibid.

7. See a special issue of Al-Mustaqbal Al-Arabi on the second Gulf War, (June 1991), No. 148.

8. Great Britain was concluding almost at the same time (1916) a deal with France whereby the two countries agreed to divide the Arab East amongst the two of them. Britain promised Palestine as a "national home" for the Jews a year later, a promise made to leaders of the World Zionist Organization. The Egyptian cause, advocated by Sa'd Zaghloul did not receive any favorable echo at the Versaille Peace Conference, as the right to self-determination, proclaimed by the American President Wilson, was limited only to countries of the former Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires.

9. Cairo Institute for Human Rights (CIHR). Sawasiya (March 1995), p. 1.

10. For other critical comments on this issue by human rights activists, Rachad Antonius, "Human rights and Cultural Specificity: Some reflections"; Nader Faragany, "Human rights Movement in Arab Countries: Problems of Concept, Context and Practice" in D. Tschirgi, Cairo Papers, op. cit., pp. 15-31.

11. For a discussion of some of these issues, see CIHR. Sawasiya, no. 5, (Cairo, July 1995).

Mustapha K. Al-Sayyid is a professor of political science at both Cairo University and the American University in Cairo, and Director of the Center for the Study of Developing Countries, Cairo University. The original draft of this article was prepared for delivery at the Conference of the International Association of Middle Eastern Studies, April 1996, Mafraq, Jordan.
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Author:Al-Sayyid, Mustapha K.
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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