On Wednesday, 6 March 2013, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) co-sponsored a side event entitled “In Defense of Defenders: The Critical Need to Protect Human Rights Defenders in the MENA Region” as part of the activities of the 22nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, currently convened in Geneva. The side event sought to address the recent waves of repression instigated by Arab governments against human rights defenders (HRDs), in terms of both legislation and practice.
Speakers at the side event included Ms. Margaret Sekaggya, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Maryam al-Khawaja, acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights; Paola Salwan Daher, UN advocacy representative for CIHRS; and Mariam al-Hadri, coordinator of Lawyers for Justice in Libya. The side event was chaired by Jeremie Smith, director of the CIHRS office in Geneva.
Maryam al-Khawaja discussed the situation of HRDs in the Gulf region, particularly the ways in which Bahraini defenders – including prominent rights activists Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, Zainab al-Khawaja, Nabeel Rajab, Sayed Yousif, and Mohammed al-Maskati – have been targeted for their rights work through politically-motivated prosecution, arbitrary arrest, detention, and even torture, including as punishment for their cooperation with the United Nations human rights mechanisms. Al-Khawaja further addressed the law on associations in Bahrain, which has been used to strangle the organizations with which Bahraini HRDs carry out their work. For example, the law allows the government to deny or revoke the registration of organizations – as was the case of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights – and even to dissolve them based on vague provisions easily manipulated by the authorities.
Paola Salwan Daher expressed concern over the proposed legislation on associations in Egypt, which –if passed– would similarly threaten the work of Egyptian HRDs by granting the government and security apparatus broad powers to control the funding and activities of civil society organizations. Even before the passage of such legislation, Egyptian civil society is already under attack, with organizations like the New Woman Research Center being forced to cut staff and activities due to the government’s failure to approve their grants, and with the government warning other NGOs – specifically the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights – against cooperating with any international partners or institutions. Daher pointed out that proposed legislation on demonstrations would similarly hinder the ability of Egyptians to demand their rights through peaceful protest. She asserted that the right to free assembly is already severely impaired in practice, as at least 60 demonstrators have been killed and hundreds wounded in clashes with security forces in the last nine months in Egypt.
Mariam al-Hadri explained that, unlike in Egypt and Bahrain, post-revolutionary Libya has no legal framework restricting HRDs or NGOs. Rather, the lack of rule of law in the country allows for violations to be committed in the name of the revolution, and HRDs who speak out against such violations or who assist certain groups perceived to be opposed to the revolution are often subjected to threats and even physical attacks. For example, after implicating particular militias in crimes of torture and other abuses, Jum’a al-Qomati, head of the Taghyer (Change) Party, was kidnapped and held for several hours by an armed militia before being released.
Finally, Special Rapporteur Margaret Sekaggya discussed her work in the defense of HRDs, including her recent visit to Tunisia – the first visit ever by her mandate to the country. Ms. Sekaggya explained that although there is still room for improvement, Tunisia’s law on associations is perhaps the most progressive in the Arab world, as it is largely in compliance with international standards, and should be taken as an example by other countries in the region. She also discussed the resolution drafted by Norway on human rights defenders and urged member states of the Human Rights Council to support its passage in the Council.
The side event was organized by CIHRS in collaboration with the International Federation for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, the Gulf Center for Human Rights, Lawyers for Justice in Libya, the International Service for Human Rights, the World Organization Against Torture, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, and the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project.