More needs to be done to protect those who champion human rights in the Middle East and North Africa where they often face imprisonment and persecution, a leading international human rights group says in a report released today. Even though progress has been made in some countries in the region, campaigners are still unsafe, with those pushing for political and civil rights particularly at risk, Amnesty International said in the 94-page report, entitled Challenging Repression: Human Rights Defenders in the Middle East and North Africa.
It called for governments to release those imprisoned for exercising their right to expression, association or assembly and ensure that no restrictions were placed on these activities. "Across the region, those who stand up for human rights and expose violations by state authorities often incur great risks by doing so," said Malcolm Smart, director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa Programme.
"Governments should be heralding the crucial role of human rights defenders in promoting and defending universal rights. Instead, too often, they brand them as subversives or troublemakers." Though guaranteed in international treaties and most national constitutions, rights crucial for these activists are often denied or restricted by other legislation, including emergency and antiterrorism laws.
The situation has worsened since Sept 11 2001 and the US-led "war on terror", which has given states an additional pretext to silence dissident voices, the report claims. Tunisia's anti-terrorism law adopted in 2003 is vague and covers acts such as "influencing state policy" and "disturbing public order", it said. However, the report highlighted some areas where there have been positive steps. In the Gulf, female human rights defenders have addressed sex-based discrimination and violence and put these issues "firmly on the agenda of several states", it said, giving the example of the UAE, which acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 2004.
Though women's activism is progressing in countries, including the UAE, there is still a long way to go with regards to labour issues, according to the report. "The absence of independent trade unions has particularly serious consequences for migrant workers in the Gulf," it said, noting the exception of Bahrain, where a 2002 labour law allowed expatriate workers to form unions. Those campaigning for the rights of religious and ethnic minorities also often faced persecution, the report said, giving examples of a Baluchi activist in Iran who was executed last year and the treatment of Kurds community in Syria.