A “global indifference” to human rights abuses in the Middle East is fueling repression across the region, Amnesty International announced Tuesday.
Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia intensified crackdowns on dissent in 2018, arresting thousands of critics in an atmosphere of “generalized impunity across the region for both past and ongoing violations,” the human rights group said in its yearly report on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
“Across MENA throughout 2018 thousands of dissidents and peaceful critics have been victims of shameless government violations on a shocking scale, amid deafening silence from the international community,” said Amnesty International’s regional director Heba Morayef in a statement accompanying the report Tuesday.
In Saudi Arabia, Amnesty claimed that a government crackdown had put “virtually all human rights defenders” in the kingdom behind bars or forced them to leave the country. The wave of arrests has targeted women’s rights activists, academics and human rights campaigners.
The arrest and alleged torture of Saudi women’s rights defenders sparked global outcry in 2018. At least one of the detained women – prominent activist Loujain al-Hathloul – was electrocuted, flogged and sexually harassed, Hathloul’s family members told CNN.
In its statement, Amnesty also condemned Western arms transfers to Middle East governments, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, amid widespread reports of violations of international humanitarian laws during the war in Yemen.
The two coalition partners have launched repeated air and ground offensives in their more than three-year campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Thousands of civilians have died in the conflict.
The US, UK and France supplied billions of dollars in military equipment to the coalition partners in 2018. Meanwhile, Amnesty noted, Denmark and Finland were among countries who suspended arms sales to Riyadh in the aftermath of the October murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which caused a global fallout.
The CIA concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler – ordered the killing, a charge vehemently denied by Saudi officials.
The Saudi-led coalition is believed to be behind the majority of civilian casualties in Yemen, UN investigators said last year, and a CNN investigation revealed that US-made weapons supplied to the coalition have ended up in the hands of fighters linked to al Qaeda. Reports have also emerged of rebels targeting aid workers in the country.
The Saudi coalition did not respond to multiple requests for comment on CNN’s report on the weapons transfers earlier this month. A senior UAE official denied “in no uncertain terms” that it had violated its end-use agreements with the US.
“Time and again, allies of governments in the region have put lucrative business deals, security cooperation or billions of dollars’ worth of arms sales before human rights, fueling abuses and creating a climate where MENA governments feel ‘untouchable’ and above the law,” said Philip Luther, Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty.
‘Year of shame’
In Iran, thousands of people were arrested during a wave of demonstrations over the past year. More than 7,000 protesters, students, journalists, environmental activists, workers and human rights defenders were detained in what Amnesty International has dubbed the country’s “year of shame.”
Economic protests in December 2017 and January 2018 were the largest displays of public discontent in the country since the 2009 Green Movement, when millions took to the streets to demonstrate against alleged election fraud.
Individuals and coordinated groups of dissidents continued to publicly demand political and social reforms throughout 2018.
Street demonstrations against the compulsory Islamic headscarf captured global headlines and led to a string of arrests.
In Egypt, an ongoing campaign against dissidents has led to the arrests of at least 113 people “solely for peacefully expressing critical opinions,” according to the Amnesty report. Two of those detained were arrested for speaking out against sexual harassment on Facebook, the rights group said.
Civil liberties under Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi have been curtailed, with rights groups regularly issuing scathing assessments of human rights in the Arab world’s most populous country.
But Amnesty International also lists some advancements in regional human rights. Saudi Arabia’s lifting of a driving ban on women was praised as one of the “limited improvements” for women’s rights.
In a win for LGBT rights in the region, Tunisia now has a draft law decriminalizing same-sex relationships, and a top court in Lebanon has ruled that same-sex consensual sex was not a criminal offense, Amnesty noted.
“Against a backdrop of overwhelming repression, some governments have taken small steps forward,” said Morayef. “These improvements are a tribute to courageous human rights defenders across MENA, and serve as a reminder to those who regularly risk their freedom to stand up against tyranny and speak truth to power that they are planting true seeds of change for the years to come.”