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Debate: Human rights activism is not inextricably linked to politics - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Did the emergence of the human rights movement mark the beginnings of genuine political mobilization in the Arab world?

The answer will be “no” if the question is about whether or not there are hidden political agendas behind the human rights activism that has grown so rapidly in the Gulf region over the past few years. However, the question is certainly a pertinent one, considering the apparent political flavor human rights activism has taken.

There is a clear politicization of human rights work in the region due to a variety of reasons, a situation not limited to human right activists in the Gulf region alone. Such politicization is embodied in two different ways: the nature of the demands themselves, and the mechanisms and discourses used to achieve these demands.

A quick look at most of the work done by human rights organizations in the region shows that it is often centered on political rights represented in the right of expression, the rights of assembly and organization, and the right to political participation, all of which consume a sizable portion of these organizations’ activities at the expense of, for example, economic and social rights.

However, these groups justify their focus on political rights on the grounds that they are the key to securing all the other rights, economic and social rights among them. For how, these groups ask, can individuals retain their rights to labor and healthcare without first having the right of expression to demand such rights in the first place, and without the threat of arbitrary actions being taken against them as a result?

This emphasis on political rights that has characterized the movement in the region since its beginning has brought activists into regular confrontations with the ruling regimes, which, ironically, has exacerbated the human rights situation in the region. The political flavor of these struggles has caused governments to crack down even more strongly on human rights activities as a whole, while also intensifying arbitrary measures such as incarceration without trial.

This, coupled with the sidelining of economic and social rights by these activists, has meant that neither those rights, nor the political rights that were meant to unlock them, have been actualized.

This situation has had a negative impact on the human rights situation in the Gulf. The movement has only recently emerged here, even though there are also a number of other factors to explain this. One of them has been that human rights values and concepts have been largely distorted and vilified on the pretext that they contradict Islamic values and strictly Islamic conceptions of human rights. A pervasive view is that the human rights movements in the region are a front for Western philosophies and values that run counter to the Islamic spirit established 14 centuries ago.

As a result, Gulf governments adopted an impoverished view of human rights limited to economic and social rights, omitting civil and political rights in the process. In fact, according to such a vision, the notion of a “right” is confined to those relating to education, jobs, healthcare and social care. Those are the rights these governments have successfully offered their citizens, due to their huge spending from revenues deriving mostly from their status as rentier states.

Until recently, these governments adopted rentier policies for their citizens, offering them free services such as healthcare and housing from cradle to grave. Gulf states have funded these services through renting out their facilities and resources to foreign countries and companies at high rates. There has been a strongly held belief that ensuring such rights would also ensure their citizens’ satisfaction, placating them into ignoring any additional political and civil rights that could harm the stability of these governments. However, thanks to giant development leaps, Gulf societies saw the emergence of new social and political trends that necessitated the reformation of this social contract through active social participation by the citizenry.

Such transformations coincided with political developments on the international arena, thus providing the impetus for a push towards reform through international initiatives that reflected positively on the political scene in the Gulf region. Governments thus began to relax their attitudes in handling these rapidly growing demands. This transformation of political attitudes among the public coincided with a gradual growth of voluntary human rights activism, which further intensified the confusion between human rights and politics. Gulf activists thus had to face a repeat of the problem faced earlier by their peers in other Arab states when politicized human right demands precipitated a clash between activists and governments.

Observers of the human rights activism scene in the Gulf will be quick to note the domination of political discourse, along with the almost complete absence of discourse about other rights. One will rarely see, for example, any discussion of the suffering endured by some foreign laborers in Gulf states, or even the sufferings of Bedoun people, who are considered “stateless” by their governments and are therefore deprived of basic rights to education, healthcare and work.

Of course, activists do not ignore such issues in principle, but they do not appear in their discourse, nor do they seem to have any bearing on their activities. This is due to their conviction that the main and graver problem lies only in civil and political rights and that their attention must not be distracted away from this endeavor. Such rights, they say, are the province of licensed human rights organizations.

Without a doubt, such a short-sighted view represents a severe shortcoming of human rights activists in the Gulf region: helping citizens such as those with bedoun status who have been deprived of their basic rights, or protecting young girls from violence, are endeavors no less important than demanding the right to assembly.

Due to the short space given in this article, we must not allow ourselves to get embroiled in arguments about sorting out the priorities of defending an individual or a certain group, or even defending the rights of society as a whole. What is certain, however, is that confusing politics with human rights has caused governments to apprehend and even tighten their grip on activists, which has negatively reflected on the human rights battle in the Gulf in particular, as well as in the region as a whole. But the conflation of politics and human rights movements remains one of historical coincidence and represents no essential link between the two.

The counterpoint to this piece can be read here.

Saleh Al-Khathlan

Saleh Al-Khathlan

Saleh Al-Khathlan is the dean of the Faculty of Law and Political Science at King Saud University and the deputy head of the National Society for Human Rights in Saudi Arabia. He is also a member of the Permanent Independent Committee on Human Rights at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

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