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Human rights are not always accepted as a universal good or an unproblematic vehicle of freedom they were intended to be. In Arab countries – as in much of the rest of the world – there does not yet exist an overarching culture of human rights that respects both human commonality and diversity. From the grass-root level of communities in the Arab world to the very top, those who struggle for human rights in the face of violence and oppression are highly vulnerable, often to the extent that they are faced with no choice but to place their lives on the line. The path to addressing this must involve states in an impartial manner, but we believe that it must not be ‘political’. Such politicisation of human rights for factional political ends is extremely destructive to the human rights project and, ultimately, to those lives that could be spared and lived.
We are not politicians. We are people – writers, researchers, artists, journalists, and public figures – who seek to support the revitalisation of the human rights project as an equal partnership between states, grassroots activists, and the international community. Ongoing and systematic human rights abuses by states, armies, and militia groups alike highlight the unfinished mission of enforcing accountability, which must be tackled both in terms of international jurisdiction and bottom-up empowerment. The latter approach must not be overlooked, and requires an approach to human rights grounded in culture, knowledge, education, and awareness.
The mission to secure and protect a human rights framework in the Arab world faces many tensions and challenges. The right to vote in free and fair elections is an established international norm, and yet recent events remind us that elected governments can and do act against this right, creating a ‘tyranny of the majority’ that does not satisfy the social movements which had fought to secure the right to free elections. Furthermore, the culture of tolerance typically associated with human rights can potentially lead to a ‘tolerance of intolerance’, allowing for groups who do not agree with mainstream public opinion to violate human rights in order to maintain their grip on state power. For example, international human rights standards demand religious freedom, yet political and religious movements and parties sometimes seek protection under this axiom while they themselves do not believe in religious freedom for all. In the name of fighting terrorism, many fundamental freedoms have been curtailed by state and non-state actors; such as freedom from torture as well as inhuman and degrading punishment, freedom of association and assembly, and freedom of expression.
We do not have all the answers to these conundrums, but we hope to position the AHRA as a fruitful platform for the much-needed dialogue that will foster viable answers to the crucial underlying question: how can we develop an Arab culture of human rights?