Amnesty’s ‘Year of Rebellion’ report
- January 10, 2012
Amnesty International’s new report: The Year of Rebellion: The State of Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa is an extraordinarily moving and also salutary document, which provides a broad overview of the tumultuous events that shook the Arab world in 2011.
Reading it I was struck by various things:
1) The courage, creativity and passion with which so many mostly young people have taken on the corrupt and ossified regimes that have ruled them for so long. As Amnesty puts it
It was a year like no other, when the whole region shook as ordinary people summoned up the courage to provide a demonstration of “people”s powerâ€ such as the region had never seen before and, incredibly, to sustain it even when the might of the state and its repressive security forces were deployed against them
2) The key role played by women in the rebellions. This role is highlighted by the report in country after country. As the report points out, the strong female participation in the protests and rebellions hasn’t been reflected in the new governments/political movements that have begun to emerge in the wake of the old regimes, from which women have been largely marginalised.
Such participation is nevertheless strikingly at odds with the Western image of Arab women as passive victims of oppression – an image that was once integrated into ‘liberal interventionist’ scenarios that purported to ‘save’ Arab/Muslim women by bombing them.
3) The report also spells out with brutal clarity the sheer viciousness with which so many of the despots and dynastic rulers in the Middle East and North Africa responded to the protests and demands for change from their populations. Snipers and soldiers shooting at unarmed crowds, beatings, torture, sexual violence against women, attacks on doctors and nurses – all these methods have been used on a systematic basis in various countries in an attempt to terrorise the protesters back into their homes.
Such methods are hardly a historical novelty in the region, but never before have so many of its regimes resorted to such intense repression at the same time. Nor were these methods restricted to the more established autocracies and dictatorships. In the ‘fledgling democracy’ which the Anglo/American occupation has just bequeathed to Iraq, the Maliki government’s response followed a well-beaten path:
The 2011 protests… began in early February when tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the lack of water, electricity and other basic services, rising prices, unemployment and endemic corruption, and to demand greater civil and political rights. The various forces under the control of the authorities, including police, the military and other security forces, responded with excessive force, killing and injuring protesters. They also made frequent arrests, in many cases followed by torture. Most of those arrested were released without charge.
The repression was often directly or indirectly facilitated by the same countries that now (belatedly) chose to condemn it, according to Amnesty, since
Much of the weaponry was sold and supplied by
European countries (including the Russian Federation) and the USA and much of it should never have been authorized, given the overwhelming evidence of the substantial risk that governments in the Middle East and North Africa would use conventional arms to facilitate or commit serious human rights violations against people of their own country.
Which brings me to point 4), namely the opportunism, duplicity and cynical realpolitik of Western governments in the region, summed up by the report in the following damning terms:
As millions of people across the Middle East and North Africa showed their hunger for the freedoms and rights enjoyed in other parts of the world, many powerful governments performed political somersaults or continued to ignore human rights violations in the region as they sought to protect their own political and economic interests. Some of them abandoned autocrats that were former allies in the face of unstoppable rebellions. Others quietly helped their friends to stay in power. Some offered military help to opposition forces. Some ignored the plight of opposition movements as they were slaughtered in the streets. None took timely, effective and consistent action to protect the human rights and interests of the region”s disenfranchized people.
Indeed. And nowhere were these double standards more glaring than in Libya, where Nato intervened ostensibly to mitigate a humanitarian catastrophe, yet did little or nothing to help the tens of thousands of migrant workers in Libya displaced by the war, even when they tried to reach Europe:
At least 1,500 men, women and children are estimated to have drowned while attempting this journey. The true total was probably far higher. Governments and institutions failed to put in place effective mechanisms to prevent such deaths at sea, including by increasing search and rescue operations, and by ensuring that rescue operations comply fully with human rights and refugee law.
5) Lastly, the report reveals once again the striking disparity between the realities of the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) and the way it has so often been depicted by Western commentators. Less than a decade ago, American neocons and liberal interventionists alike routinely depicted the region as a cultural and political wasteland that had become mysteriously detached from the modern world.
In David Frum and Richard Perle’s atrocious propaganda tract An End to Evil: How to Fight the War on Terror, the entire Middle East was dismissed as a ‘fetid environment’ infested with ‘venomous vermin’ ie. terrorists.
These narratives of cultural atrophy and backwardness were politically useful constructions, which presented Western violence as the only credible cure to the disease from which the region was supposedly suffering. Thus the manipulative arch-spook and ‘terrorism expert’ Michael Ledeen once dismissed US National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft’s anxiety that war with Iraq might turn the Middle East into a ‘cauldron’ on the grounds that
One can only hope that we turn the region into a cauldron, and faster, please. If ever there were a region that richly deserved being cauldronized, it is the Middle East today.
Not all supporters of Western military adventurism in the region were as openly bloodthirsty as this, but the image of the Middle East as a politically retarded and backward region incapable of generating change from within was often invoked to justify ‘regime change’ and democracy-building wars of choice.
In 2011 the people of the Middle East and North Africa undertook their own forms of regime change, and there is no indication that the ‘war on terror’ had anything to do with their efforts. If these movements have forced Western governments to undertake the most convoluted political manouevres, the energy and dynamism unleashed by the rebellions has galvanised and inspired similar movements across the world, from Madrid and New York to London and Moscow, even in West Jerusalem.
As the Amnesty report makes clear, the process of democratisation and liberation remains incomplete and up in the air, and in many countries are being subjected to a sustained attempt to snuff these movements out.
But whatever happens over the coming years, 2011 has destroyed the dishonest, self-interested and often racist characterisations of the region and its peoples that had dominated the last decade. In doing so they have opened up a new world of hope and possibility in the ‘fetid swamp’ and provided millions of people with a vision of the future that they are unlikely to let go of anytime soon.