All Writings
May 11, 1989

The Middle East: A Human Rights Tragedy

The avowal of human rights as a political, religious, and moral philosophy, and as an ideal that governs the relationship between groups and individuals, has had a long and mixed history. It includes the history of those who championed human rights at all costs and of those whose "disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind."

From biblical times to December 10, 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, quoted above, was finally adopted by the United Nations, the struggle for human rights has involved people of all races and creeds. Although there is much cause to rejoice in the fact that a universal code on human rights was finally promulgated, the differences between moral right and legal right, between individual right and group right, and, certainly, between rights derived from social and political experiences and inherent right, will continue to be debated for years to come.

In most Middle Eastern countries, where social discord and economic dislocation persist, where lack of political maturity is pervasive and religious fanaticism is egregious, flagrant human rights abuses exist in abundance. Granted the legal imperfections of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the fact that it is ignored by many nations, the document, nevertheless, remains a milestone in the recognition of human rights as a foundation of social existence. The Declaration offers a universal moral standard against which regimes, organizations, and individuals can measure the way people are treated by their governments.

During the past 200 years, indiscriminate acts of terror, persecution, and abuse, in the end, have resulted in massive human destruction hitherto unknown to mankind. As a norm of behavior and as a moral tenet for human existence, human rights must guide the relationship not only between the government and the governed, but also relationships among social and political groups and among individuals. Why do the vast majority of countries in the Middle East and North Africa continue to violate human rights? How do these abuses contribute to the cycle of social and political instability? In what way is a resolution of inter- and intra-state conflict a prerequisite to reducing human rights violations? What can be done to influence governments and political factions to adhere to human rights principles and help foster that respect for human life and rights which is the basis for peaceful existence?

To the extent that their authority was not challenged and Islam was the dominant religion, Arab-Moslem states demonstrated guarded religious tolerance. Judaism and Christianity, from which a considerable portion of the Koran's teachings were historically derived, were not only tolerated but often flourished under Moslem rule. Yet, religious fanaticism remains the hallmark of a significant part of the Islamic world. Even the relationship between Islam's two major sects, Shiite and Sunni, traces a long history of violent rivalry. The rise of modern Islamic fundamentalism in Libya and Iran, and the growing fundamentalist movements in many Arab countries have introduced not only a major disruptive element into Middle East political equations, but in fact, have challenged the political foundations of most Arab countries.

The Arab League meeting in Amman, Jordan, in November 1987, focused primarily on the Iran-Iraq war. An Iranian victory in the Gulf war could have endangered the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, encouraged the fundamentalists in every Arab country, seriously threatening their sovereignty. For this reason, the Arab League saw Iran, not Israel, as the main threat to Arab security. Although the specific territorial dispute between Iran and Iraq can be traced back many decades before the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iraq's fear of Iran's fundamentalist "revolution" provided the catalyst for its invasion of Iran 10 years ago.

Human rights violations precipitated by religious intolerance have become commonplace in both Iraq and Iran. The proponents of fundamentalism in Iraq and the opponents in Iran were seen as enemies of the state. Religious fervor provided the motivation for frequent and gruesome human rights abuses in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states.

Many other Arab states, such as Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria, routinely detain and persecute fundamentalist fanatics to stifle the growth of fundamentalist movements. In Iran, for example, the Khomeini regime detained thousands of actual or suspected opponents for months without trial and summarily executed hundreds of detainees. According to the 1988 Amnesty International report, torture "remained widespread and thousands of people were subjected to lashings and other judicial punishments which constitute torture and cruelty." Prisoners who were sentenced to death had no right to appeal to a higher court as required by the international covenant on civil and political rights.

In Libya, hundreds (possibly thousands) of people have been detained since 1969. Thousands are systematically tortured and many have been executed secretly. Those who were condemned and executed in front of a Libyan television camera presumably were charged with crimes against the state or were hard-core criminals – murderers or drug dealers.

Although religious rivalry and intolerance is nothing new in the Middle East, the rise of Moslem fundamentalism has refocused the attention of many Arab governments on the main danger to their sovereignty. The fundamentalists almost invariably argue that the existing regimes are illegitimate by Islamic criteria, that they are corrupt, and that more, rather than less, enforced orthodoxy is the needed political path. Given the trend to religious moderation and political secularism in most Arab states, a drastic turn toward political-religious fundamentalism in any of them would mean not only increased internal strife, but increased violations of basic human rights.

It may be decades before many of the Arab-Moslem states learn to separate church and state and thereby legally enshrine religious tolerance (even though the majority of the population continues to adhere to Islam). However, to the extent that certain Mideast countries, such as Iran and Libya, are bent on exporting their brand of religious and/or political ideology, the abuses of human rights within those states will persist. Moreover, they remain a constant threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of neighboring states.

The overreaction by Moslems in many countries to the publication of The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie shows the extent of fanaticism and religious intolerance in these nations. Although the book may be offensive to Islam, the death sentence passed on the author by the Ayatollah Khomeini is vastly more offensive to civilized people, Moslem or not. Rushdie's basic right to life and freedom has been challenged, and already several score of people have died in the violence created by the Ayatollah's edict. Whether or not Khomeini's actions were motivated by internal conditions in Iran is hardly relevant; the fact remains that the climate for religious fanaticism existed and could be twisted to the Ayatollah's purposes.

Factionalism and the rivalry for power and influence add another dimension to the flagrant abuse of human rights in the Middle East. For a variety of religious and other cultural reasons, most people in the Middle East and North Africa are more loyal to their own families, clans, tribes, or social organizations than to the state. The central government's authority is usually strongest in urban centers.

The majority of the people who live in rural areas have a lifestyle and habits dramatically different from their counterparts in the big cities. Family and group interests come first, and, as a rule, disputes between families are settled (or the attempt is made to settle them) on the group level. However, conflicting ideologies which are difficult to mitigate, often tend to move even the simplest disputes toward violence. To illustrate the human rights abuses perpetuated by rival groups, a brief look at the situation in Lebanon can clarify the picture. The strife in Lebanon is directly related to the demographic imbalance between Moslems and Christians. What was once a relatively equitable political system in which Arabs and Christians snared power no longer exists. Lebanon's informal "National Pact" of 1943, on which the country's system of confessional power-sharing rested, allowed for adjustments in the formulas that fixed the relationships between political power and the country's demographic composition.

After 1970-71, the influx of Palestinians from Jordan tipped the demographic balance in favor of the Moslems, but without correspondingly increasing their political power. The Lebanese civil war, fought at the early stages (in 1975-76) between Arabs and Christians, now has changed considerably in character. More than a dozen factions now compete for political power and territorial control. In addition, of course, there is the massive Syrian military presence with more than 30,000 men, mainly in the north and center of the country.

Of the warring factions, the Amal, a mainly Shi'a militia, controls part of the suburb south of Beirut and areas in south Lebanon around Tyre and Sidon. The Progressive Socialist Party, a Druze militia, controls the Shuf mountains south and southeast of Beirut. The Lebanese Forces, a mainly Christian militia, controls east Beirut and the area north of the capital. The South Lebanese Army, also a Christian militia, controls an area some 80 kilometers long and 20 kilometers wide around the southern border and is assisted by Israeli peace forces. In addition, there are other groups, Palestinian and pro-Iranian, that control pockets of territory, including the Abu Nidal group and the Party of God (Hezbollah), and the PLO. Together they have created a political climate in Lebanon in which human rights abuses have become commonplace. Although all factions understand the need to find an equitable formula for peaceful existence, most efforts to find one have been abortive.

When "peaceful accords" are reached they are fragile at best, and remain in force just long enough to give the combatants a respite to regroup for the next fight. Thus, the attempt to free Lebanon from an inequitable political system plunged it into a civil war that already has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people and destroyed a country once considered the jewel of the Middle East.

Sources in Israeli intelligence who closely monitor the developments in Lebanon report that the extent of human rights abuse is beyond belief. Amal (led by the government's "justice minister", no less) has committed more atrocities against Palestinians than any other faction, including the Syrians. The extent of the torture and summary executions of hundreds of people puts Amal at the top of the list of the bloodthirsty Lebanese organizations operating by the law of the jungle. Although Amal is known for its cruelty and ruthlessness, all groups are guilty of kidnapping and forced detention. Many of those detained are summarily executed. Torture in which extremely cruel methods are used to extract information is common. Amnesty International in its 1988 report stated that

detainees were often held for several months in detention centers … the whereabouts of many detainees were unknown … methods of torture repeatedly used by Amal included beatings on the back and shoulders and soles of the feet with sticks and gun butts. Sometimes while the victim is suspended from a car tire or winch, electric shocks or cigarette burns on sensitive parts of the body …

Lebanon provides another vivid example of massive human rights violations committed by rival factions competing for political power. So long as Lebanon continues to disintegrate politically, continued turmoil and widespread human rights abuses will inevitably persist.

When acting under the guise of protecting their national security, every country in the Middle East is guilty of serious human rights violations. The fact is that most governments of Arab countries can claim neither legitimate succession to political power nor a democratic form of government that tolerates opposition and maintains some measure of institutional restraints on the exercise of power.

As a result, while governments in power commit human rights abuses to "protect" their grip on power, successor regimes that assume power through a military coup or "revolution" (Syria, Iraq, Libya, Iran) often follow suit by punishing or persecuting those they replace as well as any new "opponents" that appear on the scene. The frequent result is the detention of thousands of people, summary executions, torture, intimidation, and public humiliation. Often family members of the accused, including women and children, are detained for indefinite periods of time or even executed to force confessions or extract information.

A recent example of the persecution of former government officials by a successor government is the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen. Here, following the coup of 1986, 137 persons were put on trial, including the former Yemeni head of state, AH Naser Mohammed. Of the 94 defendants on trial, 16 were sentenced to death.

In Iraq, thousands of political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, have been arbitrarily arrested and held incommunicado for weeks or months. Many of them are summarily tried and either executed or sentenced to long jail sentences. Among those incarcerated were many children and women, relatives of suspected political opponents sought by the authorities. According to a report by Israeli intelligence, Jordan committed politically motivated arrests and detained Palestinian and Jordanian suspects for months, and in some cases, for years. Some of these individuals are held incommunicado, in solitary confinement for very long periods. In Saudi Arabia at least 54 people were executed in 1988, many of them suspected political opponents. There were many reports of torture and of sentences of flogging imposed.

Syria possibly ranks at the top of the list of Middle East countries that systematically violate the human rights of those it suspects of political opposition. Amnesty International reports in its 1988 account that during 1987, thousands of political prisoners were detained under emergency legislation in force continuously since 1963. Torture and ill-treatment of prisoners was widely reported and appears to be routine. Summary executions, the "disappearance" of political prisoners and the arbitrary killing of civilians by Syrian forces is common.

Since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, Israel has detained numerous Palestinians who opposed Israeli rule in the occupied territories, for security reasons and to gather information. As a result of the uprising, however, Israel detained several thousand Palestinians without trial. The U.S. State Department reported that scores of detainees were subjected to torture and beatings resulting at times in severe injuries.

Although Israel justifies its actions on the basis of security and civil order, the detention of thousands of individuals without trial for weeks, and sometimes for several months, represents, by Israeli standards, a fundamental lack of due process. As Jerome Shestack, president of the International League For Human Rights said: "The right to a prompt, fair trial in which one faces one's accusers should be considered a fundamental right for every one, including terrorists."

In evaluating human rights, one has to have a standard by which to measure violations. While the Universal Declaration on Human Rights offered a guide applicable in peacetime, the standards that would be applied in times of armed conflict or belligerent occupation are far more complex and limited. To illustrate the difficulties in dealing with liberation movements, the inadvertant human rights violations in Iraq and Israel provide good opposing examples. Efforts to suppress the liberation movements have also produced entirely different results.

The Kurdish Liberation Movement had been in existence many years before Iraq became independent in the mid-1940's. The Kurds have a language, culture, and tradition distinctly different from the rest of Iraq. Immediately after World War I, and certainly since Iraq was established, they have demanded the right of self-determination to reestablish an independent state of Kurdistan, possibly with Kurds from neighboring states of Turkey, the Soviet Union, Syria, and Iran. (The first Kurdish Republic was established in 1946 with the help of the Soviet Union and only lasted a little over 11 months.)

The "Kurdish liberation movement" was given expression by several Kurdish political parties including the Kurdish Democratic Party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Socialist Party, and the Kurdistan Popular Democratic Party. The Iraqi government outlawed these parties and has systematically persecuted supporters of the liberation movement, inflicting incredible human and material losses on the Kurdish population. Since the end of the Iran-Iraq war, thousands of Kurds have been imprisoned and many hundreds were summarily executed. Amnesty International's 1988 report stated that "political prisoners were reported to have been tortured shortly before being executed."

For example, the bodies of 29 youths reportedly executed without trial in early January were returned to their families bearing marks of torture. They had been among 300 Kurdish children and young people arrested in Sulaimaniya in 1985. Some were said to have had their eyes gouged out. The fate of 250 children and young people from this group remained unknown following their "disappearance." Internal divisions within the Kurdish movement and the changing political climate, including the lack of support by neighboring states and the cessation of hostilities between Iran and Iraq, gave Iraq the opportunity to suppress the Kurdish movement. Late in 1988, the Iraqi army and air force committed a series of atrocities against Kurdish civilians: entire villages were virtually wiped out by poison gas, and those who survived the gas were executed, including women, children, and the elderly. Iraq has always vehemently opposed the creation of an independent Kurdish state or even of an autonomous Kurdish region. As long as Iraq insists that Kurdistan is an integral part of Iraq and as long as the Kurds insist on secession from Iraq, the Kurdish revolt will continue, and with it, the massive human rights violations that have characterized Iraqi (and Iranian) attempts to suppress it.

The Palestinian national movement must be seen and judged differently from the Kurdish rebellion. The case of the Palestinians presents a wholly distinct situation: that of the occupied territories and the question of "belligerent occupation" as defined at the Hague Conferences in 1899 and 1907.

Although Israel voluntarily abides by the Hague regulations and the subsequent (1927) Geneva Convention, it views itself as a trustee rather than an occupying power. Therefore, Israel argues, the Hague and Geneva rules do not apply. (It should be added that only Israel has taken this position. Not even its closest ally, the United States, agrees with it.) At any event, the two most disputed human rights issues are prolonged detention without trial and the expulsion of Palestinians.

Israel argues that since the country has been the target of repeated terrorist activities and in a state of war with its neighbors throughout its existence, it became necessary to adopt security measures which unfortunately resulted in some human rights violations. However, the relatively minor violations that took place prior to the Palestinian uprising in December 1987, have sharply increased and at times, have reached alarming proportions. By the end of 1988, an estimated several thousand Palestinians were detained under the rule of administrative detention. Since December 1987, Israel has tried to suppress the uprising by resorting to a variety of control measures, some admittedly very harsh. However, the death of nearly 500 Palestinians and 21 Israelis and the tremendous loss of human and material resources were still considered preferable to a massacre of Palestinians, which (for some) might have been the only way to put down the uprising for good. All this is not to say that Israel's "benevolent" approach and the human rights abuses that have resulted from it can, or should, be overlooked.

Another human rights violation was the expulsion of Palestinians convicted of inciting riots and violence. Although Israel has a responsibility to maintain the peace in order to protect the lives and safety of its citizens, the expulsion of those found guilty of inciting violence raises serious moral and political questions. Legally, the Israeli case appears weak, at best, and at worst, self-defeating. What law could conceivably justify the expulsion of a native from his homeland? And even if it were lawful, does that make it just? There are other forms of severe punishment that Israeli authorities could employ, including long jail terms.

The Palestinians, too, have committed repeated human rights violations against Israelis. Terrorist activities have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocent people. Acts such as stone throwing, the use of Molotov cocktails, and incitement to violence all undermine the human rights of both Jews and Palestinians.

Although it is unrealistic to think that human rights abuses will cease one day, the superpowers and the major countries of East and West Europe must make a concerted effort to work toward curtailing, even eliminating, the worst violations of human rights. What must be addressed here is not simply human rights abuses as another sad phenomenon that must be stopped, but those factors that precipitate such abuses – the question of what can be done to cure the malaise itself.

The U.S., joined by the Soviet Union, has already shown a willingness to cooperate in resolving many of the remaining conflicts around the globe that are the cause of massive human rights violations, as demonstrated by their efforts in Afghanistan and the Iran-Iraq war. Now they must address the Lebanese tragedy, the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, the Kurdish-Iraq conflict, the Nicaraguan civil war, and scores of other troubled spots that have taken such a heavy toll in human and material resources and still threaten regional stability and even superpower confrontation.

Moreover, the U.S. and Soviet Union should work together toward strengthening the hand of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, an organization which, thus far, has been dominated and manipulated by nations who have themselves been guilty of gross violations. It should no longer be permissible for U.N. member-states that abuse human rights to determine the actions of the Commission. As Walter Laqueur has written: "A new unholy alliance has come into being at the U.N., one that has a vested interest in the denial, not the promotion of human rights and one that shows a great deal of solidarity in pursuit of that interest."

That said, it must be recognized that human rights violations will continue to be committed, be it for reasons of religious intolerance, opposition to liberation movements, revenge or retribution, or because there are still many countries that have not developed political systems that tolerate opposition and grant freedom as an inherent human right. For this reason there must be a concerted effort by all governments, international agencies, and private organizations that take this critically important issue to heart–an issue that not only affects the quality of life in countries where human rights abuses are committed, but the security and well-being of the entire international community.