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Amnesty International’s Annual Report for 2022/23 highlights double standards on human rights and the failure of the international community to unite around human rights and universal values.

The West’s robust response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine contrasts sharply with a deplorable lack of meaningful action on grave violations by some allies including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 75, Amnesty International insists that a rules-based international system must be founded on human rights and applied to everyone, everywhere.

Double standards and the failure of the international community to unite around consistently applied human rights have emboldened governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to double down on repression and abuse, Amnesty International said as it launched its annual report.

Amnesty International Report 2022/23: The State of the World’s Human Rights shows how the West’s robust response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine contrasted sharply with the lack of meaningful action taken against egregious violations by some of their allies in the region, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. This deliberate disregard has fuelled impunity and instability in the MENA region beset by prolonged armed conflicts, repression of basic rights and freedoms, discrimination against women and girls, and impunity for enforced disappearances, torture, unlawful killings and other crimes under international law.  

“Had the system worked to hold Russia accountable for its documented crimes in Chechnya and Syria, thousands of lives might have been saved then and now, in Ukraine and elsewhere. Instead, what we have is more suffering and devastation. If Russia’s war of aggression demonstrates anything for the world’s future, it is the importance of an effective and consistently applied rules-based international order. All States must step up their efforts for a renewed rules-based order that benefits everyone, everywhere,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.

The report highlights the failure of governments in MENA to protect the fundamental human rights of millions of people who are grappling with economic hardship, denial of civil and political rights, regional conflict and climate-induced calamities. States across the region have used global events to boost their image and paint a picture of human rights progress, with Egypt’s hosting of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) and Saudi Arabia holding cultural and sports events as notable examples.

“Instead of addressing their people’s growing demands for economic and social justice and for the political space to express their demands online or offline, MENA governments doubled down on closing spaces for dissent and prioritized investing in glitzy public relations campaigns and international events to paint a façade of progress and reform,” said Heba Morayef, Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

Ruthless repression of dissent

Authorities across MENA continued to silence critics, crush protests and restrict freedom of expression, including through repressive legislation and the use of unlawful lethal force and mass arrests.

In Iran, the death of Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa (Zhina) Amini in custody on 16 September sparked a nationwide uprising against decades of repression. Her death came amid credible reports of torture and other ill-treatment three days after being violently arrested by Iran’s so-called “morality” police who routinely subject women and girls to arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other ill-treatment for not complying with the country’s discriminatory and abusive veiling laws.

Emboldened by decades of impunity, the Iranian authorities responded to the unprecedented popular uprising by extensively and unlawfully firing live ammunition, metal pellets and teargas, unlawfully killing hundreds, including at least 44 children. Authorities acknowledged arresting above 22,000 people in connection to protests, while those swept up in the wave of mass arrests, including children, were subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, unjust prosecutions, enforced disappearances and unfair trials. Two young men were arbitrarily executed in connection to the protests. The authorities also shut down or disrupted internet and mobile phone networks and blocked and/or filtered WhatsApp and Instagram platforms.

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In Tunisia, President Kais Said deepened his assault on rights protections and solidified his 2021 power grab with repressive legislative acts, as well as a new constitution that concentrated authority in the hands of the executive. The Tunisian authorities targeted high-profile critics and perceived enemies of the president with prosecutions, arbitrary detentions and travel bans.

Across the region, governments tightened legislative restrictions on freedom of expression and took action to silence dissenting voices. Saudi Arabia sentenced at least 15 people in 2022 to prison terms ranging between 10 and 45 years simply for their peaceful online activities using vague and overbroad terrorism and cybercrime provisions. In Yemen, the Huthi de facto authorities shuttered at least six radio stations in the capital and continued to imprison at least eight journalists, with four facing death sentences. In Morocco, human rights defender Saida Alami was sentenced to three years in jail for her social media posts denouncing the repression of journalists and activists.

In Syria, a newly-introduced cybercrime law imposed lengthy prison sentences for online criticism of the authorities or constitution. Elsewhere, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) passed a law criminalizing anyone who “mocks, insults, or damages the reputation, prestige or standing of the state” or “its founding leaders.”

Women bear brunt as states fail to protect and respect rights

Women and girls were at the forefront of protests in Iran, challenging decades of gender-based discrimination and violence and defying the abusive compulsory veiling laws. The slogan “Woman. Life. Freedom.” reverberated across Iran, inspiring millions in the region and across the world. 

Nevertheless, inconsistent approaches to human rights continued to have a stark impact on women and girls in the region. Women in MENA continued to face institutionalized discrimination and rampant gender-based violence, such as “honour killings” and femicides, usually committed with impunity. Instead of addressing gender-based violence, authorities in Egypt, Iraq and Yemen prosecuted and otherwise harassed survivors and/or women’s rights defenders.

Yemeni women were banned from travelling without a male guardian or permission from the Huthi de facto authorities. The impact of these discriminatory practices, which are not part of Yemeni law, was far-reaching, hindering women and girls’ access to healthcare and reproductive rights as Yemeni women humanitarian workers increasingly struggled to conduct fieldwork in Huthi-controlled areas.

Some states made modest gains in addressing gender inequality. Morocco ratified the Optional Protocol to CEDAW, Jordan declared men and women equal before the law and Kuwait implemented measures to increase women’s representation in public employment and leadership. Oman established a domestic violence hotline yet failed to provide shelters or pass legislation defining domestic violence.

In March 2022, Saudi Arabia introduced its first personal status law, which the authorities touted as a major victory for women’s rights. Yet, in reality, the law perpetuates the male guardianship system, fails to protect women from domestic violence, and codifies gender-based discrimination in marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance.

“Women and girls in the MENA region face relentless efforts to dominate and subjugate them, yet they continue to valiantly fight for their rights as we have seen in Iran. Women have risked their lives to confront entrenched violence and discrimination and demand equality. Governments across the region need to finally start listening to these demands,” said Heba Morayef.

Inadequate international responses to MENA rights crises

Governments in the MENA region benefitted from the disinterest of many Western governments in addressing human rights as part of their foreign policy towards the region. 

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For Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, including occupied East Jerusalem, 2022 was one of the deadliest years since the UN began systematically recording casualties in 2006, with at least 151 people, including dozens of children, killed by Israeli forces. Israeli authorities continued to force Palestinians from their homes, and the government is rolling out plans to drastically expand illegal settlements across the occupied West Bank. Yet, instead of demanding an end to Israel’s system of apartheid, many Western governments gave muted or inadequate responses, turning a blind eye to the attacks and raids Palestinians are enduring.

The international community also failed to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its abysmal human rights record. Despite a Biden campaign promise to pursue accountability for the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was a US resident, and a US intelligence report which found that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for approving the murder, Biden travelled to Saudi Arabia to meet with the crown prince in July 2022. In November 2022, the Biden administration made a legal submission calling on a US court to grant Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman immunity from a lawsuit filed by Khashoggi’s fiancée in a further betrayal of human rights.

The international community’s response to the human rights crisis in Egypt has been wholly inadequate. The authorities arbitrarily arrested hundreds of people in the run-up to the COP27 climate talks merely because they were suspected of calling for peaceful protests during the high-profile event in November 2022. The fate of prominent activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, who refused water on 6 November after being on hunger strike since April 2022, was publicly and frequently raised by multiple leaders during COP27, but did not translate into meaningful action to secure his release or that of thousands of others detained arbitrarily in horrid and punitive conditions. 

“Raising human rights concerns inconsistently undermines the message, since that inconsistency indicates a lack of commitment. The West’s selective condemnation of human rights violations has bolstered Israel’s continued disregard for the human rights of Palestinians, while enabling Egypt and Saudi Arabia to deflect legitimate criticism of their own rights records. Human rights law cannot be applied on a case-by-case basis,” said Heba Morayef.

Shameless double standards and racism

Double standards by the West were also on blatant display in the way many EU countries and the USA kept their borders closed to those escaping war and repression in Syria and Libya, among other countries, but opened their doors to Ukrainians fleeing Russian aggression.

Within days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU activated the “Temporary Protection Directive” (TPD) for the first time, providing immediate protection to displaced Ukrainians and some others fleeing Russian aggression. In doing so it demonstrated that it is more than capable of receiving large numbers of people seeking safety and providing them with quick access to accommodation, the labour market and education. 

However, people arriving at Europe’s borders seeking protection, and in particular racialized people who fled Syria, Afghanistan, and sub-Saharan Africa, continued to face racism and be subjected to torture and other ill-treatment and violent rejection at the borders. Their protection needs or individual circumstances were often not even examined. In June, 37 sub-Saharan African people were killed and 77 others remain missing following the deadly actions of Spanish and Moroccan security officials on the border of Spain’s Melilla exclave. 

Zacharias, 22, from Chad, told Amnesty International: “Moroccan and Spanish security forces were throwing everything at us, gas bombs, stones, rubber bullets, rubber balls…We couldn’t see anything and it was difficult to breathe.”

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Thousands of people were summarily returned from Bulgaria and Greece to Türkiye; from Türkiye to Iran and Syria; from Cyprus to Lebanon; from Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina; from Hungary to Serbia; and from Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to Belarus. Those who managed to reach EU territory were arbitrarily detained, including for long periods, or unlawfully returned, often violently. After crossing the borders into Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, they were again subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. 

People attempting to reach European shores by boat were often intercepted by the EU-funded Libyan Coast Guard and brought back to Libya, only to be systematically subjected to prolonged arbitrary detention in appalling conditions and exposed to torture including rape, arbitrary killings, enforced disappearances, forced labour and exploitation.

“European nations have demonstrated that they know what they must do in response to people seeking international protection and, crucially, that they can do it. While Ukrainian refugees were welcomed with open arms in Europe and other countries, people seeking refuge from MENA were subjected to arbitrary detention, refoulement and mass expulsions. The EU consciously funded the Libyan coastguards to intercept refugees and migrants and detain them indefinitely in horrid conditions,” said Heba Morayef.

Weakened international institutions

Double standards and inconsistencies also lead to undermining the faith of people in the region in international institutions and human rights mechanisms, at a time when they are ever more critical given the absence of domestic avenues for accountability.  

In Syria, despite credible evidence that the Syrian government and armed opposition groups continue to commit atrocities, including unlawful attacks on civilians, arbitrary arrests and torture, international mechanisms have failed to hold those responsible to account. Russia has not only used its veto power at the UN Security Council to shield the Syrian government from scrutiny, but also to severely limit the humanitarian assistance the UN can provide to the over 4 million people living in opposition-controlled areas in northern Syria. However, some countries, such as Germany and France, are investigating and prosecuting those suspected of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria in their national courts under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

In Lebanon, the UN Human Rights Council once again failed to heed the calls for an international investigation into the deadly Beirut port blast from victims’ families, survivors and civil society. But there was a flicker of hope when at least 38 states signed a joint statement at the 52nd session of the Human Rights Council on 7 March calling on the Lebanese authorities to ensure a swift, independent, and credible investigation into the explosion.  

In November, the UN Human Rights Council established a fact-finding mission to investigate human rights violations relating to the protests that erupted on 16 September, in a welcome but long overdue step. Amnesty International has been working towards the establishment of an international investigative and accountability mechanism on Iran for years, and has long argued that the crisis of systematic impunity in Iran fuels crimes under international law.

“From Syria to Lebanon and Israel to Yemen, ordinary people paid the price for weakened international institutions and systems. Amnesty International is calling for UN human rights mechanisms to be fully funded, so that accountability and investigations can be pursued and for countries to cooperate with international investigative mechanisms and not seek to undermine them. It is vital that international institutions and systems that are meant to protect our rights are strengthened rather than undermined,” said Heba Morayef.

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Amnesty International.