Today, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace held a panel discussion of the progress made by the Obama Administration of addressing human rights in Arab countries. The panel, “Human Rights and Obama’s Policies in the Arab World,” demonstrated a consensus in favor of focusing on reform driven from within each nation versus external intervention and regime change, albeit revealing a disconnection between Washington and the Middle East regarding the effectiveness of government-based reforms.
The panelists each addressed human rights abuses that continue to occur in recent years, with a particular focus on Egypt and Yemen. The diverse audience was reminded of the recently arrested Egyptian bloggers, the police brutality against Khalid Said from an internet café, the torture of Egyptian woman Mona Thabet, the Kuwaiti man who was jailed for criticizing the Amir, and Yemen’s security challenges and lack of dialogue and equal opportunity. Secretary Michael Posner of the Human Rights bureau at the Department of State, highlighted the significance of joining the United Nations Human Rights Council, as it promotes a universal standard on human rights, and end to torture, and a commitment to helping societies from within. Additionally, Secretary Tamara Wittes of the Near Eastern Affairs bureau spoke of working with the Yemeni government to eliminate police brutality as well working with NGOs to develop a more meritocratic system less based on tribe and patronage and more based on the empowerment of local youth and adults.
Although the panelists from the region generally agreed with the long term goals of the Washington panelists, both Bahey el din Hassan of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights and Amal Basha of the Yemeni Embassy agreed that a large gap exists between what is written on paper in an agreement between the US and any Middle Eastern nation, and what actually occurs in reality. Firstly, the negative US contributions have taken a toll on credibility in the Middle East, even under the Obama administration. Hassan cited the current administration’s failure to investigate Israeli crimes in Gaza despite opposing continued Israeli settlements, and Basha mentioned American unconditional support to the Yemeni government in power. Both policies are examples that are perceived as negative by the resident population. Another point made by Basha was the fact that Yemen has five different institutions of “Security”, yet ongoing human rights violations and denial of the right of assembly have led citizens to feel less secure. Overall, the support for the Obama administration’s more locally-driven methods of engaging the people of the Arab world was unanimous, but skepticism remains regarding agreements made between governments.
Written by Safadi USA Intern Helen Burns
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