Who Qualifies as a Human Rights Defender?
Three weeks ago, Emirati commentator Sultan al-Qassemi wrote a piece entitled, “UAE Political Islamists Are Not Defenders of Human Rights.” He criticized the way western NGOs and media outlets used the term “human rights defender” to describe certain jailed Islamists, most of whom were accused of being part of the United Arab Emirates’ wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qassemi spoke of a concern that many of us share: every time I see the term, I wonder how it can be so wrongly used and easily abused. There is much to say on the topic of how the media and NGOs employ the rhetoric of human rights.
Qassemi starts by showing how the UAE’s political Islamists are racist and sexist, which is easily apparent if you just follow their tweets; their tweets are often spontaneous and, so, must be somewhat reflective of their way of thinking. What also needs to be mentioned, however, is how much propaganda is directed against them from the Emirati media and in statements by state officials. The attacks on the Islamists, inside and outside of prisons, are oppressive and immoral; their families tell of denied prison visits, torture cases, and, lately, of how their bank accounts are being frozen just because they are relatives of Islamist detainees. Surely, this point is not to justify the thinking of certain political Islamists, but it is to highlight how state oppression becomes the deciding factor for NGOs on whether to include Islamists under the umbrella of human rights.
As someone that deals regularly with human rights organizations, I learned how inflexible they are in their work. Being forced to deal with stubborn regimes, NGOs often find themselves unable to speak about the violations again “regular people,” but, instead, must refer to any threatened voice as a human rights defender. I have seen how much easier it is to push NGOs to make statements about ‘activists’, as opposed to unknown protesters. NGOs feel forced to use the term ‘human rights defender’, even when the term does not fit, which has been the case, many times. If this speaks of anything, it speaks of our need to revisit a literature of criticism directed towards the discourse of ‘human rights.’ ‘Human Rights’ is ill, even in theory, as it creates a hierarchy, of who is in need of the most support, starting with political activists; that, by itself, makes it problematic and debatable.
What I find even more dangerous, is the way that NGOs in our region take it for granted that they must follow western organizations in their approaches. Local NGOs believe that, by abiding to this set of rules and established rhetoric, their work will be more relevant. They do not realize, however, the danger in following others in their dealings with particular cases. Why do we need to call an Islamist a human rights defender in order to demand his release? Why does ‘free speech’ need to be our top priority? Why do western NGOs need to, for example, call female circumcision a form of ‘torture’, to be able to criticize it? And who approved the act of including such a variety of Arab detainees under the umbrella of human rights, when our heritage consists of social, religious, and political doctrines where the ideal of justice is prevalent.
Starting this discussion is crucial; it can form a new consciousness for the way we perceive ‘human rights.’ It can, also, for the time being, alert NGOs to the need to change their policies and be more daring in criticizing state violations of any sort, without having to justify criticisms using the ‘rights’ discourse. The way ‘human rights’ has been used and overused in all of these contexts, and by passive bodies such as the United Nations, has simultaneously led to the normalization of violations and a game of finger-pointing. A reformed approach to human rights is needed.