Author: Martha Carol
Bahey eldin Hassan, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, visited campus last Wednesday. His organization is an independent non-governmental foundation that promotes awareness for human rights worldwide. His presentation, sponsored by the DWA department, was entitled, “Searching for A Human Rights Strategy for the Arab Region.” Merging activism and intellectual work, Hassan came to Oxy attempting to educate American citizens on how they can impact the human rights situation in the Middle East.
Hassan’s presentation dealt with questions regarding debate over human rights in the Middle East, including any obligation one nation may have to intervene in another nation’s activities. His presentation questioned whether or not the idea of “human rights” is simply a Western construction used by the government to interfere internationally.
According to the Institute’s latest report, “Bastion of Impunity, Mirage of Reform,” respect for human rights in the Middle East has deteriorated in recent years. The blame for this deterioration falls partly on the United States, said Hassan. In response, Hassan’s presentation suggested that America find a new way to influence reform that would reverse these failings.
“There is no doubt the U.S. has a very poor record in terms of human rights in the Middle East,” said diplomacy and world affairs Professor Anthony Chase, who arranged for Hassan to speak on campus. “There’s a price to pay for that in terms of the United States’ long term interests.”
Hassan outlined two failed “approaches” that the United States has taken in recent history that have greatly affected the human rights situation in the region.
The first approach was steeped in Cold War efforts to contain the Soviet Union’s military ambitions in Afghanistan – and it created millions of refugees throughout Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere in Central Asia.
The U.S. government’s second approach to Middle Eastern policy that Hassan mentioned was the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq. The invasion was heavily touted as a liberation from a tyrannic leader with a history for abusing human rights. In time, however, the occupation resulted in its own human rights abuses, including Abu Ghraib torture scandal and the Haditha massacre.
It is now time, Hassan said, to pursue what he called “damage control” – a third approach for U.S. Middle Eastern policy, a policy that supports both U.S. interests and respect for human rights in the Arab world.
In addition to speaking about how U.S. policy affects human rights in the Middle East, Hassan also talked about specific instances of human rights offenses by Middle Eastern governments. The right to political dissent or criticism of the government is widely oppressed throughout the Arab world, Hassan said. He cited bloggers, who use the internet as a tool to expose injustices in their communities, as being particularly susceptible to punishment or imprisonment.
In Egypt, peaceful oppositionists are treated as suspected terrorists under the country’s emergency law, which some say enables the repression of individual freedoms. And in Iran this past summer, protesters against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection were met with violence from the government that caused 72 confirmed deaths, according to the Associated Foreign Press.
All of these instances, said Hassan, are reasons why the world needs to increase its awareness about human rights. Chase argued that the first step toward human rights reform worldwide is education and furthering the understanding of what human rights really are.
“As students, I think it’s incumbent on people to understand that human rights is not just a phrase, [but] that it’s very much about the tangible economic and political rights of peoples,” he said. “Human rights is something that is very much the subject of popular pressure and popular demands in many parts of the world, including the Middle East.”
On his national speaking tour, Hassan will visit Washington, D.C., where he will meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Hasssan is also attempting to speak with the president.
He hopes that presenting his organization’s work will persuade them to rethink how the government’s actions affect human rights in the region and worldwide.
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