On Monday 29th June, BHRC and the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law held a joint seminar on the topic of human rights in the Middle East. Speaking on the panel were Dr. Vida Hamd, Policy Officer for Political and Humanitarian Affairs at the Dutch Embassy in Beirut; Schona Jolly, BHRC Executive Committee member and barrister; Sara Katrine Brandt, International Advocacy Advisor, Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance and Dr. Aitemad Muhanna-Matar, Research Fellow, Middle East Centre, London School of Economics. The event was chaired by Kirsty Brimelow QC.
Prof. Sir Jeffrey Jowell, Director of the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, with seminar panellists
Dr. Vida Hamd initiated the session by highlighting what the Arab Spring could tell us about an understanding of human rights in the region, and whether human rights were considered to be cultural or universal. She considered that enforcing universality requires sustainability. It requires texts, debate and research also to be available in Arabic so that it is accessible and in order to create a paradigm shift. She suggested that the Arab Court of Human Rights could be viewed as a breakthrough amongst a civil society that has not been able to agree an agenda.
Schona Jolly focussed her presentation on the situation in Egypt, which she described as having come full circle after the short-lived joy of the revolution to a human rights crisis that is now worse than it was under President Mubarak. She described a pervading atmosphere of fear being stoked by the current Government to give license to a severe crack down on basic rights such as the freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. The flouting of these two fundamental rights is clearly embodied, for example, in the case of the detained Al Jazeera journalists.
Sara Katrine Brandt, continued the focus on Egypt by highlighting the case of the Co-Founder and Chair of her organisation, CEWLA (Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance), Azza Soliman. Azza is currently facing charges of violation of Egypt’s protest laws for having witnessed the killing of a protestor, allegedly by the Egyptian police (see BHRC’s statement on the case). Sara also described the current clamp down on NGOs which is making it difficult for them to function. Just this month Sara’s colleague had been denied permission to leave the country to travel to an event in Europe.
Dr. Aitemad Muhanna-Matar presented findings from her research on women’s political participation in five arab countries. She described feminists in the Middle East as broadly falling into two categories: liberal feminists and islamic feminists. The former category is perceived by many to be elitist and disconnected from the needs of poor women. The second category of feminists are concerned with women’s position in the family and in the home and seek to improve women’s economic rights. Although these groups are presented as opposing, they can be complimentary and offer huge potential when the discourse is reconciled.
The presentations were followed by an engaging debate with the audience that touched on counter-terrorism and national security, the international community’s response to post-Arab Spring events and the positive steps made in Tunisia with regard to political rights.