Human Rights Watch urged world powers to support the rights of Arab Spring protesters to build real democracies after they ousted long-time strongmen once backed by the West, in its annual report on Sunday.
“Many democracies have allowed their ties with repressive allies to temper their support for human rights in the Arab Spring protests,” HRW said in its report, launched in Cairo just three days before the anniversary of the revolt that toppled president Hosni Mubarak.
“Time to abandon the autocrats and embrace rights,” says executive director Kenneth Roth.
“The people driving the Arab Spring deserve strong international support to realise their rights and to build genuine democracies. Loyalty to autocratic friends shouldn’t stand in the way of siding with democratic reformers.”
The 676-page report reviews human rights practices around the globe, with summaries of conditions in more than 90 countries and territories based on probes carried out by HRW staff from 2011.
Last year, the Arab Spring toppled strongmen in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and paved the way for the removal of Yemen’s president, while pro-democracy protests in Syria continue to meet with a deadly regime crackdown.
Those events that captured the world’s attention are at the core of the report which also documents rights abuses in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, China, Iran, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
The report also underscores a positive development in 2011 with the adoption of International Labour Organisation Convention 189 to protect the rights of domestic workers, a vast majority of whom are women and girls, against abuse.
“The convention did not topple any dictators but it radically changes how domestic workers … and their work inside the home are valued, recognised and protected,” the report says.
But it is the Arab Spring and the international response to it that is the focus of the report, with Roth saying “the West is still adjusting to this historic transformation.”
For HRW, “Western policy towards Arab countries traditionally has been one of containment, backing an array of Arab autocrats to guarantee ‘stability’ in the region even as democracy spread in other parts of the world.”
The New York-based watchdog says the “reasons so many democratic governments make an ‘Arab exception’ include fear of political Islam and terrorism, the need to keep oil supplies flowing and a longstanding policy of reliance on autocracies to maintain Arab Israeli peace and to help stifle migration to Europe.”
Roth says “it is time to end the ‘Arab exception’ and recognise that the people of the region deserve respect for their rights and freedoms as much as anyone else.”
HRW notes that tremors from the Arab Spring have been felt around the globe amid expectations that people in countries such as China, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Ethiopia, Vietnam and Uzbekistan could rise against their rulers.
Leaders in those countries “seem to be living in fear of the precedent of people ousting their autocratic governments.”
The watchdog also lamented “democracies” such as India, Brazil and South Africa who “have been reluctant to support change” and nations such as China and Russia who “have been even more obstructionist.”
It pointed to Russia and China, who vetoed draft resolutions at the UN Security Council aimed at stopping bloodshed in Syria, where the UN estimates that more than 5,400 people have been killed in the crackdown on dissent.
The Arab Spring saw once-banned Islamists groups rise on the political scene.
HRW says the international community “should recognise that political Islam may represent a majority preference” while at the same time “insist that Islamist governments abide by international human rights obligations, particularly with respect to women’s rights and religious freedom.”
It also notes that transitional governments in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt “need help revising their repressive laws and building the government institutions that autocrats deliberately left weak and underdeveloped.”
“Rights-respecting governments should support international justice regardless of political considerations,” says Roth.
“It’s misguided to believe that allowing countries to sweep past abuse under the rug will somehow avoid encouraging future atrocities,” he added.