"Violence does not and cannot exist by itself; it is invariably intertwined with the lie."
Arab countries attack Israel on trumped-up charges of human rights violations to cover up their own systemic human rights violations. Not only does the Arab world ignore the rule of international human rights law, many of its violations – from sanctioning honor killings of women to cross-amputations for criminals – are enshrined in the legal system of most Muslim countries. Palestinian self-rule is no different.1
In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was the first document considered to hold universal principles of behavior that was agreed upon by an international body. It recognized the fundamental rights of every person to life, liberty, and security; to freedom of speech, religion, and education; and to the right of freedom from torture and degrading treatment. Forty-five years later at the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, 171 countries reiterated the universality, indivisibility, and interdependence of human rights.
Most Arab countries have constitutions that champion human rights on paper. They also have signed a number of joint declarations of high principles: The 1981 Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the Islamic Council,2 the 1994 draft of the Arab Charter on Human Rights approved by the Arab League,3 the 1999 Casablanca Declaration that purported to establish an Arab Human Rights Movement,4 and the 1999 Beirut Declaration touted as the First Arab Conference on Justice.5 Yet despite the documents’ lofty principles, the record shows the Arab world is one of the worst offenders in the field of human rights.
In its 2001 report, Amnesty International found:
“[g]ross human rights violations took place throughout much of the Middle East and North Africa. They ranged from extra judicial executions to widespread use of torture and unfair trials, harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders. Freedom of expression and association continued to be curtailed; the climate of impunity remained and the victims were still awaiting steps to bring those responsible for past human rights violations to justice.”6
In Algeria, for instance, the report cites that more than 2,500 people were killed in 2001 in “individual attacks, massacres, bomb explosions and armed confrontations, and hundreds of civilians killed by armed groups.”
In Iraq, dozens of women accused of prostitution were beheaded without any judicial process, as was a woman obstetrician who actually was silenced for being critical of corruption in the health system. Iran reported 75 executions, and Saudi Arabia recorded 34 amputations as punishment.
By contrast, most of Amnesty’s report on Israel focused on unwarranted or “excessive use of force” that led to casualties among Palestinians in response to “political violence.” It also criticized Israel for arrest, detention, and trial procedures against Palestinians.
Despite Amnesty’s criticism of Israel, what is most revealing is how the Arab world responds not to its own human rights violations, but to Israel’s. Arab leaders go out of their way to exaggerate and spread lies about Israel’s behavior, not only to demonize Israel, but also to create a smoke screen that covers up Arab nations’ own deplorable human rights record.
It is a profound irony that the Arab world, which charges Israel with “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide,” destroyed once-thriving Jewish communities in Arab lands, which today are all but void of Jews. Even in areas of the West Bank and Gaza administered by the Palestinian Authority, Israeli Jews who visit there put their lives in jeopardy.7 That picture contrasts sharply from the status of the more than one million Israeli Arabs who enjoy full citizenship and human rights, and can visit and work in Jewish cities unmolested. Nevertheless, Arab and Palestinian charges against Israel persist. Among them are claims that Israeli security procedures such as roadblocks, closures, and searches established to fight terrorism purposely humiliate Palestinians.
The purpose of the smear campaign is not only to criminalize the State of Israel and the Jewish people, but also to attract additional sympathizers from the Western world. Yet those fallacious and often rabidly antisemitic diatribes are also designed to deflect attention away from the deeds of the accusers, and serve to protect genuine abusers of human rights both in the Arab world and elsewhere. Tit-for-tat arrangements among genuinely guilty nations have turned the UN’s human rights apparatus into what one critic labeled “an abusers’ caucus.”8
In fact, independent monitoring bodies in the West say that Israel is the only genuine democracy in the Middle East with separation of powers, due process, and respect for minority rights. And it is the only country in the North Africa and West Asia region that was ranked free in a survey of religious freedom conducted by the Center for Religious Freedom.9
By contrast, human rights violations throughout the Arab world are a daily affair, using any objective yardstick.
The absence of basic human rights is reflected not only in the actions of regimes, but also in their social values and attitudes, which are rife with intolerance for the Other. The Arab Middle East suffers from intolerance toward non-Muslims, suppression of ethnic minorities, gross gender bias, and discrimination and persecution of people who are different in virtually every realm of life – from political views to sexual orientation.
Incredibly, suppression of freedom of expression can extend even to the reporting of public opinion. Two Iranian pollsters were sentenced to eight - and nine - year prison terms after their survey found strong public support for contact with the United States. Authorities accused the two of selling secrets to groups linked to the CIA. Among the groups cited was the Gallup organization, which had paid for the poll to find out opinions of people in the Islamic world toward America after the September 11th attacks.10
Possibly the greatest threat from outside the Arab world, and perhaps rightly so, is the Internet. That is why many Arab nations have employed methods for restricting the flow of information from the Web.11 Proxy servers filter access to content in Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the Saudi government-controlled server banned at least 400,000 Websites, including sites about religion, politics, women, health, pop culture and more, a Harvard study found.12 Many Arab governments read their citizens’ e-mail, just as they tap phones and restrict free speech. One Bahraini spent over a year in jail for e-mailing allegedly political information to dissidents abroad. In Jordan, taxation and monthly Internet fees are priced so high – $70 a month for moderate usage – that only an estimated 20,000 Jordanians out of five million could afford access to the Web in 1999. By comparison, among Israel’s 6.4 million residents, 600,000 subscribed to Internet providers in 1999, and moderate usage ran an affordable $22 a month.13 Astoundingly, out of 880,000 subscribers in the entire Middle East in May 1999, more than 600,000 were from Israel, where no restrictions on Internet usage exist.14 Israel’s Business Arena reported in November 2001 that there were 1.93 million people with Internet access in Israel. The number of active home Internet users totaled 956,000.15
Other sharp splits over human rights divide Israel from its neighbors. One such realm centers on homosexuality, where the lives of Palestinian gays are so jeopardized that some have fled to Israel,16 where tolerance is the law of the land, where workplace discrimination is prohibited, where single-sex couples are eligible for spousal benefits and pensions in the civil service, and declared homosexuals serve in the army and participate in all aspects of public life.17
Maybe it’s not so surprising given the conditions in most Arab nations, but human rights monitoring organizations in the Middle East also face tremendous danger.
If anything, the state of human rights in the Arab world is deteriorating, according to the Arab Commission for Human Rights,18 an umbrella group established in 1998 to try to unify human rights organizations in the region. The Commission reported that:
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