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Human Rights Quarterly 23.1 (2001) 188-209

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Human Rights in A Crisis Situation:
The Case of Kuwait after Occupation

Ghanim Alnajjar

I. Introduction

During political crises, human rights are usually the first victim. Under the pretext of national interest, defending the country from its own enemies or the "fifth column," waging a war against the enemies of the state, or preserving the national unity, governments usually claim their human rights violations are legitimate and justifiable. The nature and the severity of a political crisis play a major role in the scope and scale of the violations. Also, when experiencing a major political crisis, many things affect a country's human rights conditions, including the exposure to international focus, the sophistication of oppression within the security apparatus, the level of centralized power, the oppressive tradition in the country, the degree of openness and tolerance, the existence of a civil society, and the degree of threat that a crisis may bring to the regime. In handling human rights, countries differ in accordance with the above factors.

With the end of the Cold War, small countries, in particular, seem to be more inclined to comply with international human rights standards. This is even more true if those countries are dependent in their protection or economic well-being on an international organ, such as the United Nations, international funding agencies, or international alliances. Large and more powerful countries can sustain international pressure and continue their oppressive measures, sometimes with caution. They would normally reject allegations of human rights violations as mere interference in internal affairs [End Page 188] or their "specific" values, and justify such rejection on the basis of international law and the UN Charter. The failure of small countries to comply with international human rights standards is in reality an indication of the failure of the protecting countries. "Strategic" considerations, lack of enthusiasm, commercial interests, and differing views within powerful, protecting countries, usually hinder taking strong action towards improving human rights in a small country. Instead of pressing governments, protecting countries gradually use cover-up methods, which, in return, encourage small-protected countries to continue actions that violate human rights. The situation becomes even worse when a political crisis occurs in an unimportant country with no media focus; the "cover-up" becomes much easier. The result of the "cover-up," however, becomes more fatal for the population of those unimportant countries. This resulted in what one author called the "new double standard" on the part of powerful countries, while he was particularly referring to the United States government. 1

In the case of Kuwait, with a major political crisis caused by the Iraqi invasion, many golden opportunities to make structural improvements in human rights practices were missed because of the indifference of both the Kuwaiti and the US governments. Although many improvements took place years later, sparing people hardship could have been done much earlier. Kuwait could serve as a good example here because it has an established and sophisticated legal infrastructure, a relatively open society, a vibrant civil society, an independent press, an above average standard of living, a tolerant and non-violent political culture, and, above all, the flexibility and ability to change.

The Iraqi occupation of Kuwait lasted seven months, from 2 August 1990 until 26 February 1991. 2 The reasons behind the occupation and the politics that surrounded it will not be the focus of this article. The occupation itself left deep marks on the Kuwaiti society, its politics, its social make-up, and for the purpose of this article, its human rights practices. The human rights situation in Kuwait before the Iraqi invasion was not at its best. That was especially so since the government dissolved the National Assembly in 1986 and imposed press censorship. The close proximity of the [End Page 189] Iran-Iraq war with all its ramifications was one reason for such deterioration. Other reasons were to be found in the government indifference and the lack of a serious approach to human rights. With the liberation of Kuwait by international...


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