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Human Rights Quarterly 23.3 (2001) 701-732

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Human Rights in the Arab World: A Regional Perspective

Abdullahi A. An-Na'im 1

I. Introduction

The premise of this regional review and assessment of the human rights movement in the Arab world is that the wide variety of strategies for the effective and sustainable protection of these rights should always be determined and implemented in specific local, regional and global context. The paradox of self-regulation by the state in the definition and implementation of human rights standards, as briefly explained below, would emphasize the role of civil society. However, because both state and civil society tend to influence each other, either in favor or against the protection of human rights, through internal processes as well as external influence, these relationships should also be understood in local, regional and global contexts.

The challenge facing the advocates of the protection of human rights in any part of the world is how to promote positive aspects of these processes, and combat or minimize negative dimensions of these dynamic relationships. At all levels of analysis and action, one should seek to combine the best possible immediate response to specific problems with long term strategies for addressing the root causes and structural factors in the persistence of human rights violations. Because this combination can only be implemented through some sort of division of labor, it is necessary to coordinate the activities of local, regional and international actors according to an agreed framework. [End Page 701]

Throughout this regional review and assessment, I am particularly concerned with identifying and promoting ways of diminishing, and eventfully breaking what I call "human rights dependency." By this I mean the widely prevalent perception that the governments of developing countries are more responsive to international pressure for the protection of human rights in their countries, than to the activities of local NGOs and other actors within their own societies. Accordingly, international human rights NGOs tend to monitor human rights violations in developing countries, with the indispensable help of local NGOs, but publicize their findings mainly in Europe and North America in order to influence Western governments to pressure the governments of developing countries to protect human rights in their respective countries. 2 Moreover, local NGOs in developing countries also tend to depend on funding from, and seek publicity for their activities in, developing countries, instead of from and within their own countries or regions. In contrast, human rights are protected in developed countries by local NGOs, with the active support of their own local constituencies, and through activities addressed to their own governments and public opinion.

The complex web of "realistic" considerations which make this pattern of human rights activism unavoidable in the present context of the vast majority of developing countries are too obvious to warrant elaboration in the present limited space. 3 But it is equally clear, in my view, that this human rights dependency is extremely problematic for at least three main interrelated reasons. 4 First, it tends to perpetuate the public perception, in developing as well as developed countries, that the protection of human rights is a "Western" agenda rather than an internal priority of the [End Page 702] developing countries themselves. Second, NGOs in developing countries are not encouraged to seek the promotion of local political constituencies and funding sources within their own countries.

In addition to perpetuating perceptions of dependency, this reliance on Western political support and funding make NGOs in developing countries vulnerable to actual or potential governmental control of their "life-line," as illustrated by the case of Egypt discussed below. Third, both local and international NGOs are not accountable to the local societies of developing countries they claim to serve. While fully appreciating the profound need for international cooperation in diminishing the negative consequences of this complex and deeply entrenched web of multiple dependencies, I believe that effective and sustainable protection of human rights can only be achieved by each society for itself.

Accordingly, my emphasis in this essay is on national and regional NGOs as a means...


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