Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

On January 7, 2000, Lisa Hajjar spoke with Abdallahi An-Na’im, a lawyer from Sudan and a prominent human rights scholar and activist. He is professor of law at Emory University. Transcription was provided by Zachary Kidd and funded by the Morehouse College sociology department.

Can you highlight some of the factors that contributed to the development of a human rights movement in the Arab world?

Human rights activism is the current manifestation of historic struggles for human dignity. As countries in the Arab world emerged from a colonial status into an age of political independence, the Arab leaderships of the 1950s and 1960s created conditions oppressive of civil and political rights. They also failed to deliver on their promises of development. But it was the shock of the Arab defeat by Israel in 1967 that really exposed their bankruptcy and failures. The 1970s witnessed the emergence of politically active civil society, including greater attention to human rights and the proliferation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The emergence of an Arab human rights movement reflects a phase in the political development of the region that was influenced by the frustrations and failures of the initial post-independence period.

In many parts of the world, the 1970s saw the emergence of human rights organizations. What explains this timing on an international scale?

The main factors are the development of the UN system and the various regional systems, as well as the promulgation of treaties that give real substance to the idea of human rights. Of greatest importance were the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, and Social and Economic Rights, both adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966. These treaties not only provided a clear, general normative framework within which to galvanize an international civil society,but also laid the foundation for the more specialized subsequent treaties against torture and on the rights of women and children. On the political side — and we must emphasize that human rights are always a profoundly political project — African and Asian countries were gaining independence and actively exercising their self-determination. It was a time of optimism and rising expectations for human rights.

Would you describe the growing popularization of human rights as a form of post-colonial struggles for “good government”?

It is just that. In the Arab world, the loss of innocence after 1967 heightened people’s willingness to look for alternatives to the Arab nationalist regimes and discourses to solve their problems. The appeal of human rights in developing countries stems from an awareness of the conditions of post-coloniality. People were less willing to look to guardians and patriarchs to “deliver the goods,” or continue deferring their own demands until a victory in the conflict with Israel was achieved.

The promotion of human rights is often seen as part of a broader modernization process. The problem, of course, is that modernization is often seen — and criticized — as tantamount to Westernization. How do you tackle this problem in your work?

I tend to challenge the assumption that modernization means Westernization. Processes of modernization are not just Western or Western-imposed phenomena. I also challenge the simplistic view of a world disaggregated into East and West. By now it should be clear that the forces of globalization are by no means neutral, since they tend to perpetuate existing power relations, but they also provide vehicles for struggles against hegemony.

Regarding the so-called East/West or North/South dichotomies, as my colleague, Clarence Diaz, often says, North and South are not geographical units; they are concepts. Solidarities cross not only national and cultural divides, but also so-called global power divides. The women’s movement and the environmental movement are tremendous examples of alliances built across economic, cultural and political divides. It is a question of alliances, values, commitments and solidarities in struggles. Global civil society can transcend — and must transcend — simplistic notions of West and East.

It is interesting to note that certain aspects of Western modernization are taken for granted throughout the world. The very idea of the nation-state is an exclusively Western invention, a product of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European political developments. Nobody questions it in any part of the world. In the Arab world, leaders enjoy and abuse the powers of the state. Why is it that when you bring in the other side of the formula — the protection of human rights — that we hear protests about Westernization? We all are implicated fundamentally in a modern world whether we like it or not.

Nevertheless, the power of that global dichotomy is one that you have constantly been confronted with. I assume that some of your energy is spent defending yourself against criticisms that you are “the voice of the West.”

I understand where such criticisms are coming from, and maybe that helps me to deal with it. Some people see human rights in terms of an historical struggle against Western hegemony. I often say that, granted, we have to deal with issues of hegemony, exploitation and domination. But is rejecting human rights the way to deal with these issues? Can we really afford to turn away from human rights as a resource for combating injustice and foreign hegemony? We must keep in mind that neither the problems nor the resources for combating them are geographically or geopolitically specific.

You talk about the “human rights paradigm” as a framework for scholarship and activism. Could you elaborate on what you mean by this, specifically its applicability for activism?

The human rights paradigm is the idea that the state is accountable for the well-being of its citizens, and that such accountability is not limited to national political and legal processes. Human rights violations in any part of the world are the business and concern of human beings everywhere. State sovereignty is no longer the shield against international criticisms and pressure.

The human rights paradigm is really a tool. Normatively, it promises equality of rights for all — the principle of non-discrimination entitling all human beings to rights by virtue of their humanity without consideration of their political affiliations, gender, religion, ethnicity or other differences. That is the revolutionary ideal. The paradigm has a procedural side, too: It is a tool for articulating protest and objection to mistreatment and abuses of power. The paradox is that it can only be effective as a tool, and its normative content can fit our needs only to the extent that we are willing to engage the project. If we just sit back and complain that international standards don’t address our aspirations or reflect our priorities, or that international processes are being manipulated by Western powers, that would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we take the human rights paradigm seriously, however, we can use it to make a difference in terms of its normative content as well as its practical implementation in our own societies.

How does the human rights paradigm lend itself to engagements with issues of globalization?

Human rights is a manifestation of globalization. It reflects the positive and normative side of what globalization offers as well as potential international alliances in the struggle for justice and human dignity. It is important to think globally and act locally because nobody and no state lives isolated from global power relations or the so-called “free market.” Given that, I think human rights becomes a vitally important element in the process of restraining globalization from disregarding people’s best interests.

The problem is our failure to appropriate the human rights paradigm for our own objectives. By “our” I mean whoever feels injustice or exclusion or marginalization. Some negative aspects of globalization are amenable to challenge if we use the instruments that guarantee social and economic rights, develop the notion of collective rights and add them to the repertoire of human rights concepts and institutions. We need to expand and develop human rights concepts, to reorient existing institutions and invent new ones that will enable us to do so.

Have human rights organizations in the Middle East contributed to addressing globalization’s negative aspects?

In the Middle East, there has been some difficulty in taking human rights seriously at a popular level for various reasons. The prominence of the Arab-Israeli conflict is one reason, and regional conceptions of US hegemony over the international human rights movement is another. The priorities and strategies of human rights activists have also contributed to the difficulty of taking human rights seriously at a popular level in the region. For example, economic and social rights issues are rarely taken up by human rights organizations in the Middle East, which tend to concentrate primarily on civil and political rights. But this is a region that badly needs to consider the economic and social rights side of the formula so as to expand the concept into the areas of collective rights and solidarity rights, like rights to development, peace, environmental protection and so on. By failing to adapt the human rights paradigm to regional needs and by accepting liberal no- tions of human rights as limited to civil and political rights, we are forfeiting a valuable opportunity.

I do believe that emphasizing political and civil rights is necessary for people to become familiar with the idea of human rights and to develop an institutional base and political support. But it is a “Catch-22″in that if you don’t inject economic and social rights into human rights discourse and activism, you are unlikely to generate the kind of political support needed for the effective protection of all human rights, including civil and political rights themselves.

You address the problem of “human rights dependency” in some of your writing. Can you explain what you mean by this term?

Given the history of the human rights movement — dominated internationally by organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch — the model of activism became one of monitoring human rights violations in developing countries and reporting in developed countries in order to generate political pressure and legal initiatives to redress violations. Yet given the entire post-colonial experience and neocolonial economic and political relations, it is problematic to have the major organizations based in New York or London, monitoring violations in the South, but reporting in English in London or New York, with little priority for local publicity of their findings. (I should note that AI has always been careful to produce an Arabic version of the report by the time of publication, but I still doubt the efficacy of their local publicity). Moreover, the timing of reporting is often done to coincide with important events taking place in the North — a meeting of the G7 or the World Bank, for example. What I call “dependency” is the idea of generating pressures in the North to persuade governments in the South to protect the rights of their people, because that is not how human rights are protected in the North itself. There, human rights are protected by local constituencies organizing around their own priorities, enlisting political support within their own communities and pressuring their own governments legally and otherwise.

But human rights dependency works and is seen as legitimate because this approach does have some immediate impact in the countries of the South. The Egyptian government or the Syrian government is more responsive to pressures from Western governments than from their own people. In utilitarian terms, people can say that if we do not use this publicity to embarrass and shame governments and create pressure that will hit them where they hurt most — cutting off or reducing economic aid or military support — they are less likely to be responsive. But the problem is that this approach disregards the point that human rights dependency is possible because of other dependencies. If Egypt were not dependent on Western economic aid, it would not be responsive to Western pressure. Therefore, exploiting that dependency to promote human rights is itself a reflection of a profound and fundamental violation of human rights, which is the fact that Egypt is a dependent country.

Human rights dependency legitimizes other dependencies and perpetuates dependent relationships. Granted, we have to be pragmatic in the short term about using the existing power relations to promote some level of protection of human rights and create the space for internal constituencies and activism to emerge. But at the same time, we have to invest in the process of promoting local human rights initiatives. We should be investing in truly autonomous human rights movements in different regions of the world so that we diminish dependency over time.

How does international funding affect Arab human rights organizations and the regional movement?

Dependence on foreign funding is more problematic than beneficial. When you talk about the level of funding that is “necessary” to run a human rights organization, you are already assuming what the organization is about and what its objectives are. If the criterion that makes or breaks human rights organizations is international visibility, which requires an ability to produce glossy reports, to have a huge mailing list, lots of sophisticated equipment and an office in a nice part of the capital city, then, yes, you will be dependent on the level of funding that you can only get from Western foundations and development agencies. But is this really the way to pursue human rights work in the Arab world?

There are many examples of independent and effective grassroots organizations that do not rely on foreign funding yet have a tremendous impact. They may not call themselves “human rights organizations,” and are not internationally “visible” because they are not quoted by the New York Times or featured on CNN. But that is not where they seek to make their mark; they want to make an impact on their own communities. Such organizations don’t need that level of funding.

For local human rights organizations, the preference for foreign funding would seem to provide a level of independence from local pressures. While appreciating the limitations of local funding, I still see it as essential for the credibility of human rights organizations; especially for making them accountable to their local constituencies. If funding for local NGOs comes from foreign organizations, that is where their accountability lies. On the other hand, if they are funded by local supporters, that makes them locally accountable. I have suggested to several human rights organizations in Egypt that they should try to develop supportive networks by asking people to make a yearly donation, even 25 piasters or one Egyptian pound, just to foster a link with and a stake in the community they are working to serve. Then when the next crisis comes, people will be more likely to feel that it is their organization that is under attack and stand up in its defense.

How would you compare the way human rights organizations work — or should work — to Islamist organizations, which enjoy considerable legitimacy in many communities?

In many Arab countries, Islamists enjoy material resources and organizational capacity, but this has not always been the case. For a long time, Islamists struggled for legitimacy. In fact, the material base they now command is a product of their own strategies and their effectiveness in promoting their cause. I think it is an easy escape for liberal intellectuals and human rights activists to blame Islamists for trying to undermine them and undercut their local appeal. The question is: Why do the Islamists enjoy the level of legitimacy they do?

Is one explanation Islamists’ abilities to provide certain social services?

This ability came as a result, not a cause. Let us be honest about this: Many human rights activists live relatively elite lifestyles that do not endear them to the larger local communities. Islamists are willing to live and work in the popular neighborhoods, to be an integral part of the communities they target. They are motivated, like Marxists and nationalists before them, by a burning fire of commitment and the willingness to sacrifice. In Cairo, for example, we prefer to sit in Maadi and Zemalek and discuss issues, but we are not willing to go down into Shubra al-Khaima and do the work it takes to generate the political legitimacy and popularity that the Islamists enjoy.

What kinds of strategies should NGOs adopt to expand their popular appeal and really build their constituencies?

Aside from the things I have mentioned, like the need to adopt different life styles and situate themselves in communities, the most important strategy is to translate human rights values into popular discourses. The discourse of human rights is very abstract, legalistic and elitist. It has not inspired the sort of passion that other discourses have enjoyed. A first step is to translate and popularize the concepts in order to generate a real commitment among far greater numbers of people. Until now, human rights seems to be the interest or concern of a small and elite minority. Making human rights relevant is a challenge that NGOs should immediately tackle.

Considering that many human rights NGOs in the Middle East are very small, and violations are so prevalent that their resources are stretched, how would you expect NGOs to expend the energy or allot the resources necessary to engage in such a “popularizing” campaign?

When you say that human rights organizations are so small and overstretched, you are assuming a certain model and trajectory of human rights advocacy,which is to go out and monitor and publicize violations in order to create pressure on governments to comply. That model works in stable democratic contexts where legal institutions and media can mobilize public support. None of these assumptions pertain in our region. Our judiciaries and legal professions are weak, our media is either coopted or restricted by the government. We don’t have the tools or resources to engage in the model of human rights advocacy that involves chasing after individual violations. Yet it is this model that most Arab organizations follow.

The monitoring and advocacy strategy assumes that violations are the exception. The assumption is that human rights are normally protected, but when you have the occasional torture, and the occasional detention without charges or trial, then you can litigate the case for three or four years and eventually get a favorable ruling. But this is not a cost-effective means of protecting human rights when violations are massive, endemic and structural. While it is necessary to continue monitoring, we must also attack the root causes of human rights violations and target a broader set of concerns.

Nevertheless, Arab human rights organizations have, over the last two decades, gained a high level of credibility internationally. You have described this in “generational” terms. Can you explain and give some examples of this generational shift?

The forerunners of today’s human rights organizations in the Arab world were trade unions and professional organizations that included human rights agendas in their mandate as these issues pertained to their specific constituencies. From those forerunners, we had a level of training and capacity building among a younger generation who then established human rights-specific organizations. This involved adopting very professional standards for their work, namely a “non-partisan” approach. To be non-partisan means being able and willing to defend Islamists against torture, as well as to criticize them when they violate the rights of others. Generationally, this reflects an abandonment of the thinking inspired by Soviet Marxist ideology that “rights” are a bourgeois concern, and that violations can be excused or overlooked in the interest of “the cause.” The “pre-1967 generation” tended to hold back on voicing criticisms to avoid looking like national traitors undermining the home front against the “real” and common enemy, Israel. The 1967 defeat repudiated these fallacies. This whole mindset had to pass before the next generation could emerge and adopt a more nonpartisan and critical approach to human rights. The adoption of such an approach explains the international legitimacy of Arab human rights organizations.

What would you identify as important disagreements or problems within the Arab human rights movement?

There is disagreement over al-mihwar al-ma’arifi (the epistemological anchor), that is, the appropriate frame of reference. Is it a de-contextualized, abstract universality, or do you root your work and your frame of reference in your local context and culture? One important debate centers around whether you take Islam seriously and try to engage the Islamists, or reject and ignore them because you see them as bent on violating human rights and repudiating democracy. Arab activists need to do a better job of engaging those who argue that Islam is incompatible with human rights, whether that is being said by Islamists or Western proponents of the so-called “clash of civilizations.”

I know that I am being very harsh on activists of the region, but this is because I really believe in them and their ability to do better. We have to understand that these activists are a product of their society and culture. If Arab societies manifest a tendency for authoritarianism, hierarchical structures and asymmetrical power relations, activists will have those values. It takes a very determined and systematic self-criticism for us to transcend problems of our own societies. We have to understand that we don’t automatically become democratic and respectful of the human dignity of other people merely by declaring ourselves committed to a human rights cause or setting up a human rights organization. In many cases, the leadership of human rights organizations treat their organizations in the same way that Arab leaders treat their societies: promoting their own personality cults and perpetuating their own power in profoundly and disturbingly undemocratic ways. If you visit the office of some Arab human rights NGOs, you are shocked at the way some leaders of these organizations treat women or younger colleagues. Where is the human rights ethos here? How can one be credible in criticizing the government while failing to treat his female colleague with the dignity and respect she deserves as a matter of human rights?

Another issue is competition among local organizations. Consider the Moroccan example, where two organizations were accepted as affiliates of the Arab Human Rights Organization because people did not want to upset their friends who run these organizations. Why can’t we coordinate nationally and regionally, why can’t we consolidate, instead of splitting into 15 or 20 organizations so that everyone who wants to be a human rights activist has to establish a separate group?

What kind of relationship would you advocate between local NGOs in the Arab world and international human rights organizations?

This has been a point of contention for some time now. Dependency influences this relationship in complex ways. International organizations use the information provided by local organizations, but they do not even bother to show local organizations their draft reports. They control “the product,” just as in global capitalist power relationships: Local organizations produce the raw material while international organizations produce the final product and get the “value added” because they are the ones who “manufacture” the goods. Of course, there is some limited justification in not accrediting local organizations if this could endanger people in some situations. But it is not a question of naming them. Rather, it is a matter of sharing your draft with them before you release it, and consulting them on questions of strategy about how and when to release the report. Although international organizations justify their practices by invoking the safety of local organizations and activists, it is really a matter of power relations; international organizations want to maintain their monopoly.

International organizations must understand that true success would be to make themselves redundant, not to perpetuate an image of themselves as indispensable. The tendency to think that you are indispensable is very seductive. It makes people feel good and important because they themselves are sacrificing by accepting a lower salary, subjecting themselves to discomfort by traveling around the world. In the same way that human rights organizations in the Arab world reflect their own societies, international organizations based in the US or Europe reflect their societies, too. The very idea that human rights are seen as a “commodity” to be produced and distributed in the form of reports is a reflection of that reality. International organizations have to confront the fact that their tendency to be hegemonic, as a reflection of their being a product of their own society, must be challenged through a conscious effort within those organizations.

The other side is that freedom and rights are never granted, they are always earned. It is up to local organizations to demand respect and equality. Why should they remain subservient and willing to supply the information and logistics in a relationship in which they remain relegated to second-class status? None of these international human rights organizations could operate for a day in any country in the world without the support of local organizations. They wouldn’t know whom to talk to, how to get around or where to go. They need translators and assistance to set up appointments. All of that is provided by local activists. But when the reports come out, AI or HRW are seen as having done the work. I feel very strongly about this. The international organizations have to realize that, whatever may have been the case in the past, it is no longer acceptable for human rights work to follow some kind of colonial model of power relations. To remain true to the cause, international human rights NGOs must transform their own operations and methods of activism.

For information about a project on human rights and Islamic family law that An-Na’im is involved with, see www.law.emory.edu/fil/.

How to cite this article:

Lisa Hajjar "Problems of Dependency," Middle East Report 214 (Spring 2000).
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