By Aaron Rhodes and Jacob Mchangama
The realization that, just as Libya was being suspended from the United Nations Human Rights Council for its humanitarian atrocities, the same body was about to release a report giving the country favorable marks, has led to a hasty retraction.
But in fact, numerous other authoritarian Middle Eastern states have received likewise favorable reports on how they
have helped their citizens enjoy their social and economic rights such as social security, housing and the right to work.
The international community’s increasing focus on social rights has thus obscured the suffocating repression of fundamental civil and political rights in such countries, relativized such repression and tacitly suggested that it is legitimate, and blunted international condemnation and support for reform.
In its own report under the U.N.’s Universal Periodic Review process, Libya bragged about its “pioneering experience in the field of wealth distribution and labor rights.”
When Libya came before the Human Rights Council Universal Period Review Working Group on Nov. 9, 2010, the period for debate was consumed mainly by non-democratic states praising Libya for the country’s social and economic policies.
Forty-six U.N. delegations took the floor, only 10 of which made any mention of violations of human rights. A number of democratic states joined in the praise of Libya’s social policies, keeping silent about its notorious abrogation of fundamental human rights.
The same thing occurred during the reviews of Iran and Egypt, other countries whose citizens have taken to the streets to vent their frustrations. Of the 53 state delegations commenting on Iran’s self-serving report, only 25 mentioned its violations of human rights, while an equal number praised its putatively progressive educational and social policies, leaving the impression of a contradicting picture.
Egypt stressed in its 2010 review that “social and cultural rights enjoyed a high priority” and emphasized its focus on “the rights to food, to adequate housing, and to access to social services.” Of 53 states commenting on the review, the vast majority praised Egypt for its efforts. According to the record, the United States made no mention of any violations of human rights.
As the toppling of Hosni Mubarak and the ongoing, violent and tragic civil strife in Libya has confirmed, states that lapped up Egypt and Libya’s U.N. dog and pony shows, and praised the Mubarak and Gadhafi regimes, have done no service to their freedom-deprived citizens.
What it has also confirmed is that Gadhafi’s economic hand-outs ― the Libyan government claimed that it had distributed funds to 229,595 low-income families over the preceding four years ― have not been enough to purchase passivity. Nor has Gadhafi’s paltry offer of 500 dinars (about 294 euro) to every Libyan family when faced with a revolt.
As massive protests calling for political reform have swept the Middle East, other rulers from Bahrain to Saudi Arabia have extended more funds and services to their subjects in an effort to buy off their discontent.
The real lesson of Libya’s U.N. human rights review, and those of other repressive states, is that the international community tolerates the denial of basic rights and freedoms while governments hide behind claims that they meet citizens’ economic and social needs.
Yet it is clear that increased benefits do not result in freedom, the rule of law, political accountability or stability, even if paid out in the name of human rights. What Middle Eastern citizens need are basic rights such as freedom of expression, association and assembly, which empower the voiceless and allow for political pluralism and change.
The transformative power of these rights has been clearly demonstrated in Tunisia and in Tahrir Square in Cairo, when disaffected people joined together to defy their illegitimate rulers who for too long had brutally refused them the right to do so.
Likewise Saudi Arabians do not need more petro dollars, even at the tune of $36 billion promised by King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz; they need recognition of the right to voice their concerns without fearing arbitrary imprisonment.
As long as the international community and human rights activists insist that social rights and civil and political rights are “indivisible,” and equally important, authoritarian states will continue to dupe citizens with one hand and beat them with the other, while receiving praise for their efforts.
Aaron Rhodes is an international human rights advocate and lecturer at Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg, Germany. Jacob Mchangama is legal director at the Danish Center for Political Studies, an independent think tank better known as CEPOS, in Copenhagen, and external lecturer in human rights law at the University of Copenhagen. Mchangama can be reached at Jacob@CEPOS.DK.