As 2014 drew to a close, the world reflected on a year that was catastrophic for millions of people across the Middle East and North Africa; a year that saw unceasing armed conflict and horrendous abuses in Syria and Iraq, civilians in Gaza bearing the brunt of the deadliest round of fighting so far between Israel and Hamas, and Libya come increasingly to resemble a failed state caught up in incipient civil war...
As 2014 drew to a close, the world reflected on a year that was catastrophic for millions of people across the Middle East and North Africa; a year that saw unceasing armed conflict and horrendous abuses in Syria and Iraq, civilians in Gaza bearing the brunt of the deadliest round of fighting so far between Israel and Hamas, and Libya come increasingly to resemble a failed state caught up in incipient civil war. Yemen too remained a deeply divided society whose central authorities faced a Shi’a insurgency in the north, a vocal movement for secession in the south, and continuing insurgency in the southwest.
With the year in view, the heady hopes for change that drove the popular uprisings that shook the Arab-speaking world in 2011 and saw longstanding rulers ousted in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen appeared a distant memory. The exception was Tunisia, where new parliamentary elections passed off smoothly in November and the authorities took at least some steps to pursue those responsible for the legacy of gross violations of human rights. Egypt, by contrast, gave far less cause for optimism. There, the military general who led the ousting of the country’s first post-uprising president in 2013 assumed the presidency after elections and maintained a wave of repression that targeted not only the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, but political activists of many other stripes as well as media workers and human rights activists, with thousands imprisoned and hundreds sentenced to death. In the Gulf, authorities in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were unrelenting in their efforts to stifle dissent and stamp out any sign of opposition to those holding power, confident that their main allies among the western democracies were unlikely to demur.
2014 also saw human savagery meted out by armed groups engaged in the armed conflicts in Syria and Iraq, notably the group calling itself Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS). In Syria, fighters of IS and other armed groups controlled large areas of the country, including much of the region containing Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and imposed “punishments” including public killings, amputations and floggings for what it considered transgressions of its version of Islamic law. IS also gained ascendancy in the Sunni heartlands of Iraq, conducting a reign of terror in which the group summarily executed hundreds of captured government soldiers, members of minorities, Shi’a Muslims and others, including Sunni tribesmen who opposed them. IS also targeted religious and ethnic minorities, driving out Christians and forcing thousands of Yezidis and other minority groups from their homes and lands. IS forces gunned down Yezidi men and boys in execution-style killings, and abducted hundreds of Yezidi women and girls into slavery, forcing many to become “wives” of IS fighters, who included thousands of foreign volunteers from Europe, North America, Australia, North Africa, the Gulf and elsewhere.
Unlike many of those who perpetrate unlawful killings but seek to commit their crimes in secret, IS was brutally brazen about its actions. It ensured that its own cameramen were on hand to film some of its most egregious acts, including the beheadings of journalists, aid workers, and captured Lebanese and Iraqi soldiers. It then publicized the slaughter in polished but grimly macabre videos that were uploaded onto the internet as propaganda, hostage-bargaining and recruitment tools.
The rapid military advances achieved by IS in Syria and Iraq, combined with its summary killings of western hostages and others, led the USA to forge an anti-IS alliance in September that came to number more than 60 states, including Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which then launched air strikes against IS positions and other non-state armed groups, causing civilian deaths and injuries. Elsewhere, US forces continued to mount drone and other attacks against al-Qa’ida affiliates in Yemen, as the struggle between governments and non-state armed groups took on an increasingly supranational aspect. Meanwhile, Russia continued to shield the Syrian government at the UN while transferring arms and munitions to feed its war effort without regard to the war crimes and other serious violations that the Syrian authorities committed.
IS abuses, and the publicity and sense of political crisis that they evoked, threatened for a time to obscure the unremitting and large-scale brutality of Syrian government forces as they fought to retain control of areas they held and to recapture areas from armed groups with seemingly total disregard for the lives of civilians and their obligations under international humanitarian law. Government forces carried out indiscriminate attacks on areas in which civilians were sheltering using an array of heavy weapons, including barrel bombs, and tank and artillery fire; maintained indefinite sieges that denied civilians access to food, water and medical supplies; and attacked hospitals and medical workers. They also continued to detain large numbers of critics and suspected opponents, subjecting many to torture and appalling conditions, and committed unlawful killings. In Iraq, the government’s response to IS’s advance was to stiffen the security forces with pro-government Shi’a militias and let them loose on Sunni communities seen as anti-government or sympathetic to IS, while mounting indiscriminate air attacks on Mosul and other centres held by IS forces.
As in most modern-day conflicts, civilians again paid the heaviest price in the fighting, as warring forces ignored their obligations to spare civilians. In the 50-day conflict between Israel and Hamas and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza, the scale of destruction, damage, death and injury to Palestinian civilians, homes and infrastructure was appalling. Israeli forces carried out attacks on inhabited homes, in some cases killing entire families, and on medical facilities and schools. Homes and civilian infrastructure were deliberately destroyed. In Gaza more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed, some 1,500 of whom were identified as civilians, including over 500 children. Hamas and Palestinian armed groups fired thousands of indiscriminate rockets and mortar rounds into civilian areas of Israel, killing six civilians, including one child. Hamas gunmen also summarily executed at least 23 Palestinians they accused of collaborating with Israel, including untried detainees, after removing them from prison. Both sides committed war crimes and other serious rights abuses with impunity during the conflict, repeating an all too familiar pattern from earlier years. Israel’s air, sea and land blockade of Gaza, in force continuously since 2007, exacerbated the devastating impact of the 50-day conflict, severely hindered reconstruction efforts, and amounted to collective punishment – a crime under international law – of Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants.
The political and other tensions at play across the Middle East and North Africa in 2014 reached their most extreme form in the countries torn by armed conflict, but throughout the region as a whole there were institutional and other weaknesses that both helped fuel those tensions and prevented their ready alleviation. These included a general lack of tolerance by governments and some non-state armed groups to criticism or dissent; weak or non-existent legislative bodies that could act as a check on or counterweight to abuses by executive authorities; an absence of judicial independence and the subordination of criminal justice systems to the will of the executive; and a failure of accountability, including with respect to states’ obligations under international law.
Repression of dissent
Governments throughout the region continued to crack down on dissent, curtailing rights to free speech and other expression, including through social media. Laws criminalizing expression deemed offensive to the head of state, government or judicial officials, or even foreign government leaders, were used to imprison critics in Bahrain – where a court sentenced one prominent woman activist to three years in prison for tearing up a photograph of the King – as well as in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman and Saudi Arabia. In Iran, critics faced trial on charges including moharebeh (“enmity against God”), a capital offence. In the UAE, the authorities continued to sentence pro-reform advocates to long prison terms after unfair trials and introduced new anti-terrorism legislation so sweeping as to equate peaceful protests with terrorism, punishable by possible death sentences.
The UAE and some other Gulf states, including Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, created or used powers to penalize peaceful critics by stripping them of their nationality, and thus their rights as citizens, potentially rendering them stateless. Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE exercised these powers during the year.
Freedom of association was widely curtailed. Many governments did not permit independent trade unions; some governments, including those of Algeria and Morocco/Western Sahara, required independent associations, including human rights organizations, to obtain official registration in order to operate legally but prevented their registration or harassed those that had registered previously. In Egypt, the authorities threatened the very existence of independent NGOs.
The right to peaceful assembly, so evident during the protests that shook the region in 2011, was greatly curtailed by many governments in 2014. Algerian authorities snuffed out protests by blocking access to venues and arresting activists. In Kuwait, the authorities continued to prohibit protests by members of the Bidun community, many of whom continue to be denied Kuwaiti nationality. Bahraini, Egyptian and Yemeni security forces used excessive force, including unnecessary lethal force, against demonstrators, causing deaths and injuries. Israeli soldiers and border police in the West Bank shot Palestinian stone throwers and others at protests against settlements, the wall/fence and other aspects of Israel’s longstanding military occupation.
Elsewhere, unidentified gunmen committed unlawful killings with impunity, sometimes targeting those who spoke up for human rights and the rule of law. In Libya, Salwa Bughaighis, a human rights lawyer who had been one of the leading voices in the 2011 uprising, was shot dead by gunmen who entered her Benghazi home shortly after she had criticized the country’s powerful but lawless armed groups in a media interview.
Arbitrary arrests and detentions, prolonged detention without trial, enforced disappearances and unfair trials were common throughout the region, constant reminders of the corruption of criminal justice systems as tools of repression for the authorities. Thousands were held in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, with some detained without charge or trial and others jailed after unfair trials. Smaller numbers of detainees were also held in Bahrain, Iran, the UAE and elsewhere; some were subject to enforced disappearance. Israeli authorities held some 500 Palestinians in administrative detention without trial; thousands of other Palestinians were serving prison terms in Israel. Palestinian authorities in both the West Bank and Gaza continued to detain political opponents; in Gaza, military and other courts sentenced alleged “collaborators” with Israel to death.
In Libya, rival militia forces held thousands of detainees, some since the fall of Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi in 2011, subjecting many of them to harsh and degrading conditions with no prospect of early release.
Across much of the region, courts tried and sentenced defendants with little regard for due process, often imposing long prison terms and sometimes death sentences on the basis of torture-tainted “confessions” and charges so broadly and vaguely framed as to virtually guarantee conviction. In Egypt, one judge issued preliminary death sentences against hundreds accused of taking part in deadly attacks on police stations after two fundamentally flawed trials; another judge sentenced three prominent media workers to lengthy prison terms without substantive evidence; and the new head of state decreed increased powers for notoriously unfair military courts to try civilians on terrorism and other charges. In both Bahrain and the UAE, courts did the government’s bidding when trying those accused on security-related charges or for causing offence to those in power; in both countries, courts imposed prison terms on family members campaigning for the release of their wrongly imprisoned relatives. Iran’s revolutionary courts continued to convict defendants on scarcely definable charges and handed down harsh sentences, including death. In Saudi Arabia, those targeted and sentenced to prison terms included lawyers who had acted as defence counsel in security-related trials and criticized the unfairness of the courts.
Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq remained the region’s principal state executioners; in all three, authorities carried out scores of executions of defendants, many of whom had been sentenced after unfair trials. Those executed in Saudi Arabia, where many victims – 26 in August alone – were publicly beheaded, included a man convicted of sorcery and others convicted of non-violent drugs offences. Egypt resumed executions in June after a break of more than 30 months, perhaps presaging a large-scale increase in executions once hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters and others sentenced to death during the year have exhausted all appeals. Jordan also resumed executions in December after an eight-year hiatus. In Lebanon, courts continued to impose death sentences, but the authorities refrained from executing people, as did the authorities in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, who maintained longstanding de facto moratoriums on executions.
Torture and other ill-treatment
Throughout the region, security forces tortured and otherwise ill-treated detainees in their custody, sometimes on an industrial scale. In Syria, children were among the victims and large numbers of deaths of detainees from torture or other ill-treatment were reported but often difficult to verify. In January, photographic evidence emerged of thousands of deaths of detainees, many apparently due to beatings or other torture or starvation in Syrian government detention. Torture was endemic in Egypt, where the victims ranged from minor criminal suspects to Muslim Brotherhood activists swept up in the government’s crackdown. Commonly reported torture methods in these and other countries included beatings on the soles of the feet, beatings while suspended by the limbs, prolonged standing or squatting in stress positions, electric shocks to the genitals and other sensitive areas, threats against the detainee and their family and, in some cases, rape and other sexual abuse. Often, torture was used to gather information leading to the detention of other suspects or to obtain “confessions” that could be used by courts to sentence government critics or opponents to prison terms, but it was also used to degrade, humiliate and mentally and physically scar the victims. Generally, the perpetrators used torture with impunity: governments frequently flouted their international legal obligation to independently investigate torture allegations, rarely prosecuted alleged torturers, and seldom if ever secured convictions when they did so.
It was not only torturers who benefited from impunity. So too did the political and military leaders who were the architects of, or who ordered, the war crimes and other violations of international law committed by government forces during the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, by Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza and Israel, and those who presided over the large-scale human rights violations committed in Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and elsewhere. In Bahrain, the government committed to holding an independent investigation into torture in 2011 in response to the findings of an independent inquiry conducted by international experts, but it had not done so by the end of the year. In Algeria, the authorities maintained their long refusal to allow investigations into unlawful killings and other historical violations; in Yemen, the country’s former President and his close associates continued to benefit from immunity agreed when he relinquished office following protests in 2011 in which his forces killed many protesters. In Tunisia, the new authorities did prosecute some former senior officials and members of the security forces for unlawfully killing protesters during the uprising there, only for a military appeals court to reduce the charges and sentences to such an extent that most of those convicted walked free.
Amid the failure or incapability of national justice systems to address impunity in Syria, human rights groups including Amnesty International made repeated calls to the UN Security Council to refer the situations in Syria and in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), but these fell on deaf ears. Meanwhile, Libya remained under ICC jurisdiction following a UN Security Council referral in 2011, but the ICC prosecutor failed to open new investigations despite a rash of new war crimes as the country returned to civil war.
Discrimination – ethnic and religious minorities
Amid the political turmoil, religious and ethnic divisiveness and sectarianism that gripped the region, governments and non-state armed groups viewed minorities with increased suspicion and intolerance. This was most brutally reflected in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, where many people were arrested, abducted, “ethnically cleansed” from their homes, or killed on account of their place of origin or their religion, but it was evident too in Libya, where killings on ethnic or tribal grounds were common and on the rise.
In the Gulf, the Iranian government continued to imprison Baha’is and bar them from higher education, and to restrict the rights of other religious minorities as well as those of Azeris, Kurds and other ethnic minorities, and were reported to have secretly executed Ahwazi Arab rights activists. In Saudi Arabia, the authorities maintained a crackdown on Shi’a critics of the government in the country’s oil-rich Eastern Province, sentencing rights activists to long prison terms and, in at least one case, the death penalty after unfair trials. In Kuwait, the government continued to withhold citizenship and its associated entitlements to tens of thousands of Bidun residents.
Refugees and internally displaced people
In 2014, the Syrian crisis surpassed other such crises to become the world’s worst in terms of refugee flows and internally displaced people. By the end of the year, approximately 4 million refugees had fled the conflict in Syria. The vast majority – about 95% – were being hosted in neighbouring countries: at least 1.1 million in Lebanon, more than 1.6 million in Turkey, more than 600,000 in Jordan, more than 220,000 in Iraq and more than 130,000 in Egypt, according to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. International relief efforts received insufficient funding to meet the needs of those displaced. In December, the UN’s annual Syria Regional Refugee Response plan for 2014 remained only 54% funded, and the World Food Programme was forced to temporarily suspend a food aid scheme to 1.7 million Syrians due to a lack of funding. In many places, the rapid influx of so many refugees placed huge burdens on the resources of the main host countries, sparking tension between refugee populations and host communities. Authorities in both Jordan and Lebanon took steps to bar the entry of Palestinian refugees from Syria and, increasingly, of anyone seeking refuge from Syria; the Egyptian authorities forcibly returned some refugees to Syria.
Within Syria, a further 7.6 million people were internally displaced, with many forced from their homes by fighting or sectarian attacks. Some had been repeatedly displaced; many were in locations beyond the reach of international humanitarian agencies or were trapped in areas besieged by government forces or non-state armed groups. Their situation was perilous in the extreme, with faint prospect of alleviation.
While nothing else matched the Syrian crisis for scale, its overflow into Iraq also saw thousands internally displaced there, due partly to IS violence and abuses but also to attacks and abuses committed by pro-government Shi’a militias. In Libya, thousands of people forced from the town of Tawargha in 2011 by Misrata armed militia continued to be prevented from returning to their homes and faced further displacement when the capital, Tripoli, and other areas plunged into armed conflict mid-year. In Gaza, Israeli bombing and other attacks destroyed thousands of homes, displacing thousands, during the 50-day armed conflict that began on 8 July. In Israel itself, the government detained newly arrived asylum-seekers from Sudan, Eritrea and other countries at a facility in the Naqab/Negev desert and returned others to their home countries under an ostensibly “voluntary” procedure that contained no guarantees of their safety and entailed a high risk of refoulement.
Migrant workers fuelled the economies of many states across the region, not least in the oil and gas-rich states of the Gulf, where they performed vital roles in construction and other industries and in the service sector. Despite their importance to local economies, in most states migrant workers remained inadequately protected under local labour laws and were subject to exploitation and abuse. Qatar’s selection to host the football World Cup in 2022 ensured that its official policies and practices in relation to the workers it hired to build new stadiums and other facilities remained under scrutiny, and the government made promises of reform in response to pressure. Nevertheless, in Qatar as in other Gulf states, the sponsorship, or kafala, system used to recruit migrant workers and regulate their employment facilitated rights abuses that were exacerbated by a common absence of official enforcement measures to uphold migrants’ rights. Many migrant workers in the region were required by employers to work excessive hours without rest or days off, and were prevented by threat of arrest and deportation from leaving abusive employers.
Perhaps most vulnerable of all were the many thousands of women from Asia, in particular, who were employed as domestic workers, and could be subjected to physical or other abuse, including sexual abuse as well as other forms of labour abuse without any or adequate means of remedy. The Saudi Arabian authorities engaged in mass expulsions of “surplus” migrant workers to Yemen and other countries, often after first detaining them in harsh conditions. Elsewhere, in countries such as Libya where lawlessness prevailed, migrant workers faced discrimination and other abuses, including violence and armed robbery at checkpoints, roadblocks and on the streets.
Thousands of people, many of them prey to human traffickers and people smugglers, sought to escape and make new lives for themselves by boarding often overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Some made it to Europe; others were pulled from the sea by the Italian navy, and at least 3,000 were reported to have drowned.
In Egypt, the authorities continued to evict residents of “informal settlements” in Cairo and elsewhere without providing adequate notice or alternative accommodation or compensation. Those affected included residents who had made their homes in areas that the authorities deemed “unsafe”, and whose removal they required to facilitate new commercial developments. The army also forcibly evicted at least 1,000 families living alongside the border with Gaza as part of efforts to create a “buffer” zone. The Israeli authorities also carried out forced evictions. In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, they punitively destroyed the family homes of Palestinians who mounted attacks on Israeli civilians, and demolished dozens of homes of Palestinians which they said had been constructed illegally. In Israel, the authorities forcibly evicted Bedouin living in officially “unrecognized villages” in the Naqab/Negev region.
Across the region, women and girls faced discrimination under the law and as a result of official policies, and were inadequately protected against sexual and other violence. Such discrimination was deeply entrenched and few improvements were apparent in 2014. Three years on since women demonstrated with unprecedented visibility during the popular uprisings that swept the region in 2011, they appeared to be among the main losers of the political changes that ensued. In Egypt, groups of men attacked and sexually assaulted women protesters in the streets around Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Tunisia was the notable exception. There, two police officers convicted of rape received lengthy prison terms, the government lifted Tunisia’s reservations to CEDAW and appointed an expert committee to draft a framework law to combat violence against women and girls. Algerian and Moroccan authorities also took some positive, albeit limited, legal measures, the former finally recognizing the right to compensation for women raped during the internal armed conflict of the 1990s, and the latter abolishing a Penal Code provision that allowed rapists to escape prosecution if they married their victim.
In the Gulf, despite their implacable mutual hostility on political and religious issues, the governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia both had appalling records on women’s rights. In Iran, where many women’s rights activists have been detained or imprisoned in recent years, the authorities detained girls and women who protested about an official ban on their attending certain sporting events as spectators. In Saudi Arabia, the authorities arrested or threatened women who dared defy an official ban on driving. In both countries, authorities also enforced strict dress and behavioural codes for women, and retained laws that punish adultery with death. In Yemen, women and girls continued to face early and forced marriage and, in some provinces, high rates of female genital mutilation.
Amid a general failure by governments to afford women and girls adequate protection against sexual violence and violence within the family, the excesses of IS forces in Iraq, where possibly thousands of ethnic or religious minority women and girls were forcibly abducted and sold as “wives” or slaves to members of armed groups including IS, represented a new nadir, yet one that elicited only muted condemnation from religious leaders.
2014 was a year of appalling suffering throughout much of the Middle East and North Africa, one that saw some of the worst excesses in recent history and that, at its close, held few signs of early improvement. And yet, amidst the horrors, local actors and activists of many different political hues continued through various means to speak truth to power, to express defiance in the face of tyranny, to assist the wounded and the powerless, and to stand up not only for their own rights but for the rights of others, often at huge personal cost. It was the dauntless courage of such individuals, many of them aptly termed human rights defenders, that was perhaps the most remarkable, and enduring, feature of 2014, and that which holds the most hope for the future of human rights in the region.