This week, we approach the first major anniversary of the popular uprisings that began to sweep through the Middle East and North Africa last year. On January 14, 2011, Tunisia’s long time president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country to Saudi Arabia. Since December Ben Ali has been on trial – in absentia – along with about 40 other senior officials, for the killing of protesters.
The following weeks will be marked by the anniversaries of uprisings and the resignations of repressive dictators who were ultimately swept away by “a power governments cannot suppress” (transporting a Howard Zinn term to a different region).
The theme of this year’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence — “From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Violence Against Women”— is a theme that resonates across the globe. It’s especially timely in the Middle East and North Africa where we’ve seen unprecedented challenges to military regimes and repressive governments.
Throughout the region, women have joined with men in fighting against increased militarism and in calling for governmental and social reform. We’ve seen women in the headlines of protest and revolution from Bahrain to Yemen, to Egypt to Tunisia and beyond.
Well, it isn’t ratification of the CEDAW treaty but all three countries have made the news lately when it comes to women’s human rights.
CEDAW, formally known as the Convention On The Elimination Of All Forms Of Discrimination Against Women is the most comprehensive international framework to secure women’s equality. And, as the fight for women’s human rights continues after the recent uprisings in the Middle East, CEDAW is now more vital than ever in the struggle for gender equality and women’s empowerment. Countries in the Middle East and North Africa are reforming their governments and women must be a part of this political revolution to ensure the success of these emerging democracies.
Amnesty activists in Italy hold signs that say "This is my Tiananmen Square." A similar commemoration would be prohibited in China.
When the so-called Arab Spring swept the Middle East and North Africa, the reverberations also shuddered through Chinese civil society – first as a new wave of online activism, and then as crushing oppression from the Chinese state.
The weight of such overt oppression — the worst since the 2009’s deadly Urumqi riots — is made particularly acute by the 22nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy activists. Although more than two decades have passed since the 1989 protests, the Chinese authorities are quick to extinguish any forms of commemoration, and to silence voices of discontent raised around the politically volatile anniversary.
In normal times, Dhehiba is a quiet, small town in southern Tunisia, three kilometres away from the country’s border with Libya. Today, times here are anything but normal.
This area is experiencing a growing influx of Libyans fleeing from their homes in the Nafousa Mountain area of western Libya because of the actions being taken there by Colonel M’uammar Gaddafi’s forces.
The actual number of those fleeing is difficult to establish as most people do not cross at the official border post but instead travel by desert back roads to try and avoid the checkpoints set up by the Libyan leader’s forces. Some do then come to the border post on the Tunisian side to have their passports stamped but others continue on directly to find refuge in Tunisia’s cities.
[UPDATE: Four WOZA activists, three women and one man, were arrested today at the home of a WOZA member. The charges or reason for the arrests is unknown, other than the continuing harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders.]
Last weekend, a group of individuals in Zimbabwe gathered to watch footage of the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, discuss the impact of these events and speculate what implication they might pose for the African continent as a whole. Instead of a peaceful, academic discussion unfolding, police broke up the meeting and arrested 45 individuals. At least seven of these persons have been beaten while in custody, including Munyaradzi Gwisai, a former opposition parliamentarian. All persons have been charged with treason, a crime punishable by death.
“Credible sources from civil society informed Human Rights Watch that in recent months, ZANU-PF youth have attacked scores of people, mainly MDC supporters, in the high-density neighborhoods of Harare, as well as areas outside of Harare such as Chitungwiza, Gutu, and Bikita. Local civil society organizations alleged that the police were arresting the victims of the violence – many of whom are from the MDC – instead of the perpetrators, who they say are mainly from ZANU-PF.”
Escalating violence in rural areas has sent refugees fleeing into Mozambique. President Zuma of South Africa, appointed guardian of the negotiated unity government between ZANU-PF and MDC, is conducting talks relating to expected votes planned for later this year or early next year regarding a constitutional referendum and purported presidential elections. Amnesty USA, in solidarity with WOZA, urged activists to send messages to President Zuma insisting all prospective votes be conducted free of violence and in line with international obligations. It’s not too late. You can still send those messages. Arresting people for watching videos demonstrates those messages are more important than ever.
What is Amnesty International doing about the protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the region?
We’ve sent a delegation to Egypt to help witness, record and expose human rights abuses being committed during the uprising, as we did during the unrest in Tunisia earlier in the year. We’re doing this in close cooperation with local human rights activists, defenders and NGOs, most of whom we have worked with over many years to address human rights violations and campaign for reform.
We are mobilizing the 3 million activists, supporters and members who make up the global Amnesty International movement to put pressure on the Egyptian and other governments to respect all of the rights of their citizens – whether it is the right to speak freely and to peacefully protest without fear of being jailed or attacked, or the right not to be tortured, or the right not to suffer sexism or racism, or the right of everyone, including slum-dwellers, not to be evicted and left homeless.
These activists organize mass events, publicize human rights crimes and help bombard state officials with messages on behalf of men, women and children at risk of abuse.
They put pressure on regional and international bodies to take action and provide training and material so that people are aware of their human rights and better equipped to defend them. And they lobby and campaign for their own governments to exert what pressure and influence they can directly on the Egyptian government to end violations and to respect the right of Egyptians to peacefully protest and to deliver in practice on their other human rights obligations.
Inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, and in solidarity with the Egyptian and Tunisian people, on Thursday February 3rd, thousands of anti-government protesters took part in a protest calling on Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down after 33 years.
A day before Thursday’s demonstration, president Saleh announced that he would not seek re-election when his present term ends in 2013 and he will postpone April’s parliamentary election, two of the key demands of the opposition. Yemen is entering its third week of protests calling for reforms, including an end to unemployment, and respect for freedom of expression.
Yemen — challenged by the presence of al-Qa’ida, a separatist movement in the south, and peacekeeping with the Shia rebels (Huthis) in the north — has increasingly resorted to repressive and illegal methods, including arbitrary arrest and unfair trials.
In the midst of growing call for reforms, the crackdown on freedom of expression has worsened. The Yemeni government has become increasingly intolerant of the independent media and any criticism. Journalists, editors and publishers have been detained, held incommunicado, ill-treated and jailed on spurious charges after unfair trials. Security forces raided newspaper offices and television stations and shot at demonstrators peacefully protesting against repression of free speech. Newspapers have also been suspended and news websites blocked.
In the wake of Ben Ali’s flight from Tunisia, Tunisian authorities have an unprecedented opportunity to address past abuse and overhaul a corrupt security and justice system. But authorities must act quickly and decisively, as political unrest threatens the new caretaker government.
Protesters chant slogan while riot police stand by during a demonstration in downtown Tunis January 17, 2011. Tunisian security forces used water cannon, tear gas and fired shots in the air on Monday as demonstrators took to the streets demanding that the ruling party of the ousted president give up power.
Amnesty International welcomed the government’s initial commitment to ensure that all political prisoners are released, but other urgent steps must still be taken to ensure a new era of justice.
We recently presented the Tunisian authorities with an action plan to break from the government’s repressive history. Our plan calls for the overhaul of the current security system, official condemnation of torture, and the establishment of an independent judiciary. Authorities must also ensure that rights, such as freedom of expression and universal access to essential public services, are immediately established.
Neither Tunisian authorities nor citizens will soon forget the human rights violations committed under Ben Ali’s rule. To ensure a future of security and freedom, violations of the past decades should be fully investigated. Tunisian authorities need to ensure that those responsible for past violations are held accountable, establishing the principle that no one is above the law.