As soon as the Egyptian and Tunisian dictators, Mubarak and Ben Ali, felt the axe of accountability approaching shortly before they were toppled, they had the secret files of their security services destroyed. Mistakenly they thought they could erase the history of decades of crimes and oppression against their own citizens. Amnesty International had been documenting human rights violations in Egypt and Tunisia for many years. In explaining Amnesty International’s crucial role in the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, Secretary-general Salil Shetty stressed Amnesty’s consistent struggle for accountability: “We told the Egyptian authorities: if Egyptians want to put their oppressors on trial, they can come to us. We have archives documenting 30 years of brutal human rights violations.”
It is thanks to Amnesty International that leaders cannot change the course of history by simply destroying internal files. Just as Amnesty had been on the side of victims and human rights defenders during the years of dictatorship, it was on the ground during the uprising. Not just in emblematic places such as Tahrir Square, but all over Egypt.
Amnesty researcher Diana Eltahawy, herself Egyptian, met with countless people whose family members were killed by security forces during the protests: “Many Egyptian activists thanked us for that. People who have suffered for 30 years did not forget Amnesty’s sustained call for accountability.” When the attention of the world is quickly shifting away after the hottest moments, Amnesty keeps on shining a light on the victims who lost loved ones and who demand justice.
One of these people Amnesty lifted from the darkness of isolation is Fahem Boukkadous, a Tunisian journalist and human rights activist targeted repeatedly by the Ben Ali regime. Now an active member of Amnesty Tunisia, Fahem spent years in jail without trial. He was one of the last political prisoners to be released after Ben Ali’s fall.
When Fahem addresses Amnesty’s 30th International Council Meeting, the audience holds it breath: “I was treated in a barbaric way in the presence of the Minister of Interior himself. I was disappeared for 6 months and after that I was detained for 2 years. I was severely ill. It was Amnesty that took rapid action for me to be freed. I also got the medical care I needed. Without it, I would have died. I feel indebted to Amnesty, even for my life. All the letters that were sent to me from all the branches of Amnesty gave me strength. Amnesty has played a crucial role documenting the violations of the rights of more than 45.000 political prisoners in Tunisia. You should all be proud of this. The Tunisian revolution belongs to all of you.”
It is crystal clear that Amnesty’s work changes and saves lives. And through the activism of human rights defenders who were once victims, Amnesty is changing the lives of many other people. Amnesty researchers sometimes put their own safety at risk. Two of them were arrested in Egypt. After their release they immediately resumed their work. Amnesty Tunisia’s chairperson Sondes Garbouf confirms: “I was impressed about how the Amnesty researchers took great risks. They came to Tunisia doing research on the streets, while there were snipers out there. Without this work, the report on Tunisia would never have been made. And for the Tunisian section this report is so important.”
Troubled times ahead
Libya was referred to the International Criminal Court, an international commission of inquiry was appointed to look into Bahrein’s cruel oppression of peaceful protests, Mubarak and Ben Ali are facing trial. These are victories for the human rights movement in the region. But troubled times are ahead. The transition period in Egypt and Tunisia comes with great opportunities, but even greater dangers.
Tunisian human rights lawyer Radhia Nasraoui: “The new governments are not issued from the revolutionary movement. They are the men of Ben Ali. His party, the RCD, and the Muslim brotherhood are better organized than the other parties. This is dangerous, because in two months we are going to elections.”
Nasraoui puts part of the blame on the other parties: “A lot of parties do not respond to the real needs of the people. An independent justice system is still not guaranteed. Ben Ali is being put on trial for minor crimes. Tunisians want justice for the crimes of torture, oppression and murder. This has not happened until today. The political police was so called dissolved, but this is a big lie. Still today, as we speak, they are arresting and torturing protestors. These violations are completely ignored by the justice system. The government is playing a dirty game. Intentionally, the police does not intervene when radical Islamists attack people, cafés and restaurants during Ramadan. Many people fear they want to create a situation of instability.”
Nasraoui congratulates Amnesty for being among the international organizations who were the most present during the decades of dictatorship: “We never felt forgotten, despite all Ben Ali’s efforts to isolate us. The people count on Amnesty to stand by their side, also in the difficult period of transition and counter-revolution.”
The biggest push for freedom and social justice in decades
It seems so far Amnesty has been living up to expectations, but the next two years will be crucial for the region, and for the human rights struggle. We are confronting the biggest challenge to the biggest push for freedom and social justice in decades. ‘Hurriyah’ and ‘karama’, freedom and dignity, were not only the people’s main slogans, but they are also Amnesty’s core values. People demand better economic conditions, jobs and opportunities, but they understand that they will only get real human development through political participation and democracy. They have shown the world how political rights and social-economic rights are indivisible.
Amnesty’s Senior Director for Research Claudio Cordone is warning us: “The region has been a priority for Amnesty. Between January and July 2011, 3 researchers carried out 15 missions, a total of 600 days. There were 300 press statements on the region. On all the other regions together, there were 400 in total. References to Amnesty in the media more than doubled and 40% of them were on the Middle East and North Africa. But without additional resources we cannot sustain the intensive way in which we have been handling the crisis in the region.”
That’s why Secretary-general Salil Shetty, fully aware of Amnesty’s responsibility not to miss this historic occasion, launches an appeal to the Amnesty-movement: “Opportunities are high, but our resources are low. In Egypt people came up to me asking me ‘how can I join Amnesty’? Amnesty has lost time by not having a stronger presence in the region.”
Amnesty did well to start working with local partners in the countries where the violations are actually happening. The uprising in the Middle East and North Africa shows that human rights change is increasingly driven from within. The people have toppled oppressive dictators, but they will need help to change oppressive systems.
Activism is in the air, where is Amnesty?
Amnesty is only just starting to grow a support base in the region. In 2010 Amnesty research and campaigns enlisted about 1.8 million individuals to take action worldwide, but with only about 30,000 of them based in Africa, the Middle East and North Africa. This shows a pressing need to find solutions for the relatively low number of members and supporters in the region.
In documenting human rights abuses, Amnesty has made a difference. But if Amnesty is that appreciated in the region, then why do we still have that few members and activists there? The newly found freedom of assembly and the awoken political consciousness present Amnesty with tremendous opportunities to recruit activists and to strengthen local human rights organizations. Activism is in the air and it is now that Amnesty should be visible.
The culture of oppression of human rights organizations undoubtedly helps in explaining the low number of Amnesty members in the region. Iranian Nobel peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi, present here at this International Council Meeting, recognizes this: “Dictators did not allow civil society to gain strength. Now we must help these people to realize democracies and strengthen civil society.”
Also women’s organizations are defending their democratic space of participation. “Women were the equals of men when it came to oppression. That is why they participated massively in the protests” says Radhia Nasraoui. “But once again, during the transition process, when decisions are made that will impact their lives, they are marginalized.” Amnesty UK director Kate Allen captures the taste these women got of participation and equality: “For the first time in their lives they experienced equality in Tahrir square. And they want to keep that spirit alive. They will not remain silent when blocked out from political discussions. Take the discussions around the new constitution in Egypt. The president’s wife cannot be a foreigner. This means that the president cannot be a women. This is a huge insult to Egyptian women.”
Diana Eltahawy closes the session with a statement that reminds me of why I am proud to be an Amnesty-activist: “The 1,5 million African workers in Libya, mistaken for mercenaries in the service of Ghadaffi, suffered a lot of attacks. Libyans were very reluctant to talk to us about this. But Amnesty condemned not only violations that everyone was condemning. We stand on the side of every human being’s human rights. Accountability is for all, not just for those we agree with.” Tomorrow Eltahawy is going back to Egypt and Lybia to present the Amnesty research report. “We hope our message will be received, and that we will not be chased from Benghazi.” And so Amnesty contributes to a culture of human rights, justice and accountability for all.
Over 400 Amnesty-activists leave the conference room with a sense of urgency and purpose. “The voice of freedom is calling in every street. Tomorrow is vivid before us” are the words of the song Sout al-Hurreya blasting from the speakers. Tomorrow Amnesty will be fighting for freedom and social justice alongside the people of the Middle East and North Africa. Tomorrow Egyptian, Tunisian, Lybian, Moroccan, Algerian, Lebanese and even Syrian Amnesty-activists will be in every street. This is our ambition, this is our dream.