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Contesting Narratives, Locating Power (Lund Conference)

Problematics of Teaching International Law in the Contemporary Middle East

[image from Getty Images] [image from Getty Images]

Even mention of my course’s title, human rights law in the Middle East evokes the inevitable snicker-what human rights in the Middle East? While true that the authoritarian landscape throughout the Middle East has marginalized any serious engagement with human rights, this discounts domestic struggles that have historically fought for human rights without using the discourse of the international legal canon. Moreover, in the aftermath of the revolutions that have swept North Africa and the upheavals that continue throughout the Arab world, there are at least three trends worth noting that will impact the way in which human rights is taught.

First, Israel has historically created a distinction between its violation of human rights vis-à-vis its Arab neighbors. By justifying its repression as a means of national security and self-defense, it has publicly challenged the application of human rights law to its practices by pointing to its Arab counterparts as more deserving of scrutiny. Israel has claimed that the human rights violations committed in the maintenance of authoritarian regimes is distinct from its human rights violations because the former is committed in the crude preservation of power. This discourse both obviates Israel’s apartheid regime and orientalizes human rights violations in the Middle East – our practices are justified, yours are categorically brutal. The uprisings throughout the Arab world and the brutal responses to them in the name of self-defense, which mirror Israel’s practices work to chip away at human rights’ orientalist discourse.

Second, it is worth noting that before, during, and after the revolutions and upheavals throughout the Arab world, the protestors did not use the international human rights legal canon to make its claims upon the State. Instead, it employed a political language of reform, revolution, and equality that resonated with demands for human dignity rather than those demanding compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or other similar treaty. This comports with Hannah Arendt’s reflections on human rights as being a matter of human dignity activated by the assumption of individual and collective agency. While the international covenants remain useful in the realm of international advocacy their insignificance during the revolutions demonstrates their futility as mobilizing documents and discourses more generally. This of course is not a static condition and can be challenged by future movements throughout the region that may find greater strategic utility for the legal canon.

Finally, the revolutions and more specifically the political response and media coverage of them has unequivocally shattered the veneer of the universality of human rights. While the cornerstone of human rights practice is their universal character i.e., to be applied without distinction globally irrespective of local conditions and cultural nuances, the inconsistent response to the revolutions most notably demonstrated in the US’s support for Egyptian revolution and its support for the violent suppression of similar movements in Bahrain, has undermined this principle. The US is not alone in this response as has also been demonstrated by intervention in Libya and negligence in Yemen. Governments have not been alone in their disparate responses, as media outlets are also implicated in their distinct coverage. While this is not noteworthy to most critical observers, it does make explicit the very real interplay between law and politics in the realm of human rights that is often, and irresponsibly, trumped by asserting the universal nature of human rights. 

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