Albeit its charm and the nostalgic (perhaps nationalistic) connotations it implies, the term “Arab Human Rights Movement” is ambiguous and a bit delusional and cautious must be observed when even referring to the Arab region as a one entity. On one hand, the term “Rights Movement” is very problematic and its viability is critically questioned, and on the other hand, reference to Arab region is oversimplifying and is based on conceptual and political assumptions that need to be adequately assessed at this moment in time.
There are historical, geographical and common interests bonds between Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa, which cannot be challenged. However, examining basic ingredients of the contemporary discourse about defending human rights in Arab countries, may require an operational perspective, which looks into the state of collective action in these countries concerning rights protection, and may also deem investigating how systemic those efforts are.
Countries of the Arab world have witnessed the arrival of an increasing number of non-governmental organizations, non-profits and civic organizations in If in the past twenty or more years. Not all of these countries have seen the same level of phenomenal increase, while some of them have not seen it all (Syria for instance). Some of those organizations emerged as purely human rights organizations, while the bulk of others were founded on broader democracy building, participation and political reform platform. To apply the concept of “movement” to this phenomenon, one has to argue that a body of people or organizations [are] working together to advance a shared or a common goal. That is not the case in the field of human rights defense in the Arab countries of the MENA region.
Without a common goal, there is no movement to begin with. And this is a fundamental and structural problem marking the bulk of Arab human rights NGOs work. Whether we are discussing a goal in one country, a number of countries or pan-Arab goal; there is no operational evidence (derived from operations of the NGOs) that even goals exist in a wider political context of impact.
Networking, coalitions and forums for actions are good marks of collective work towards a common goal. However, in the context of Arab countries human rights NGOs, these facets of action are project-based and in most of the cases are donor-driven.
Some of the best and solid human rights organizations in Arab countries remained operational throughout the years relying primarily or solely on their individual capacities and resources to conduct aspects of human rights defense work in their countries and/or in other countries. There is an elephant in the room that cant be hidden or mistaken: rivalry in the dress of competition. It is healthy for a certain professional sector to be accommodating a diverse spectrum of individuals and groups that do not look the same or say the same things. It is not healthy, and here is a strong argument against the existence of a movement in the recent history, to have players in the same sector (let alone the sector itself is defense of society human rights) engaging in a universe of down-the-table hostilities, boycott and adversary.
A tremendous deficit of the work of Arab human rights groups, is their inability to provide space for individuals (those who are not members or staff of the organizations). It is not enough to argue that the requirements of contemporary NGOs do not make such space as this argument, among other reasons, is a pretext for exclusion and disconnect with vibrant elements in the social/political sphere.
And finally, a movement as term should be seen in its wider context of applicability- that is, it goes beyond the organizations and individuals associated professionally in a certain field of work, and extends to members of the civil society, political entities, the media, think tanks, academia and other members of the entire society.
The Arab Human Rights Movement does not exist. And this is not a shock-and-awe statement. It is simultaneous interpretation of how the environment looks like. In countries where the humane suffering reached an extent when right to life, in itself, becomes a low-priced debate amid armed conflict, revenge, retaliation and sweeping stateless and lawlessness; in these places we don’t see a vocal collective body of action that seek to minimize harm, bring protection of lives atop of the agenda and we hardly see a consensus on subjects that are essentially principles and should never be compromised.
Civic space is declining almost everywhere in Arab countries. Without space, there is less that Human Rights defenders (groups or individuals) can do. True. But there is no strong evidence that the “Movement” proactively worked to maintaining the space, or, maintained the degree of its openness wherever it still has some margins of liberty. These are challenging times on so many levels, but in this particular context, it is a time when we perhaps should pay careful attention to how rights can be defended in this part of the world, whether there is or isn’t a [human rights] movement.