Human Rights and the Middle East

RICK HALPERIN – “Pick a country and it becomes apparent that it has a whole host of problems.” 

Michael Wilburn — undergraduate student at Southern Methodist University — interviewed Prof. Halperin about human rights and the Middle East.

What were the most important human rights transgressions committed by the United States during the War on Terror, particularly in Iraq? Have the effects of these transgressions been felt outside the region?

 America’s human rights issues include violations of the rules of war by soldiers in Iraq, who are alleged to have committed rape and murder of innocent Iraqi civilians. Some of those soldiers could face the death penalty in the United States, which is certainly a domestic human rights issue. There is widespread use of drones throughout the region, from Yemen to Pakistan and Afghanistan, killing innocent people who were targeted mistakenly. There has also been a drone strike used to kill an American citizen, which has drawn sharp rebuke from the American Civil Liberties Union, and a strong defense by the US Attorney General. There have been crimes of war against women. Many thousands of people have been made into refugees. As with all wars, the current conflict brings with it a litany of human rights problems, no matter how justifiable the United States thinks its war is or was.

Has the US involvement in the region solved any human rights problems?

 It led to a regime change in Iraq. Clearly the demise of Saddam Hussein was one of the major changes stemming from the war. Of course his arrest led to a human rights issue of him being hanged, and has not led to the desired peace, stability, and introduction of democracy. But what remains to happen in Iraq is still anybody’s guess.

What are the biggest issues in the region that still remain unsolved?

There are myriad issues that remain. Will the US play any role in helping to address the Israeli-Palestinian issue? What is the future of Iran’s quest to obtain nuclear weapons? How much more oppression Syria will withstand by the hand of its own government, and will the West assist the Syrian citizenry? What role will Egypt play in the region? The country is certainly not settled a year after the Arab Spring. There are certain questions regarding what will happen to Libya, and virtually every other state in the region. The Middle East is about as unstable as it could be, from one end to the other, in any time in recent memory. Pick a country and it becomes apparent that it has a whole host of problems.

Speaking of the United States’ role in the region, do you consider the NATO intervention in Libya a success?

 The answer depends on how “success” is defined. If the goal was to end the oppression of Colonel Gaddafi, then certainly the NATO intervention was successful. Like Saddam Hussein he was toppled, and killed. If one defines “success” as the transition from Gaddafi’s Libya to a peaceful, democratic state, then it is far too early to tell. Articles are appearing now that report local tribesmen in Libya want to break the country into distinct entities. Ultimately, I would not call the NATO operations a success when I consider the big-picture of bringing a stable democratic Libya onto the African map.

Looking to the north, what are your thoughts on the situation in Syria? 

 The situation in Syria raises truly troubling and disturbing questions as to how long the world, or Syria’s neighbors in particular, are willing to watch one of their neighbors inflict a repressive regime on its citizens. I am not advocating that the US act as the “Global Police Force,” to singularly depose the Assad regime, but the situation has developed into a real humanitarian crisis. The fact that the international community is taking a hands-off attitude while innocent people are being killed is horrifying. At this point, I think that the initial burden of action should fall on Syria’s neighbors.

Along the Arabian Peninsula, countries like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have passed some laws that improve the rights of citizens. Will these laws bring about any meaningful change, or will they serve as appeasement to the West?

 I would say these laws are defined more by the latter. I see no fundamental shift coming any time soon to seriously challenge the regimes in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis seem to be the more “peaceful” — the more stable — country in the region. Although they may grant some concessions to women and minorities in the future, I do not see them as the bastion of tolerance and human rights.

Speaking of minority rights, what type of revolution would need to occur for minority rights to achieve the same recognition as they have in other parts of the world?

I think there needs to be an ideological shift throughout much of the region to recognize the inherent equality of all people, and their inherent natural rights. Until that day comes, there will continue to be repressive actions against minorities not only in that part of the world, but in any country that looks at people who are different as a threat. That does not seem to be the case at the moment.

Do you think “Islamic Democracies” as are springing up in countries like Egypt or Tunisia can support human rights?

 It remains to be seen. It is all well to allow people the right to vote, and to allow their elected representatives to assume power. One must hope that the process of voting is fair. If that is the case, if international monitors can verify that voting procedures were fair and inclusive of all parties, then the results of those elections should be respected, no matter what party comes to power, and the new government should only be judged according to its record as rulers.

The Arab Spring has been going on for a year now. Out of the countries affected in the Middle East, do you see a leader emerging in any of them?

I could not put forward a name at this point in any particular country of someone who is emerging — male or female — as a prospective, strong leader for his or her country to which people are looking. In Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt — any country across North Africa — there are no single names that are emerging of people who are strongly pursuing democratic ideals. 

At a time when viral videos like “Kony 2012” are spreading awareness of human rights abuses around the world, what do you think it will take to push the US and its allies to be more activist in terms of drawing down the conflict in the region?

One has to look at this issue in the broader totality of what has been happening in the region for years. The United States has been involved non-stop in some capacity, one could argue, since American hostages were taken in Iran in November 1979. The US has been involved in military conflicts, several invasions of Iraq and Kuwait, American troops have been killed by bombs in Lebanon. The US military has been mired in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region of the broader Middle East. From inside the United States, it is difficult to think of the country as divorced from involvement in the region. There is little highlighting of American foreign policy in any other region aside from North Africa and the Middle East crescent. It is difficult to see America not involved in that region.

Yet, when I was young, there was a similar focus, but at that time it was on Southeast Asia. With the spread of communism and the war in Vietnam, it was hard for me to imagine a world in which the US was not mired in Southeast Asian affairs. But today, of course, we are nowhere to be found in terms of foreign policies in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, or Vietnam. American policies are focused on getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan; hopefully the country can disentangle itself from the practice of putting soldiers and citizens in those countries at risk. However, I cannot see this goal being realized any time soon; there is no real end in sight in terms of America not having a presence in the Middle East. 


RICK HALPERIN is the director of the Embrey Human Rights Program at Southern Methodist University, and has served as a two-time chair on the board of directors of Amnesty International USA.

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