Middle East Protests Draw Focus to Freedom of Expression and Political Rights

In the ongoing wake of pro-democracy demonstrations that has swept through Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Yemen, Iran, Bahrain and Jordan, and which have affected other countries in the region – including Syria and Kuwait – the United Nations and human rights organizations are focusing on freedom of expression, political rights, and the role of democracy in the protection of other human rights. [HRW; Impunity Watch; Washington Post; Time]

UN experts have called on governments to “pay more attention to people’s voices” and meet demands for respect for human rights under law and redress of abuses. A joint statement by several UN special rapporteurs and other experts stated:

Recent events in several countries are an expression of the frustration felt by many individuals whose voices have been neglected or ignored by their own Governments.

Over the past several weeks, men and women in many countries, including Belarus, Egypt and Tunisia, have expressed grievances related to, among others, lack of employment opportunities and infringements on the right to an adequate standard of living, including the rights to food and housing, which have been exacerbated by the increasing cost of food and other basic commodities. They have also denounced the denial of their right to participate meaningfully in decision-making, underscoring the indivisibility of all human rights: civil, cultural, economic, political and social.

We are alarmed at increasing limitations on the right to freedom of expression and information imposed by Governments actively seeking to suppress the rising number of voices who wish to be heard. We are particularly concerned by ill-treatment and arbitrary arrests of protesters, journalists, human rights defenders and lawyers. We are disturbed at the major disruptions in communication networks and transmissions of news so essential to the modern world.

The freedoms of peaceful assembly and association are among the most fundamental rights underpinning a democratic society. We applaud the Human Rights Council for having confirmed this by creating a new human rights mechanism and look forward to the appointment of the expert who will be tasked to uphold these rights.

Notwithstanding this, we deeply deplore the tragic loss of lives and injuries as a result, in some cases, of the excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators. We urge Governments to abide by international standards, including those on the use of force and firearms. Prompt and impartial investigations into any related deaths or injuries are of the utmost importance to bring the perpetrators to justice and protect human rights under the rule of law is paramount.

As the recent turmoil has demonstrated, ignoring the root causes of such protests is unsustainable, and concerted, effective and prompt action must be taken domestically and internationally to provide an avenue for peaceful redress of human rights grievances, including the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. We stand ready to assist the respective countries in any appropriate manner.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights similarly called on Egypt to abide by Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government”, while praising the popular uprising in that country. The High Commissioner also recalled that Egypt has been under emergency law for thirty years. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights will send a mission in Egypt to assess the human rights situation there following Mubarak’s resignation.

For a compelling analysis of the demonstrations in the Middle East, see Human Rights Watch’s Sarah Leah Whitson’s article You’re Next – And You Know Who You Are.

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