Beirut Port Explosion: How Government Neglect and Corruption Have Caused Human Rights Abuses in Lebanon

The recent explosion of the port in Beirut, Lebanon has garnered widespread international attention. While it is still unknown what caused this explosion, two things are known: explosive material had been stored there for years, and the Lebanese government was aware of this fact. For many years now, both government corruption and negligence have been causing human rights abuses felt across all Lebanon, so the explosion in Beirut, while one of the deadliest manifestations of this corruption and negligence, is no anomaly.

An image showing the aftermath of the explosion at the port in Beirut, Lebanon
The Aftermath of the Port Explosion in Beirut, Lebanon. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

The Lebanese Government

To understand the culture and politics of Lebanon, it is important to understand the way the Lebanese government is set up. When Lebanon first gained independence, the government was divided up so that the several religions in the country would be represented in the government. To do this, it was decided that the President would be a Maronite Christian, the Speaker of the Parliament would be a Shia Muslim, and the Prime Minister would be a Sunni Muslim. In principle, this was a good way of ensuring political representation for each group. However, many problems have occurred because of this. Today, each religious group defends their own government representatives without holding them accountable for their corruption and negligence, and instead blame other groups’ politicians and representatives when problems arise in Lebanon. This has not only allowed for corruption to go unchecked, but it has also caused the divisiveness and sectarian conflict that has become characteristic of Lebanese society.

Government Corruption

While the extent of government corruption has been mostly speculative, an accusation leveled against one of the top politicians in Lebanon last fall seemed to confirm many Lebanese citizens’ suspicions about Lebanese politicians’ corruption. The politician in question is Najib Mikati, previous Prime Minister of Lebanon. Mikati is Lebanon’s richest man, with an estimated net worth of $2.5 billion. Many people have alleged that this accumulation of wealth could only have been the product of illegal activity, and this allegation seemed to be confirmed in October 2019, when a prosecutor pressed charges against Mikati, accusing him and his family of stealing millions of dollars that were meant to be used as housing loans for low and middle-income Lebanese citizens. Despite the fact that Mikati denied this accusation and it has yet to be shown to be true, the accusation was enough to gain traction among the citizens of Lebanon, who used this as conclusive proof of widespread government corruption. While this is only one instance, most of the politicians in Lebanon are millionaires, which leads many to believe that all are involved in some form of corruption.

Economic Decline and Revolution of 2019

While government corruption is in and of itself a problem, this corruption has also had negative ramifications on the economy; it has been argued that it is the primary cause of the steep decline in Lebanon’s economy. In 2018, economic growth for Lebanon was just 0.2 percent, with a 30 percent unemployment rate for youth, and due to these conditions, citizens of Lebanon were becoming increasingly critical of the quality of life in Lebanon, with many explicitly blaming politicians. In an attempt to improve the economy, Lebanese politicians began imposing taxes on many different commodities. While this angered many people, the revolution of 2019 did not begin until the government imposed a tax on WhatsApp, a free messaging service popular in the Middle East. It must be understood that the revolution was not just about the WhatsApp tax, as this was merely one of many contributing factors. In reality, much of the anger that spurred the revolution was due to both the dire conditions in Lebanon and the Lebanese government’s decision to place the burden of fixing the economy on the citizens, despite the fact that the politicians’ own corruption is what has led Lebanon to the brink of collapse.

An image showing protesters in Beirut, Lebanon
The 2019 Lebanese Revolution. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Coronavirus Impact

While government corruption is to blame for the bleak conditions in Lebanon, the coronavirus has only further exacerbated these issues. Since the first outbreak in Lebanon, there have been several lockdowns, all of which have negatively impacted the economy. The most damaging impact has been the devaluing of the Lebanese Pound, which was already losing much of its value before the pandemic, but has now lost over 75 percent of its value. The devaluing of the currency not only bears negative consequences on the health of the Lebanese economy as a whole, but it has also made it impossible for many in Lebanon to afford basic necessities. As a result of the devaluing of the currency, prices of medicine, food, and rent have all increased exponentially, nearly 40 percent of the population has been pushed below the poverty line, and almost one million people have insufficient access to food.

Explosion of the Port of Beirut

On August 4, 2,750 tonnes of explosive material improperly stored at the port of Beirut exploded, completely destroying the port and surrounding areas. Until today, it is unknown what caused the explosion, but it has since been revealed that the government was warned about this material almost six years ago and were even warned by security officials to remove the material a few weeks before the explosion. The fact that the government initially stored 2,750 tonnes of explosive material near a residential area and for years ignored warnings to confiscate this material attests to the level of negligence that the government has towards its citizens and its country. To say that the government’s negligence has devastated Beirut would be an understatement; at least 171 people have died, thousands are injured, and over 300,000 are now homeless. Since the explosion, the Prime Minster has resigned, protesters have returned to the streets, and Lebanese citizens are now determined to see the fall of the government. There are many uncertainties in the aftermath of this explosion, but one thing is certain for most, if not all, Lebanese people: the Lebanese government is solely to blame for this tragedy.

Due to government corruption and negligence, Lebanon has been slowly moving towards total collapse. As the country reels further into political, social, and economic unrest, the people of Lebanon have become more and more convinced that the government is not concerned with either their protection or livelihood. However, this is not the first time the Lebanese people have suffered at the hands of their government, and for this reason, voices of resilience and hope are ringing through the streets of Lebanon; just as the people of Lebanon have overcome other hardships before, they have a conviction that they too will overcome this. As a testament to this, many Lebanese people have been calling Beirut a phoenix, for despite the destruction caused by the explosion, the citizens of Lebanon believe that Beirut will rise from the ashes.

The Coronavirus in the Middle East: Its Impact on Sectarianism and Refugees

The coronavirus has spread to virtually every country of the world, but due to differences in privilege and access to resources, many countries are unable to adequately address this pandemic as well as other countries are. However, for countries in the Middle East, in addition to these differentials, the pandemic has also further exacerbated many preexisting problems that the region faces, namely political, economic, and social unrest. While this outbreak has had ramifications on several facets of life in the Middle East, this blog post will be focusing on the outbreak’s impact on sectarianism and the refugee crisis.

An image showing Shia Muslims visiting a shrine.
Shrine visitation. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Sectarian Conflict

The Middle East is marred by the Sunni-Shia conflict, and geopolitics are heavily influenced by this divide. Because of this, the divide is often invoked when something disastrous occurs in the region, with each side blaming the other, and the coronavirus outbreak has proven to be no exception. Although the coronavirus has spread to all Middle Eastern countries, Iran, a Shia-majority country, has been disproportionately impacted; as of March 31st, Iran has had 44,605 coronavirus cases and 2,898 deaths, making it one of the countries with the most cases in the world. Further, Iran has now been identified as the source of spread to other Middle Eastern countries; some of the earliest identified cases in the Middle East were all of people who had recently traveled to Qom, one of the holiest cities in Iran. Despite the fact that people were aware of the outbreak in Iran, visitations to holy shrines in Iran were not discouraged, and people continued to travel to these holy sites. Any large gatherings during this time pose a risk, but shrine visitations are especially risky; many people engage in practices at shrines, such as kissing and touching the shrines, that lead to an increased likelihood of spreading. Since the outbreak is speculated to have spread from Qom, the city where one of the holiest shrines, the shrine of Sayyida Fatima al-Zahraa, is located, it is not unlikely that transmission did occur like this.

Because the spread has been identified as coming from Iran, many Sunni-majority countries in the Middle East have used this as an opportunity to justify further prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims. For example, Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia who recently traveled to Iran for shrine visitations were labeled as traitors, leading some to call for their execution. In other countries, such as Lebanon, preexisting sectarian conflict has only gotten worse. It has been claimed that the first case in Lebanon came from Iran, leading many to blame the Shia Muslim population of Lebanon. Further, the Lebanese government continued to allow flights from Iran up until mid-March. Due to this, many have criticized Iran’s influence in Lebanon, specifically its influence on the government.

 

An image showing a Syrian refugee camp.
A Syrian refugee camp. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Refugees in the Middle East

There have been refugees in the Middle East for the past several decades, but the number of refugees significantly increased after the Arab Uprising in 2011. Because refugees often live in destitute conditions, the coronavirus outbreak would prove to be disastrous for them. Once a case of the coronavirus reaches a refugee camp, there will be little to nothing that can be done to stop its spread; large families live within the same tent, usually only five feet apart from other nearby tents. For this reason alone, social distancing is not an option for refugees living in camps, highlighting the intrinsic privilege of others’ ability to practice and call for social distancing. In addition to this problem, refugees also do not have access to the resources necessary for sanitization, namely due to lack of access to clean water. Further, there are often no established healthcare systems within refugee camps, making it difficult for them to access resources that would be needed to aid infected individuals. Even if refugees were to seek health care outside of the camps, it is not guaranteed that they would have access to this care. For example, many refugees are internally displaced in war-torn countries where hospitals have been demolished and those that are still standing are severely lacking in resources. Further, even when refugees resettle in other countries with established health care systems, it is not incorrect to assume that nationals of that country will be given preference over refugees for treatment and access to resources.

Despite the scarcity of resources and bleak outlook for refugee camps, measures have been taken to ensure that refugees are protected as best as they can be from the coronavirus. For example,  many refugee camps have been sanitized with anti-bacterial spray. Certain organizations, such as Islamic Relief, have donated supplies, including rubbing alcohol and medicine that treats certain symptoms of the coronavirus, to ensure that if an outbreak does occur within a camp, there are some necessary resources available. Finally, the UNHCR has appealed governments for $33 million in funds to provide refugees access to hygiene kits, protective gear, and sanitary water, among other things, that could help deter the spread of the coronavirus.

Recently, an IHR Intern wrote a blog about racism and discrimination that arises during outbreaks such as this one. While Asians have largely been victims to racism during this period, in the Middle East, Iran and Shia Muslims have been targeted, highlighting that people do indeed try to blame such events on others when, in reality, there is no one that should be blamed. Further, times like this also highlight the level of privilege many of us live in; while we have the privilege to access resources and to distance ourselves from one another, other groups who lack such privileges, namely refugees, cannot practice any of these things. Thus, while we are all impacted by this outbreak, it is important to recognize that many people, in addition to worrying about the coronavirus, face other obstacles during this time as well, and these groups should be kept in mind.

Impact of Covid-19 in Conflict Zones

A photo of 3 medical professionals in masks and white suits carrying testing machines in war-torn Syria
Medical professionals in war-torn Syria fear the worst after first case reported. Source: Yahoo Images

“Wash your hands.” “Avoid close contact with others.” “Stay home.” These are the CDC’s recommendations for protecting yourself against the coronavirus and the disease that it causes, COVID-19. For those of us fortunate enough to have clean water and soap and space and a home, that is helpful advice and easy enough to follow, even if it is somewhat of a disruption to our normal lives. Unfortunately, these recommendations are completely irrelevant to the millions of people across the globe who live in conflict zones and refugee camps where fresh water is scarce, sanitary facilities are lacking, and the healthcare infrastructure has been decimated by war and continuous violence. In places where day to day survival is already a key concern, the novel coronavirus poses a new kind of threat, one that the struggling healthcare systems in these countries is not prepared to take on. 

While the U.S. government and media have focused on individual vulnerabilities, such as age and underlying respiratory conditions, very little has been done to address social and structural vulnerabilities, including limited access to basic services, health care, safe water, sanitation, and hygiene, in some of the most dangerous places in the world. Overcrowded refugee camps are a virus’ dream – they provide conditions in which the virus can spread rapidly and easily. Individuals living in these places are already prone to respiratory problems due to air pollution and living in close quarters. Unsanitary conditions and lack of housing, food, and clean water exacerbate the risk of contracting an infectious disease, and the lack of access to basic health care makes fighting any kind of infection difficult. The coronavirus is highly contagious and has a very high global mortality rate, even in places where social distancing and healthcare are accessible, and this rate will likely be significantly higher in conflict zones where large numbers of displaced people live. Preventing the virus from entering these spaces is the only hope, but as Dr. Esperanza Martinez, head of health for the International Committee of the Red Cross, has said, “this is uncharted territory,” and it is unclear how effective containment strategies will be in reality (or if they are even possible in certain places).

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 126 million people around the world are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 70 million who have been forcibly displaced from their homes, mostly due to violence. COVID-19 is adding a new layer of uncertainty and fear to the already precarious and vulnerable status of these individuals and families. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration have suspended refugee resettlement programs, and many governments worldwide have stopped the intake of refugees who are fleeing violence and food insecurity. Cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in war-torn areas in the Middle East, including Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip, and Ninevah, a displaced persons camp in Iraq, as well as in several African countries, including war-torn Libya, Cameroon, and the Congo. This post considers how this global pandemic will likely impact people living in three particularly dangerous and vulnerable countries in the Middle East and West Africa: Syria, Yemen, and Burkina Faso. 

Syria

Nine years into the seemingly endless civil war in Syria, more than 380,000 people have died, dozens of towns and cities razed to the ground and half of the country’s entire population displaced. Targeted attacks have left Syria’s once thriving public health care system in shambles. Hospitals and clinics have been destroyed or damaged to the point of not functioning. Medicine and medical supplies are limited, healthcare workers are few, and travel to the still-operational clinics and hospitals is out of the question for many of the sick and suffering. Of particular concern is the refugee camp in Idlib, a town in the northwestern province near Turkey, where many displaced individuals now live. The conditions of the camp are dire – there is limited access to soap and water and overcrowding makes social distancing impossible – so self-protecting is a major challenge.

Syria reported its first case of coronavirus a few days ago, from a woman who had recently traveled to Iran, a country that is backing the Syrian government in the civil war and where Shia pilgrims frequently travel. There are now five confirmed cases (the actual number is suspected to be much higher), and there is growing fear that the virus is spreading unimpeded throughout the northwest, where there is limited capacity to test and monitor the situation, but experts have warned that “if the disease starts, it will spread massively.” Jan Egeland, director general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, has warned that COVID-19 could “decimate refugee communities.” Containment is the only hope, but the shortage of supplies, including test kits, makes this unlikely. 

A young Yemeni man sits atop the rubble with his face in his palm grieving the destruction of his home
Source: Yahoo Images

Yemen

The United Nations has labeled the situation in Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. No cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed yet in Yemen, but the country is bracing for a devastating catastrophe if and when the virus arrives. Since the U.S.-backed war in Yemen began five years ago, Saudi and Emirati coalitions have leveled 120 attacks on medical facilities throughout the country. These attacks, including airstrikes, ground-launched mortar and rockets, and attempts to occupy hospitals and clinics, have led to widespread disruptions in access and service to some of the world’s most vulnerable people, including displaced women, children, and persons with disability. With a mere 51% of the country’s health centers operational, there is a severe shortage of medicine and medical equipment. Even if people in this area can get to a hospital, many hospitals don’t have electricity, rendering a ventilator — a potentially life-saving device for people suffering the most severe symptoms of COVID-19 — out of the question. The decimated healthcare infrastructure is unable to control preventable disease (there was a cholera outbreak a few years ago) and is completely ill-equipped to handle a pandemic. Both the Houthi rebel group (aligned with Iran) and the government recognize the threat the virus poses and are implementing precautionary measures, such as closing schools and halting flights into the area. However, both sides are amping up their rhetoric and are posed to blame the other if and when cases of COVID-19 are confirmed. The United States, for its part, has cut off emergency aid to Yemen, citing the Houthi’s interference in the distribution of supplies and services to starving Yemenis (likely a Saudi-directed approach), but humanitarian officials have warned that this decision will create major funding gaps in efforts to provide hand soap and medicine to clinics and to staff health centers with trained healthcare workers. Yemen’s basic healthcare programs are heavily reliant on foreign aid – about 8 out of 10 Yeminis rely on some form of aid. Eliminating this source of funding could mean suffering and death for millions of displaced persons in Yemen. 

Burkina Faso

On March 18, Burkina Faso, the impoverished West African country of 20 million people, registered its first confirmed case of COVID-19. A week and a half later, that number leapt to146 cases, with hundreds more suspected, making it the hardest hit West African country so far. This tiny, conflict-scarred country is no stranger to hardships, including poverty, drought, rampant hunger, and militia-led coups. In 2019, clashes between government forces and militia groups linked to ISIL and al-Qaeda led to more than 2,000 deaths in Burkina Faso and forced more than 700,000 people to flee their homes. This escalation of violence has led to the closure of 135 health centers in the country, and an additional 140 have reduced their services, leaving 1.5 million Burkinabe in dire need of humanitarian health assistance. With a healthcare system that has been ravaged by war, a mere three facilities in the country are able to carry out the tests, and only a few hundred test kits have been provided. As part of the government’s response, Malian refugees once displaced into Burkina Faso are being forced back into Mali, where ongoing violence inhibits humanitarian and medical access to affected populations. COVID-19 will exacerbate an already dire situation — it is feared that an outbreak would see fatality rates of ten times higher than the global average. “These populations are already very vulnerable to diseases that are otherwise easy to treat,” says Alexandra Lamarche, senior advocate for West and Central Africa at Refugees International, “but that’s not the case when they have no access to water or proper sanitation or health care.” She adds, “We could watch entire populations vanish.”

Bumper sticker that says "All people are created equal members of One Human Family"
Source: Yahoo Images

Against a common enemy?

Rarely does a disaster – natural or otherwise – affect the entire world. The coronavirus is a different story, unlike anything we have witnessed in the modern age. It is exposing the fragility of even the most advanced economic, technological, social and medical systems, and it poses a grave threat to humans the world over. The virus doesn’t discriminate on the basis of status or religion or skin color or any of the other things that divide us or give us cause to fight each other. It travels across borders and between enemies, and the more people it infects, the greater the risk for everyone. Just like the virus, the distribution of basic human rights must not be qualified on the basis of anything other than humanity. Turning a blind eye to the suffering and inadequate conditions of the world’s most vulnerable populations only facilitates the spread of the virus. In a practical sense, limiting the spread of the virus in refugee camps and conflict zones in Yemen and Syria and West Africa is just as important as it is in wealthy countries if the goal is to eliminate the virus and end this global pandemic. That requires distributing resources and investing in large-scale infrastructure improvements in places where people are not able to follow the protocols for containment under the current conditions. As we scramble to make enough surgical-grade masks for healthcare workers in the United States to wear, we need to be concerned with sending as many as possible to medical facilities in places around the world that are under-served and over-taxed, including displaced persons camps. We cannot hope to protect ourselves if we refuse to protect our fellow humans, no matter the distance or cultural difference between us. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called this “the true fight of our lives,” insisting that we put aside our differences, which now seem small and inconsequential, and turn our aggression toward a common enemy. “That is what our human family needs, now more than ever.”

Saudi Arabia Human Rights Violations: Freedom of Religion and Speech

I recently wrote a blog post commending Saudi Arabia on advancements made with women’s rights. However, to follow up, I think it is important to note what Saudi Arabia still gets wrong in terms of human rights. While there are many ongoing human rights violations, the following discourse will focus specifically on the oppression of religious minorities, namely Shia Muslims, and the lack of freedom of speech. I am writing this post not to join the voices that criticize for the sake of criticizing, but rather because I think it is important for Muslims to be vocal about their expectations for countries that claim to be representing Islam.

An image showing Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia protesting the bombing of one of their mosques.
Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia protesting after one of their mosques has been attacked. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Shia Muslims

Shia Muslims are a minority sect in Islam, making up around 10 percent of all Muslims. Because of this, they are often subject to oppression and discrimination by Sunni Muslims. Despite the fact that harmful rhetoric against Shia Muslims exists in most, if not all, Sunni-majority countries, it is especially disturbing in Saudi Arabia considering that the hatred and intolerance towards Shia Muslims has become institutionalized. For example, the Saudi Arabian government has allowed officials and religious scholars to belittle Shia Muslims and their beliefs. This is not only concerning because of the harmful language used, but also because these officials and scholars have influence over both the government and the general public, and thus play significant roles in shaping policy and public opinion. One government official known for spreading hateful rhetoric about Shia Muslims was Former Grand Mufti Abdel Aziz bin Baz, who was quoted saying, “The Shia are Muslims and our brothers? Whoever says this is ignorant, ignorant about rejectionists for their evil is great.” This is one example of many, but it illustrates the hateful rhetoric that Shia Muslims are often victims of.

The institutionalization of hatred against Shia Muslims is most clear in the Saudi Arabian justice and education systems. The justice system is highly discriminatory against Shia Muslims, namely in the criminalization of their religious practices and beliefs. Further, the government has made it illegal to build Shia mosques outside of Shia-majority cities. The education system is perhaps the worst of all, though, because it perpetuates the cycle of discrimination against Shia Muslims by indoctrinating young Saudi children with anti-Shia sentiments. For example, textbooks used in elementary and middle schools stigmatize Shia beliefs and practices and go as far as to claim that Shia Muslims are disbelievers, suggesting that Shia should not be considered Muslims. While criticizing their beliefs and practices is problematic in and of itself, saying that Shia are not Muslims is impermissible, both ethically and religiously, and only serves to cause further hatred and intolerance.

An image showing a protest sign advocating for the release of an imprisoned female Saudi Arabian activist.
A protest sign advocating for both freedom of speech and the release of Israa al-Ghomgham, an imprisoned female Saudi Arabian activist. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Freedom of Speech

The most blatant example of a human rights violation against the people of Saudi Arabia is the lack of freedom of speech, which has especially detrimental ramifications for individuals advocating for human rights. For example, in 2018, several women’s rights activists were arrested and charged with treason solely for their work in activism. This came at the same time that Prince Mohammed bin Salman had lifted the ban on women driving, and ironically, many of the women who were arrested had been advocating for women’s right to drive. Thus, while lifting the ban was a positive move forward, the imprisonment of these women makes the intentions behind Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s decision to lift the ban confusing; it is difficult to deduce whether Prince Mohammed bin Salman is truly concerned with women’s rights, or if this was a step taken to make Saudi Arabia appear that it is being reformed and moving towards modernization. His intentions can be further called into question considering the extent to which these women’s rights have been violated; not only were these women arrested and detained, but it is known that they were also electrically shocked and whipped during interrogations, which amounts to cruel and inhumane treatment. To this day, some of these women are still imprisoned, unlikely to be released without international intervention. However, it is important to note that this was not an isolated event. While Saudi Arabia has always used arrests and detentions to deal with dissidents, the number of detentions significantly increased after Prince Mohammed bin Salman took power in 2017; over 60 individuals identified as dissidents have been arrested and held.

Muslims around the world strongly oppose Islamophobia and the oppression of Muslims, which is a great thing. However, Muslims tend to be silent about Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations, which is troubling. While many Muslims do call out these violations, many others either turn a blind eye, or even worse, find justifications for these violations. However, this is a double standard; if Muslims around the world truly care about their own rights, it follows that they must care about the rights of all of those who are oppressed, especially when Muslim majority countries are responsible for causing this oppression.

Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia: A Counter-Narrative

This past winter break, I visited Saudi Arabia with my family. While there, I noticed that many women were active in the work force, working as police officers, salespeople, and even airport security. Under the preconceived notion that women were not allowed to work in Saudi Arabia, I was surprised to see this. Slowly, I began to realize that the Western perspective about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia was not entirely correct. So, after I came back from my trip, I decided to look into different sources to try to get an accurate portrayal of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

An image of a news broadcast with Bayan Alzahran, the first female lawyer to have her own law firm in Saudi Arabia
Bayan Alzahran, who is the first female lawyer to open her own law firm in Saudi Arabia. Source: Al Arabiya, Creative Commons.

Women’s Rights Narrative

After conducting extensive research, I realized that while there is no denying that Saudi Arabia still has many improvements to make in terms of gender equality, there are several women’s rights that have been historically implemented or are currently being established. Almost always, women in Saudi Arabia are portrayed as oppressed, and again, while there is an undeniable lack of many rights for women, it is not a fair assessment to only discuss what rights are not realized; it is important to recognize the rights that they have as well. While I cannot say for certain why this particular narrative is often propagated, it can be argued that the mainstream media is committed to portraying Islam in a negative light, and because Saudi Arabia is governed by Sharia Law, or Islamic Law, it follows that it will be portrayed negatively. As the media does this, people begin to argue that Islam is in and of itself misogynistic and is thus incompatible with progress and civilization. While I will not be going in too much depth about the rights Islam gives women, I will note that it is important to remember that culture and religion are not interchangeable terms and should not be treated as such; Saudi Arabia may govern using Sharia Law, but many of their restrictive practices are rooted in culture, not Islam. Thus, the purpose of this post is to provide a counter-narrative to show that what the media portrays pertaining to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is not an entirely accurate depiction.

Employment Rights

While there is a dearth of women in the employment sector, seen through the fact that only 22 percent of Saudi womenparticipate in the workforce, there are no legal restrictions on which jobs women are allowed to work in, with garbage collecting and construction being the only exceptions to this. Sharia Law encourages women to work, so the lack of women in the work force is not due to restrictive religious practices, but rather to restrictive cultural practices. Further, Sharia Law allows women to earn and manage their own finances, making employment especially appealing to women who want to be financially independent. While the number of working women is low, Saudi Arabia is currently attempting to further integrate women into the workforce, with a goal of a 30 percent participation rate by 2030. While this is mostly due to the fact that Saudi Arabia wants to replace non-Saudi workers with Saudi Arabian citizens, it is still commendable that women are a part of this plan.

Education Rights

Perhaps most interesting is the emphasis Saudi Arabia has placed on women’s education. Saudi women have had access to education for several decades; women have been attending universities since the 1970s. Recent advances made highlight the country’s commitment to providing opportunities for women in education, namely the 2005 study abroad program, which sends thousands of Saudi women to the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, among other countries, to obtain an education. Another very impressive advancement is Saudi Arabia’s first all-women’s college, Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University, founded in 2010. The purpose of the school is to give women better access to fields that are traditionally male dominated, such as medicine and pharmacology. Due to these improvements and the general importance placed on women’s education, women currently represent 52 percent of university students in Saudi Arabia.

An image showing a Saudi Arabian woman holding up her driving license.
A Saudi Arabian woman holds up her driver’s license. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Recent Progress

Recently, steps have been taken to reverse restrictive practices, such as lifting the ban on women driving and reducing male guardianship. The former, implemented in 2018, saw the legalization of women driving. Thus far, tens of thousands of women have received their driver’s licenses, highlighting the success of this change. The latter, implemented a few months ago, saw changes made to restrictive guardianship laws. Historically, these laws heavily restricted women’s rights, specifically the right to freedom of movement; women were not allowed to obtain a passport or travel abroad without a male family member’s consent. While I could explain how changes to these guardianship laws will have a positive impact on women’s lives, I think it is best to share the perspectives of a Saudi Arabian woman on this issue. In an article for BBC News, Lulwa Shalhoob, a Saudi journalist, wrote that “the new rule means the relationship between a husband and his wife becomes a partnership between two responsible adults, rather than guardianship of a minor.” She also notes that an increasing number of Saudi women “no longer want to be framed as women of special circumstances who lack rights that women around the world take for granted.” For Saudi Arabian women, then, this move not only grants certain rights they were long deprived of, but it also fosters an unprecedented sense of agency and personhood.

Historically, Saudi Arabia has invested in specific spheres of women’s rights, such as employment and education, and in recent years, the Saudi Arabian government has made progress by rescinding many restrictive practices and laws. When Saudi Arabia is included in the discourse pertaining to the rights of women, none of this is mentioned; only the shortcomings are. While I am the first to admit that Saudi Arabia still has much work to do in terms of women’s rights and human rights in general, it is important to acknowledge what they have done right.

Honor Killings: The Case of Israa Ghrayeb

Image showing Israa Ghrayeb, a Palestinian woman who was the victim of an honor killing.
Israa Ghrayeb. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

In early August, Israa Ghrayeb, a 21-year-old Palestinian woman, went out with her soon-to-be fiancé on a chaperoned date. As all couples often do, Israa and her fiancé posted a video of their time together on social media. This innocent, loving video would soon incriminate Israa; after seeing the video, three male members of her family were angered, claiming that she had dishonored the family by appearing in public with a man who was not yet her husband. A few days later, these relatives physically attacked Israa, and due to her injuries resulting from this attack, she was hospitalized. Shortly after her hospitalization, a video filmed outside of Israa’s hospital room circulated online, in which Israa’s screams and intermittent thuds can be audibly heard; she was being beaten again. Israa died a day later. However, it is unfair to merely state that she died; Israa was murdered, the victim of an honor killing.

What are Honor Killings?

Honor killings and crimes are committed against a family member who is deemed to have acted socially or culturally unacceptably, and thus is seen to be bringing dishonor to the family. These are almost always carried out by male relatives, and the victim is almost always a woman; 93 percent of honor killing victims are women. According to the United Nations, 5,000 women and girls are victims of honor killings every year. Thus, while males are sometimes victims of honor killings as well, the following discourse pertaining to honor killings will focus solely on female victims.

What’s to Blame?

It is important to begin by noting that honor killings are strictly rooted in culture. Because honor killings are largely carried out in the Middle East/North Africa regions and South Asia, which are Muslim majority areas, Islam is often blamed for encouraging this practice. However, Islam cannot be identified as the culprit in these situations, as it strictly opposes such treatment of women. Further, women being murdered by male relatives or partners is not exclusive to Muslim majority countries; in France, 120 women were killed by their partners in 2018. Considering this is a phenomenon that is not restricted to one culture or region, the culprit is something that is shared across most societies of the world: misogyny, or prejudice against women. Most societies are still largely patriarchal, and thus have problems with women’s rights. While this is the case, many men within these societies are aware of the injustices women face and advocate for change, so it would be unfair to label all men as misogynistic. At the same time, though, many other men do ascribe to misogynistic ideologies, and often times, they act upon them. Honor killings are a blatant example of this; when males believe that their honor is tied to the behavior of the women in their lives, it is clear that misogyny is to blame. Further, to kill a girl in “honor” is to suggest that the girl is not her own person, but rather an object that is owned, emphasizing the misogyny underlying honor killings.

Holding Perpetrators Accountable

After Israa’s murder, both men and women in the West Bank held protests, calling on the Palestinian Authority to take action against the relatives responsible, and through the use of social media, large segments of the Arab population joined in protesting her murder as well. Due to these national and international pressures, the Palestinian Authority pursued the matter closely, and three of Israa’s relatives were detained and will be charged for her murder. However, it is unclear whether or not these men will truly suffer the consequences of their actions; often times, perpetrators are not held accountable for this crime at all. Furthermore, even when they are sentenced for committing honor crimes, they are often released after serving only a few months. Experts argue that this is why honor killings remain prevalent; when the justice system does not adequately address this issue, future perpetrators are not deterred. This is abundantly clear considering that although Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made changes to legislation to protect women from honor killings, the number of women who are victims of this crime has continuously risen; in 2012 there were 13 murders, but the number of murders increased to 28 in 2014 and 27 in 2018. Thus, it is evident that legislation passed without proper enforcement is wholly ineffective.

Image showing men and women protesting honor killings.
A protest against honor killings. Nora B., Creative Commons.

Moving Forward

“The devil is not in the body of women; it is in your mind,” a powerful statement that was displayed on a sign of one of the protestors, is a fundamental notion that must be understood. The ideas that women are inherently inferior, and that women’s bodies are for men to control, are ideas that must be eradicated from our cultures and from predominant male thinking. To do this, certain steps must be taken. First, there needs to be a cultural upheaval involving both men and women to put an end to misogynistic belief systems. This is an effort that begins at a very grassroot level, and starts with changing mentalities of future generations; when boys and girls are raised the same, when boys are taught to respect and value women, when girls are empowered and are made to believe that they are not subservient or inferior to men, we slowly move towards making misogynistic ideologies obsolete. It is important to note this is not an effort that must only be undertaken by communities in the Arab world, but rather is an effort that should be undertaken by communities world-wide. Second, laws need to be put into place to hold men accountable for their abuse of women. It is insufficient to merely pass laws without also enforcing them, as men will believe that they can get away with their crimes without suffering any consequences.

Until the aforementioned changes are made within these societies, it is unlikely that any progress will be made. However, this is not an option; these societies were complicit in the deaths of many women and girls, including Israa. While they cannot bring back the lives that were taken, they must make these changes to ensure no more lives are taken in the name of “honor.”

 

Arab Spring 2.0

The Second Arab Spring has risen, but this time it is much more peaceful, democratic, and youth-centered than the first. Why is this important?

2011 was quite the year for everyone except me. I still attended elementary school, could not ride a bike or swim, and had no idea what I was going to do with my life. Although nothing great happened to me, the world had changed drastically for those in the Middle East, especially the youth. That event, which changed the way many Arabs and Middle Easterners viewed their governments, was called the Arab Spring. Fast forward to 2019, I’m a freshman at The University of Alabama at Birmingham and Middle Easterners are fighting for equality and a democratic style of government. Then and now, human rights violations such as inequality and representation serve as focal points for protest and revolution, allowing for them to stand up for what they believe in and fundamentally change their government.

So, what exactly was the Arab Spring?

Basically, the Arab Spring consisted of many pro-democracy protests that took place in many majority-Muslim countries like Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Bahrain. Like many other social movements, the Arab Spring started with a “single act of defiance.”

In December of 2010, a street vendor, Mohammad Bouazizi, from Tunisia set himself on fire to protest the seizing of his vegetable stand by the police due to him not getting a permit. Bouazizi’s sacrifice set aflame the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, where the many protestors fighting for more social freedoms caused Tunisia’s authoritarian president for 20+ years, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, to renounce his position and flee the country. This revolution in Tunisia had caused the country to become more socially democratic and involve the people in its political process due to Tunisia’s first elections occurring in 2011.

Such a great change in government by a country in the Middle East had caused others in the region to also protest, with protests occurring in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, although many succeeded and others failed.

Although Bouazizi’s death served as a catalyst for the spreading of pro-democracy fervor, the death of Egypt’s Khaled Said by police officers became another martyr in the fight for democracy. Through his death, an Egyptian Google Executive from Dubai by the name of Wael Ghoneim became a prominent activist, creating a Facebook group called “We Are All Khaled Said,” bringing in thousands of members.

Egypt’s Arab Spring, springing from Said’s death, called for the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, then President of Egypt. After resigning, he was “charged with ordering the deaths of protesters,” of which “more than 800 people were killed.” Once Mubarak stepped down, a former political prisoner by the name of Mohamed Morsy came into power democratically. Although he was chosen by the people, Morsy made it so that no court could overturn his decisions, solidifying him as an autocrat. After many protests and conflicts with the Egyptian military, Morsy “was ousted in a military coup,” leading to the establishment of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s former military chief, as President through 96% of the vote.

Images of Protests in Cairo, Egypt; Tunis, Tunisia; El Beïda, Libye; Sana'a, Yémen; Damas, Syrie; and Karrana, Bahreïn
SCREENVILLE: Iranian Dissidence in Real Life Peril. Source: screenville.blogspot.com, Creative Commons

Was the Arab Spring ultimately successful across the Middle East?

Unfortunately, no.

Although there were some democratic successes in both Tunisia and Egypt through electing leaders democratically, other countries in the Middle East, such as Libya and Yemen resulted in continued conflict and war many years after the Arab Spring.

Libya, though ousting Muammar Gaddafi from his reign, remains in conflict. Libya has essentially been divided through the many militias and political factions that exist today, fighting endlessly to grab power. The situation has been so rampant that many “migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are forced” to dangerously travel to Europe through the Mediterranean, all in an effort to flee human trafficking and violence.

At first, Yemen successfully removed its President of 30 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, instead of a democratic response, an “armed uprising and foreign military intervention” caused Yemen to undergo a brutal civil war. It is through this war that Yemen experienced the worst cholera outbreak, large-scale famines across the country, and the killing of many civilians through bombs and landmines. These issues continue to be present, with no end in sight as to when it will end.

So, the Arab Spring, although deadly, resulted in some Middle Eastern countries to move towards democracy and others toward chaos and autocracy. It’s not like there’s going to be any other event like this soon, right?

Again, no.

In recent news, there have cumulative instances where protesters are fighting for the same issues. However, they “have learned from their mistakes, and are seeking new goals and using new means to achieve real, lasting, regional changes.”

According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, there are three distinct characteristics for this new Arab Spring, otherwise called Arab Spring 2.0:

  1. The protesters do not trust any political leader. They believe that current leaders have not kept to their economic promises and reforms. And as such, many want to start over and introduce new politicians and parties.
  2. The protests are peaceful. Unlike protests from before, many current protests lean pacifist, even through brutal responses from the military. It is through these protests that widespread support is achieved and that countries are willing to listen.
  3. The protesters are rejecting sectarian divisions. In Lebanon, for example, religion and ethnic identity form a crucial part of how the government is formed and how people are treated. These protesters have essentially decided to do away with these divisive tactics and move towards equalizing all in government.
An image of the Peace sign
Peace Logo Wallpapers – Wallpaper Cave. Source: wallpapercave.com, Creative Commons

These characteristics directly coincide with many Algerian protests that began on February of 2019. During a panel discussion hosted by the Brookings Doha Center in partnership with Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, Haoues Taguia, a researcher for the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, described how Algerians are distancing themselves from being a parallel to the Arab Spring. He noted that these protests are relatively peaceful, combined with the fact that a large portion of the population from “all walks of life” came to participate, legitimizing the movement. Due to a lack of leadership within the movement, these protests will be initially successful, but chaos would ensue in the years to come without a solid and stable leadership structure. During the same event, Shafeeq Garba, a professor of Political Science at Kuwait University, also advised that other civilians of MENA countries should follow Algeria’s example in order to create dialogue for change. He noted that “in the violent alternatives to this, civil wars, everyone loses, and that if these revolutions don’t succeed, they will ultimately lead to failed states.”

Lebanon is another interesting case where protests are fundamentally changing the way that a legitimate government should operate. These protests came to fruition on October 17 due to new taxes on WhatsApp calls, which caused protesters to light “fires on main roads and [block] highways, while banks, schools, and universities closed.” This new tax became the tipping point for those agitated with the Lebanese government and how their politicians are manipulating the wealth and resources that Lebanon contains. Protesters have gone so far as to create a human chain across the country as a form of protest while also involving more and more students into the fray. According to Fatima al-Sheikh, a freshman student protester, many students thought that the sectarian leaders “looked out for [their] interests, even though [the students] knew they were corrupt and oppressive. But now [the students] feel that with our hearts, and we can’t go back from that.” These protests have raged on for more than a month. With elections soon, only time will tell whether or not these protests will ultimately succeed or rather be only one of many protests in the MENA region that result in chaos and a fractured country.

Arab Spring 2.0 may only seem like a relatively new phenomenon for the MENA region now, due to the rippling effects the first Arab Spring had and still has to this day in countries like Yemen and Libya. However, rising protests against a corrupt and unfair government have spawned all over the world, from Latin America (my recent post concerning Chile’s protests) to the Middle East. Since many of these protests have been led by students it just really comes to show how concerned many college-aged people are about whether or not their respective government will be able to fairly implement policies that benefit the entire nation rather than just the ruling class. In terms of Lebanon and Algeria, both countries are fighting to revamp their respective governments. By fighting to create fair elections that emphasize the importance of the people and not just the ruling elitist class, protesters in the MENA region symbolize the importance of human rights values such as equality in a government through democratic and fair elections.

Understanding Identity Politics in the MENA Region

Large crowd of people
Multitud // Crowd. Guzmán Lozano. Source: Creative Commons for Flickr.

When some ask me where I’m from, and “here” does not suffice, I do not say that I am Arab; I say that I am from Jerusalem. “Arab” is sometimes a bad word or foreign enemy that comes between me and this person, whereas “Jerusalem” is something they can relate to or has not been claimed by the same narrative. They both mean the same to me, but “Arab” carries an antagonistic or uneasy connotation into new relationships- where I want others to be open to understand me as an individual first and then have that built into their perspective or definition of an Arab. Societies provide advantages to certain identities and disadvantages to others prompting me to pick and choose in my immediate surroundings and context.

Identity can be wielded as a powerful and dangerous tool. It can be used as a guide when you are lost by giving you something to grab on with a purpose or goal to strive for and increase your self-esteem, confidence, and certainty while reducing stress or anxiety. When an identity is represented in our immediate context, people use it to understand, relate and form alliances or organize (politically) to defend their interests as a group. Further, I may assume one identity in its defense declaring my right to speak about it and for it, even if I am not especially informed on the way it has formed in the international world.

Being an Arab-American in times where Arabs and Americans are so polarized here, I realize I do not fully identify with or understand either side. However, even though I’m trying to develop my own platform, as a link, I am expected to speak on behalf of the “other.” In this position, I feel like a mediator or spokesperson, responsible for debunking an Aggressive Arab nature or a hateful and ethnocentric American nature, while facing hostility, collective suspicion, and surveillance.  Sometimes I am claimed and others I am rejected by each of these groups.

Every day I face realities that disconnect me from each group. An intimate one is my relationship with my white family. Before I blocked them, I would log into Facebook to find explicitly anti-Muslim or extreme Zionist articles that family members posted on my timeline. Still, my family is so loving in person, not wanting to face actual truths that weaken their own identity. They claim me as family, but then connect me to this identity that is so ignorantly represented and antagonized- the same way I imagine sectarian conflict separating MENA identities such as the Shia and Sunni Ummah.

Recently, in my class which is focusing on terrorism, someone told a story of how she became friends with her Muslim employer and that “no, they’re not all terrorists,” but just like the rest of us. Through the entire story, she looked and gestured at me, seemingly sharing consolation or seeking approval. Even though I did appreciate her good intentions, in the moment I was separated from the rest of my classmates, marked as other, and given the permission to approve her response to so many. Oddly, we demand recognition for ostracized groups in the same ways it’s been denied. Through identity politics, we demand respect for oneself as other or different.

Eventually, I realize as much as this position is a burden, it is also a great privilege. In the MENA region, most identify as “Arab” or “Muslim.” They faced similar histories and events and believe in a common text, so no one’s claim is as unique, distinct, or loud as mine is in an American backdrop. As an Arab or Muslim overseas, voices are muffled in with the rest of the people sharing your identity. Here, as many people there are that hate or fear me because of my foreign identity, others want to hear from me. I get to add to their definition of what these identities entail like what it means to be a Muslim, imposing my own narrative on the group.

I am also privileged to live in a country where its democratic policy- whether it has been fully realized or not- holds citizens from different backgrounds to bring their perspectives and issues to build from; not a country where an authoritarian figure or identity imposes their own opinion of what policy should be. Depending on the context, sometimes an identity victimizes me and sometimes it empowers me.

Growing up, my identity was not represented on SAT, ACT, or many other censuses. I usually had to check the “white” box even though I have learned to be proud of different aspects, tribulations, or stories of my heritage. I want to represent my ethnicity in the American success story.

The argument for the inclusion of more races or the option to select multiple races represents what power minorities have to demand better recognition from the government.  MENA region forms a greater narrative about the act of reporting identity. Groups were put under the rule of another identity and their own was denied which led to cultural suppression and persecution. Eventually, these groups that have been historically ignored or harmed demand the right to be protected.

Taking on a group identity gives us a sense of belonging and affirmation from other members. We may feel that we are part of something bigger, not insignificant, alone, or unheard. Committing or dedicating yourself to other members’ rights and responsibilities they expect from you grants purpose or direction. Your problems are group problems and your voice is supported and amplified to fight the threat together. You can split responsibilities or blame and there is more guidance and reinforcement to relieve you. However, to switch from an individual focus to a group focus, you may have to take on and accept values or beliefs you do not particularly agree with, adopting self-stereotypes or assimilating to the dominant, and sometimes blinded, discourse.

People of the MENA region faced a long history of sectarian violence that disabled unity which could effectively challenge or transform governments. Instead, it broke them apart, silencing their voice and in some cases making them dependent on foreign voices or aid. When the united Ottoman Empire was dissolved, colonizers split the area and its people while autonomous religious and cultural groups were also divided to reduce their power or say, in governance. Pause to imagine if it was possible to make America and an Arab middle-eastern state one state. Justified by the need for organization or governance of these diverse and divided citizens, ruling powers, even foreign, muted civil activity and imposed their way of life or opinions of policy on others. So divided, lacking an integrative identity, leaders and powerful figures or politicians may grab or monopolize resources and rights for their smaller groups crating a zero-sum competition. Sectarian polity in these areas was inflamed and harsher scrutiny or repression excluded many even in the case of a revolution. Personal and factional needs overwhelmed the sense of a common identity and instead of standing together, people joined opposing organizations to represent them. When an identity splinters, others need to be reinforced. Because, on your own, you are more easily erased.

Identity politics can urge mobilization around one identity or one aspect of your makeup, and you are pressured to take that as your defining feature even though you cannot be represented so reductively. To become a more impenetrable united force, the individual is integrated by assimilating dominant norms. Sometimes your identity’s label separates you more than your issue position. We may have the same values as someone but will never know because we are unwilling to socialize with outsiders and challenge this group or ideology that we have devoted ourselves to. When identities meet politics that have greater or long-term consequences, these divisions weaken our ability to form policies based on expected outcomes or truth-seeking. It’s more triggered by the “us” vs “them” battle.

Military stands before crowd
Operation Enduring Freedom. ResoluteSupportMedia. Creative Commons for Flickr.

Politics exploit these feelings to rally funding, resources, or a larger audience to win different supports. Then others grab onto these resource-rich identities. For example, anyone under the claim of a religious organization may win the support of foreign clergies who supply them with food or protections. Then, the leaders of these organizations win the support of desperate or oppressed populations.

In MENA, a religious identity also provides guidance for apolitical peoples searching for an ideology within which to frame their suffering or experience. It promotes faith and offers solace for ones suffering or oppressed with a promise of a bigger purpose. Religious groups mourn a supposedly more ethical past and presume religious instructions to return to this society.  People’s fears, resentments, faith, and suffering can be exploited by power under religious identities. This becomes even more dangerous if people cling to these collective truths so desperately.

We are faced with very complex decisions and circumstances. It would be too hard to weigh all the options and make decisions without these prior ideas or instructions on what we should do. However, you can get too tied up in your responsibilities or devotion to these identities. While identities can connect us and give our insecurities a stronger voice or support, they can also polarize groups or exploited by power-hungry mobilizers. These labels may effectively imprison you or constrain what you in what you allow yourself to explore or believe. Something intended for inclusion may trap you in estranging conflict.

The Conflict in Yemen and Trajectories for Peace: Recap

Street photography of Yemen stone alley and buildings
Yemen. Source: Rod Waddington, Creative Commons for Flickr.

Fatima Abo Alasrar, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute and former senior analyst at the Arabia Foundation, joined us on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019 to shed some light on the crisis in Yemen and advocate a new social contract regarding Yemen as the war has evolved from a local insurrection into an international effort that has exposed greater vulnerabilities of the country, weakened the central government, and emboldened foreign threats to Yemen.

Before the country appointed a president, the Zaydis, an Islamic sect, were dominant in Yemen where they resided for thousands of years. Its Imams controlled the north of Yemen, as the theocratic Yemen Arab Republic, as the south slowly turned into the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. When the president in the north, Ali Abdullah Saleh and his regime proposed to unite the north and south under one government, unification was not based on democratic principles, but on state, rhetoric-accentuated polarization and identity politics. For northerners, the war ended succession, but the southerners grieved as they became second-class citizens who were exploited under occupation. Meanwhile, the Houthi Movement organized Zaydi-Shia fighters against underdevelopment and political marginalization as they protested the dilution of Zaydi influence and identity. Inequality built resentment among civilians and some of the dissatisfied joined extremist groups or protest as people lost faith in the state. As more states and non-state actors got involved and introduced differing political and ideological orientations and promoted their interests, efforts deepened sectarian divides.

Saudi Arabia continued to assist the government against the Houthi rebels, especially motivated by their Shiite rival, Iran who supported the Houthi insurgency; however, Ms. AlAsrar revealed Saudi shortcomings in the military’s lack of warfare experience, increase in spending, and media coverage criticizing domestic failures.  She explained that Saudi Arabia has only aggravated this already dire humanitarian crisis and now faces ramifications.  She urged, instead of encouraging Saudi intervention, international attention should shift focus.

AlAsrar stressed Iranian intervention and influence in Houthi insurgency -evident as the group’s propaganda and style mirrors the others’- where Houthis considered themselves proud members of the Iran-led Axis of Resistance alliance (resisting the West and Israel). The Houthis act as Iran’s proxy to advance their goals in Yemen just as the Iranians act as Houthis’ proxy to get power in their own political agenda and this relationship has only festered.

Group holding sign Reading "STOP US SAUDI WAR CRIMES IN YEMEN"
Felton Davis. Creative Commons for Flickr.

The US is complicit in war crimes as it supports Saudi Arabia, a major ally, who is threatened by Western antagonizers including Iran and Houthi rebels in the counter-terrorism narrative. This alliance has clouded Americans’ knowledge of Yemeni objectives and continues to kill, repress, and threaten civilians. Now all players may use the counter-terrorism narrative to attract the international community, which is not as informed and interested in the domestic conflict consuming Yemen.

Radicalized and terrorist groups concentrate and compete for the spotlight and the conflict has amplified as it is linked to the war on terror for international attention. Al-Qaeda is such a group who has acted as a gang for hire in the Yemen conflict. The intervention of regional powers also threatens to draw Yemen further into the broader Sunni-Shia divide. Iran exploited the conflict to increase its influence in the region becoming the most beneficiary actor for its relatively low cost. Whereas, U.S. backed Saudi Arabia suffers reputational damage which is creating more friction.

All sides of the conflict have been accused of violations of international humanitarian law and organization which are pushing Yemeni civilians out. AlAsrar questions whether the UN can hold the Houthis accountable for their end of the bargain. The UN’s plan for Yemen has been shaped in Houthi favor, “confident in their power of destruction,” accepting Houthi demands and encouraging their extraction of concessions so the deal does not collapse. The desire to keep the Houthi involved in the peace process has only legitimized a violent non-state actor.

Children standing over ruins in Yemen.
343 Searching Through Ruins. Felton Davis. Creative Commons for Flickr.

The speaker’s concern was in the international community’s engagement regarding the conflict in Yemen, misguided, misinformed, and disconnected narrative on which international actors base their policies. Political engagement continues to be overshadowed by limited propaganda and media coverage of the war.

AlAsrar elaborated with frustration concerning the overwhelming use of the humanitarian narrative to explain the conflict in Yemen. A lot of humanitarian work is fast-paced and reaches for an emotional narrative. There is a lack of comprehensive policy instruments when the audience sees humanitarian assistance as the primary tool. International humanitarian organization has hijacked the voices of the local civil society to provide immediate relief which cannot speak for the broader political factors that have created and perpetuated the crisis.

Other regional governments have interceded to pursue and protect their own interests, but the root of the Yemeni conflict was a domestic one. These foreign powers may encourage their partners to engage in a political process for peace but have instead overshadowed the conflict in Yemen which was driven by concerns in sectarian marginalization, economic underdevelopment, and displeasure at governmental political distraction in cooperation with foreign powers, the United States and Saudi Arabia. In response, AlAsrar’s narrative encourages broader education and analysis on the different motivations, perspectives, and grievances of each actor to establish a more comprehensive and consistent strategy and policy to deal with the exasperated and dire Yemen Conflict.

Rehabilitating Cubs of the Caliphate and Child Soldiers in the MENA region

 

Image of small group of young smiling boys in Jibla, Yemen
Boys in Jibla, Yemen. Rod Waddington, Wikimedia Creative Commons

The rise of modern extremist groups has drawn new attention to child soldiers, triggering compassion and outrage. Besides the tactical advantage – where children are more capable of getting close to their targets – children are weaponized and featured in propaganda, even as suicide bombers or executioners, to attract media for the political advantage and attention, while others hang onto the group, maybe seeking refuge, while working as auxiliaries (cooks, messengers, porters, brides, stationed guards, etc.) in desperation. So malleable and vulnerable growing up in worlds hostile to childhood, child soldiers are collateral damage of warfare, used as tools, sacrifices, or targets.

To better protect children from this exploitation, International Humanitarian Law (IHL), Convention on the Rights of a Child, the Fourth Geneva Convention, and a statute of the International Criminal Court all set the International Stage prohibiting the recruitment and use of children in hostilities, banning voluntary enlistment, and considering these actions as war crimes. In 2002, the UN General Assembly’s Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (OPAC) entered into force as the world’s first international treaty focused on ending the military exploitation of children, protecting anyone under 18 from recruitment and conscription in conflict. Seventeen years since, 166 countries have ratified it (21 generated by the Zero under 18 Campaign of 2010). However, the UN Security Council Resolution 1612 responsible for monitoring and reporting compliance, realizes enforcement is difficult especially because most violations are made in the name of non-state actors (those who are wholly or partly independent from state government).

In the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, many sides of ongoing conflicts have been documented or accused of using child soldiers for these reasons. However, the Islamic State – as ISIS or ISIL – is of the most notorious for its exceptional number of children enlisted for military engagement and for the distinct role its “Cubs” play in the international narrative. ISIS has bred “Cubs of the Caliphate” as a unique form of resilience by combining intense physical training with ideological and psychological indoctrination to advance the organization’s current and transgenerational aims- meaning that enlisting children allows the Islamic State to outlast territorial defeat and ensure its survival through these new generations. Since these children are seen as the future of IS, education and propaganda are essential to indoctrination.

The recruitment process of child soldiers involves the selection of a recruit, gaining different accesses, developing emotional trust, and ideological development. In efforts to gain powerful or intimate access to a child and avoid detection or resistance, recruiters may charm or manipulate them into physical and psychological isolation especially away from their parents or community exploiting familial and psychological vulnerability (neglectful or abusive conditions, suppression as members of minorities or other discriminated groups, orphaned children, poverty, etc.) while offering aid, resources, or promises of hope or retribution they have been deprived of. In ISIS-held territories, recruiters can act with impunity, with public access through different media channels or local gatherings. Children may join voluntarily, following their peers, dedicated to revenge, and for income, resources, security, or basic needs these organizations provide to orphans or children living in poverty or war-like conditions. Some children may have encouraged or pressured by their parents and family members who support or trust in the organization’s mission, for the religious promise of martyrdom, or in search of other securities. While other children are sold to militias. For example, in 2009 outside of MENA, the leader of the Tehri-e-Taliban Pakistan was reported to be buying children from 7 to 16 to serve as suicide bombers for prices between 7,000 and 14,000 USD in a nation where the per capita income was 2,600 USD per year. Further, in some of the region, Taliban leaders would demand money from families in return for protection and if they could not pay this amount, the group demanded a child recruit for the movement.

Children growing up in ISIS or similarly occupied territories in a crisis-struck region may be exposed, accustomed, or desensitized to images of violence and torture. They may have grown up in areas subject to various forms of violence, which have resulted in loss or trauma, that become observed facts of life. Many grow through an atmosphere saturated with antagonistic rhetoric where complex and dynamic conflicts are simplified into “Us or Them.” The environment may promote a justice system that deems violence acceptable and necessary in enforcing social rules and norms or resolving conflict. Additionally, the youth bulge in the MENA region has created economic and educational challenges that may promote the extremist narrative. Many developed in a world hostile to childhood with conditions that persecute innocence and youth. Hanging on to these organizations provides a sense of purpose, responsibility, or camaraderie for these children. Family and community who typically teach and convince children to value and respect human life (including their own), social responsibility, and ethics of society are replaced by more radical political organizations. Once enlisted, training is designed to ensure compliance by degrading or breaking down the individuality of soldiers to assemble them into a group (identity) that does not question orders. Forcing children to commit atrocities against their own family or communities not only causes the psychological break essential to attach them to this new entity, but it also stigmatizes the child, cutting off any exit from the militia.

“We were the ‘cleaners’ group. Cleaning means slitting the throats of those who belong to the other side and are hiding,” says a Syrian child who joined ISIL when he was 14, “A guy from my area was decapitated by [ISIL] because of me. People had their hands chopped off because of me.”

The Human Rights Watch reports that the rise of violent extremist groups in the MENA region marks an increase in the detention and prosecution of children as countries have adopted more aggressive counterterrorism measures. In this tense and antagonistic climate, with a whisper of “ISIS,” a child may be arrested if there is any suspicion or fingers pointing to their connection with these organizations or their members (who may have once been locals, friends, neighbors, or family). Children who have been arrested have described abuses and forms of torture interrogators use to elicit a confession.

“My confession says that I joined ISIS for sixteen days, but actually, I didn’t join at all. I said sixteen days to stop the torture.”

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict to the General Assembly urged Member States to treat children accused of actual or alleged association with parties to conflict primarily as victims and reiterated that detention should only be used as a measure of last resort and for the shortest possible time.

No doubt, many have committed atrocities that can be prosecuted under international law. However, punitive justice will only mimic the trauma, oppression, or distrust that the restorative process will have to undo. Dealing with a high prevalence of PTSD, depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and physical ailments, children are pushed further into social isolation as they retain and relive the worst moments of their experience. So isolated through exposure to different levels of violence, they should not be further ostracized. They should be able to realize that they are victims of conflict. Psychological work must break the cycle of persecution and re-instill bits of humanity while nurturing future visions that have been stripped from these individuals. Some zones make children hyper-aware or fearing that their life was perpetually in danger. Sensitive programs and social workers will have to foster a sense of security or protection that the allegiance to a powerful organization or weapons once provided. Child-specific programs will have to consider the range of adversities confronted or of emotional distress experienced, along with local and cultural ways of coping with tragedy.

Because of their unique psychological and moral development, rehabilitation and reintegration must foster the health, respect, and dignity of these children. It must understand the different sense of morality developed; the difficulties of the child who has broken links with their family, community, or self; and the active involvement and recognition of the interests of the victim (child and community) in the resolution. They will realize that those who did not join or support ISIS (or other enemies) were also affected by conflict and need (and will expect) equal access to certain resources- like access to education and healthcare, but especially the running water and meals- that reintegration centers or programs might provide. This unequal access to resources may further marginalize these child soldiers. A greater focus should be made on efforts to trace liability up the chain of command and prosecute those who enlist children, so superiors are less incentivized to use them for the worst violations and war crimes.

Reintegrating former child soldiers into society is a long-term process, which requires commitment at the local and international levels. This demographic, these children, will grow as the future of the region and international body. Therefore, it is an international challenge to realize and coordinate supports and resources available, while encouraging measures to control sub-regional and cross-border activities harmful to children like deployment and protection of child-protection officers and advisers entering into conflict to reach the most vulnerable and restricting aid or support to organizations or government-backed militias who recruit and use child soldiers to engage in combat. Further, the international narrative on child soldiers must demand collective responsibility for the child’s fate along with the community’s awareness and sensitization of the experience the child lived as a member of these militias. If former child soldiers do not have access to rehabilitation programs to help them locate their families, receive education and different training to be fostered or introduced into civilian life, or realize any way to support themselves, they are at risk of re-recruitment. Threatening a new generation of terror, the protection of children in armed conflict should be regarded as an important aspect of any comprehensive strategy to resolve conflict. Asserted by the United Nations Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict: We cannot afford to lose children, the future of nations, once they are released.

Additional reading:

https://www.iiss.org/publications/armed-conflict-survey/2018/armed-conflict-survey-2018/acs2018-03-essay-3

https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/377e/77db7ac8a7b88d8fdaa49a97cd8e380ead48.pdf

https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/11/cubs-lions-isil-child-soldiers-171109125013897.html