The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a briefing April 29th, 2021, on the state of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa ten years after the Arab Spring and implications for U.S. foreign policy.
A simple but desperate act of protest in Tunisia in December 2010, the self-immolation of a frustrated street vendor, sparked a series of pro-democracy uprisings in largely Muslim countries throughout the MENA region that became known as the Arab Spring. Inspired by the rapid resignation of Tunisia’s authoritarian president, popular movements seeking political reform and greater respect for human rights swept the region. But ten years later, some initial successes have been rolled back, most of the movements have been brutally repressed, authoritarian rulers have consolidated their power and three countries have been ravaged by armed conflicts whose devastating humanitarian consequences have been felt far beyond their borders. The methods used to suppress dissent have entailed widespread human rights violations, including criminalization of speech and association, prolonged arbitrary detention, torture, stripping of nationality, reprisals against family members, and intrusive regulation of non-governmental organizations, often under cover of anti-terrorism laws. Several of the countries with the worst records in this regard are long-standing allies of the United States. The occasional imposition of sanctions on some of those alleged to be responsible for some of the worst abuses have not generally succeeded in changing regime behavior.
Witnesses examined the patterns of human rights abuses documented since the Arab Spring and offer recommendations for a human-rights based U.S. foreign policy toward the region.
Philippe Nassif, Advocacy Director, Middle East and North Africa, Amnesty International USA
Sarah Holewinski, Washington Director, Human Rights Watch
Samuel Tadros, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute Center for Religious Freedom
Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director, Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN)
Stephen McInerney, Executive Director, Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)
Read POMED Executive Director Stephen McInerney’s full written testimony here.
Oral testimony from POMED’s Executive Director Stephen McInerney is as follows (read them as a PDF here):
Good morning. I’d like to thank the Lantos Commission, its co-chairs, Congressman McGovern and Congressman Smith, and all other members, for their crucial work to support human rights abroad. Thank you as well for convening this hearing on the important issues of human rights and U.S. policy in the Middle East and North Africa, and for giving me this opportunity to address you all.
I’d like to begin by speaking frankly about how I see the policies of the United States toward the Middle East and North Africa. I consider them a catastrophe, a strategic failure, and a moral stain on our country.
If the goals of the United States in this region were to facilitate human rights abuses, including the imprisonment, torture, and murder of innocent civilians; to prevent democratization; and to fuel radicalization, instability, and violence, then I would say that the longstanding American policies in place would be approximately the right ones, and I would say that those policies have been successful towards these unconscionable goals.
Given, however, that the officially stated goals of the United States are precisely the opposite of what I just described, the entirety of U.S. policy should be viewed as a spectacular failure.
But one of the most striking things about U.S. policy toward the Middle East is that no matter what happens, no matter how badly policies fail, the answer in Washington is always to double down on those policies rather than ever changing course.
In the 1990s, U.S. policy toward the MENA region was already dominated by the provision of weapons and other support to repressive authoritarian regimes. Following the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001, the two main U.S. responses in the region were: first, the invasion of Iraq, an enormous strategic error with devastating consequences, and second, a dramatic increase in the delivery of arms to authoritarian regimes.
A decade later, in 2011, the Arab Spring uprisings ousted four dictators from power within 13 months, demonstrating the folly of relying on dictatorships to provide stability, and also demonstrating the overwhelming desire of the citizens of the region for the rights and freedoms enjoyed by others around the world. These remarkable events should have been viewed by the United States as a historic opportunity to overhaul failed policies. Instead, the opposite happened. The main response of the Obama administration was to double down on failing policies, by drastically increasing weapons sales to dictatorships. Then the Trump administration doubled down yet again, ramping up these sales to all new heights.
The disturbing reality is that the Washington policy community seems to not actually care about stability in the Middle East, despite decades of rhetoric to the contrary, and most policymakers in Washington don’t care at all about human rights either.
Instead, the single most important driver of U.S. policy is the corrupt influence of actors who benefit from the status quo and from existing policies, especially the repugnant dictatorships who are in fact themselves the main source of instability.
The most dangerous development regarding U.S. policy toward the MENA region is the escalation of the corrupt use of funds by some of the world’s worst dictators – who should be viewed as mass murderers and terrorists – to buy influence here in Washington, through lobbying contracts, weapons purchases, funding for think tanks and universities, and strategic investments in our private sector.
It’s simply not possible to support human rights and to support dictatorship. You have to choose, supporting one of those means opposing the other, and our government, tragically, consistently supports dictatorship across the region rather than democracy and human rights, and with disastrous yet predictable consequences.
To improve U.S. policy toward the MENA region, this must fundamentally change. Our country must support human rights and oppose the brutality of dictatorship.
What would this mean in practice? So many changes, but for the moment I’d like to highlight three main suggestions:
My first recommendation is to end support for murderous dictators. Conveniently, numerous federal laws ban weapons sales and military aid to regimes guilty of egregious human rights abuses. That means that the dominant form of U.S. engagement with the region is in fact illegal under our own laws, laws that successive administrations have blatantly ignored. Congress – led by members of the Lantos Commission – should aggressively demand and enforce compliance by the executive branch with such laws.
My second recommendation is that whenever there is progress toward democratization, supporting that progress should be a top priority. In the past decade, the only country making real progress on democracy and human rights is Tunisia. Supporting Tunisian democracy should be the number one priority for the United States in the region. Sadly, it has been more of an afterthought.
My third recommendation is that Congress should actively fight against the pervasive, corrupt influence of dictatorships here in Washington. Members of this commission should firmly oppose the inclusion of witnesses during Congressional hearings from any organization funded by authoritarian regimes. In addition, Congress should pass legislation barring anyone who has served in either the executive or legislative branch from working for such organizations. And anyone who has been on the payroll of dictatorships should be barred from service in our government.
Thank you, I will leave my remarks there and I look forward to your questions.
Find a PDF version of these remarks here.
Find a PDF of the full written testimony here.