The popular uprisings that swept across North Africa and the Middle East from late 2010 continued to shape human rights developments around the region in 2012.
In Syria, the internal armed conflict between government forces and the opposition ravaged the country. Gross human rights abuses and war crimes by all parties, as well as crimes against humanity by government forces, persisted throughout 2012 and beyond, and included indiscriminate attacks on residential areas, political killings and torture. The widespread terror and destruction displaced over 2 million people inside Syria who faced dire humanitarian conditions and by the end of the year had impelled almost 600,000 others to flee abroad, putting extreme strain on neighbouring states. With a broken economy and infrastructure, and no end in sight to the fighting, the future for Syria looked bleak indeed.
Elsewhere, the picture for 2012 was mixed. In the countries where autocratic rulers had been ousted – Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen – there was greater media freedom and expanding opportunities for civil society. However, there were also setbacks, with challenges to freedom of expression on religious or moral grounds. In Libya, the failure to bring militias under control also threatened human rights progress.
Across the region, human rights and political activists continued to face repression. Many women and men were jailed for expressing their views, beaten or killed in peaceful protests, tortured in custody, banned from travelling, or harassed by state agents. In Gulf states, activists, poets, health workers and others were imprisoned simply for calling for reform or for expressing their views. In Bahrain, while the authorities have trumpeted reform, they have continued to imprison prisoners of conscience, including leading members of the opposition and human rights activists. New laws in Algeria and Jordan tightened controls on the media, and the Moroccan authorities clamped down on journalists and dissidents.
In the countries in transition, debate continued on much needed reform of the justice and security sectors, but few concrete changes were introduced. In general, impunity for human rights violations remained entrenched, although some steps were taken to address past abuses. Arbitrary arrests, torture and unfair trials remained common, and many states frequently employed the death penalty, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The hopes of women at the heart of the uprisings were far from realized. Their demand for an end to gender discrimination was not met, and some women protesters were abused in gender-specific ways. However, women across the region continued to challenge the discrimination that remains entrenched in law and practice, and to demand adequate protection against domestic and other gender-based violence.
Meanwhile, Israel maintained its military blockade of the Gaza Strip and expanded illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian West Bank. The result was a continuing humanitarian crisis for Gaza’s 1.6 million residents and heavy restrictions on movement for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. In November 2012, Israel launched an eight-day military campaign against Palestinian armed groups who fired rockets indiscriminately from Gaza into Israel; more than 160 Palestinians as well as six Israelis were killed.
Despite the setbacks of 2012, the determination and courage shown by people across the region in their continuing struggles for justice, dignity and human rights give good cause for optimism.