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Human Rights? Let’s Be Honest

Guest Column
Michelle Kaufman

I guess I was naÏve, but I thought I knew what the term “human rights” meant. I assumed that if a right is determined to be a human right it is quintessentially general or universal in character, in some sense equally possessed by all human beings everywhere, by the nature of the word human.

Well, it seems as though recent events have proven me wrong. Those who claim to be the greatest proponents of human rights fall short of advocating these rights universally. Instead they choose to focus attention on alleged human rights violations taking place in Israel, while utterly ignoring violations of fundamental human rights that take place daily in almost every Arab country.

According to annual reports compiled by the U.S. State Department, most of the Arab states are ruled by oppressive, dictatorial regimes, which deny their citizens basic freedoms of political expression, speech, press and due process. While this might not sound like anything new to your ears, what should seem strange is that nobody ever protests against these violations, there is no booth in Lobby 10 about it, there is not one current letter-writing campaign, yet we all know that human rights are being severely violated. Why is there no apparent concern for all the Arab victims of oppression in their own countries?

When was the last time you saw a front page article about the state of women in Egypt, Libya, Oman, or Yemen, where ritual sexual mutilation of females is still common in rural areas? While there is a once-in-a-while expose, it’s not universal, frequent network news. Maybe it’s because these countries don’t have free press, and a foreign reporter would never be allowed to come away with an exclusive that sheds light on the atrocities, and would never be able to take glossy photos of the carnage. In Saudi Arabia, for example, criticizing Islam or the royal family is illegal, and (at best) results in prolonged imprisonment without trial. Television, radio, the Internet, and literature are heavily censored. Just because it is harder to get the information, does that mean that we don’t care, that these poor women don’t matter in our esteem, and are not worthy of being our cause? Shouldn’t the cover-up of oppression make us even more alarmed?

In most Arab countries, the Shar’ia, or Islamic law, defines the rules of traditional social behavior. Under the law, women are accorded a role inferior to that of men, and are therefore discriminated against with regard to personal rights and freedoms. In Syria, a husband can prevent his wife from leaving the country. In Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Oman and Yemen, married women must have their husband’s written permission to travel abroad. In Kuwait, women are still disenfranchised. Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia all have laws stating that a woman’s inheritance can be at most half the size of her male siblings’.

In Saudi Arabia, women are the victims of systematic discrimination. Rape and domestic violence are widespread problems, and women have no redress for such crimes. Women cannot travel, be admitted to a hospital, or drive a car without their husband’s permission. Buses are segregated, and women must sit in the rear. Those women not wearing an abaya (a black garment covering the entire body) and covering their faces and hair are harassed by the Mutawwa’in, Saudi Arabia’s religious police, who comprise the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice. In a Saudi Shar’ia court, the testimony of a one man equals that of two women. It is nearly impossible for women, who make up only five percent of the workforce, to be employed in any but the simplest of tasks.

Unfortunately, violations of fundamental human rights in Arab countries are so common and widespread that I couldn’t possibly attempt to even gloss over the half of them. Yet that doesn’t mean that we should be so lazy as to pick up the most accessible cause, which at this time seems to be the situation of Arabs living inside Israel. I cannot fathom why this is chosen as front page news over other issues, or more importantly, why Israel is sometimes denounced as the biggest human rights offender. To single out the Jewish state of Israel, as if it were the worst human rights offender, is bigotry pure and simple, or ignorance of the meaning of human rights and the situation in the Middle East. Contrary to what the papers want you to believe, there is more to the Middle East than Israel. There are 21 Arab countries in the Middle East whose regimes somehow avoid inspection, and get off scot-free of human rights violations of their citizens.

Israel has the only independent judiciary in the entire Middle East. Its Supreme Court, one of the most highly regarded in the world, is the only court in the Middle East from which an Arab or a Muslim can expect justice, as many have found in winning dozens of victories against the Israeli government, the Israeli military and individual Israeli citizens. There is no more important component in the protection of human rights and civil liberties than an independent judiciary willing to stand up to its own government. The Israeli Supreme Court recently ruled that despite the potential benefits of employing non-lethal torture to extract information, the tactic is illegal. Brutal torture, including lethal torture, is commonplace in nearly every other Middle Eastern and Muslim country. Israel is the only country in the region that has virtually unlimited freedom of speech. Any person in Israel, whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian can criticize the Israeli government and its leaders. No citizen of any other Middle Eastern or Muslim state can do that without fear of imprisonment or death. Israel is the only country that has openly confronted the difficult issue of protecting the civil liberties of the ticking bomb terrorist.

Israel’s record on human rights is among the best, especially among nations that have confronted comparable threats. Though not perfect, Israel has shown extraordinary concern for avoiding civilian casualties in its half-century effort to protect its civilians from terrorism. Jordan killed more Palestinians in a single month than Israel has between 1948 and the present.

As divestment from Israel rears its ugly head once again, it’s time to reevaluate the meaning of human rights. Do we consider human rights to be something belonging to a select group, to rally for because it is easy and the “in” thing to do? Or do we think that every human should have basic rights, and that we should do what’s in our power to protect these rights?

Michelle Kaufman is a member of the Class of 2006.