By Chadwick R. Gore
CSCE Staff Advisor
On October 3, 2003, the Helsinki Commission held a briefing on human rights and democracy in the six Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation countries of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE): Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia.
There has been a Mediterranean dimension of the Helsinki process from the outset. Throughout the negotiations that preceded and produced the Helsinki Final Act, issues relating to the Mediterranean region were discussed. The result was a section of the Final Act entitled, "Questions relating to Security and Cooperation in the Mediterranean." The Final Act does refer to the region, stating that "security in Europe is to be considered in the broader context of world security and is closely linked with security in the Mediterranean as a whole."
Under the original rubric of "non-participating Mediterranean countries," Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Syria and Tunisia contributed to relevant discussions in the security dimension. These discussions were held in recognition of the relationship between security in Europe and in the Mediterranean region. The Mediterranean dimension of the OSCE was reconstituted in the mid-1990s under the designation "Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation." Countries included were Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Morocco and Tunisia. Jordan subsequently joined as a Partner.
Over the years the OSCE has convened a score of seminars, conferences and other fora focused on the Mediterranean dimension. In fact, the OSCE and the Government of Jordan hosted a seminar in mid-October on "The comprehensive approach to security: The OSCE experience and its relevance for the Mediterranean region." Additionally, a Contact Group was established in the mid-1990s to provide the opportunity for OSCE participating States and the six Mediterranean Partners to maintain dialogue on pertinent Mediterranean issues. Periodic meetings of the Contact Group are typically held at the ambassadorial level.
While none of the Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation have committed themselves to the OSCE commitments, the countries are party to a wide range of international conventions on human rights.
The Commission's early October briefing was held in advance of meetings hosted in Rome by the Italian parliament, in conjunction with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, including the Parliamentary Assembly's first day-long parliamentary "Forum on the Mediterranean." Commission participants in the Rome meetings were Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA) and Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-VA). Rep. Hastings chaired one of the sessions entitled "Developing the OSCE Mediterranean Dimension."
Though the Helsinki Commission has followed the evolution of the Mediterranean dimension of the OSCE, it does not have analysts monitoring the human rights situation in these states. Expert panelists participating in the briefing were: Frank Smyth, Washington Representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists; Karen Hanrahan, Director of Advocacy for Middle East and North Africa, Amnesty International USA; and, Joe Stork, Washington Director for the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.
Torture and ill treatment of detainees remain serious problems within the Mediterranean Partners, as do arbitrary detentions, lack of due process, and limits on religious practice. Such restrictions have been exacerbated in the name of anti-terror initiatives since the attacks of September 11. Unrest in the Mediterranean region, as well as repression, has given rise to human rights violations, with torture in varying degrees remaining a problem in all six countries. Journalists attempting to work in the region face difficulties as well.
Investigations into human rights abuses in Algeria are rarely carried out by the government, Hanrahan said. In the name of anti-terror, Algeria has threatened human rights and has reacted harshly against anti-government demonstrations. In one such wave of demonstrations, security forces killed 10 unarmed civilians in March and April, as reported by Amnesty. Some civilians were reported to have been killed by live ammunition, others were said to have been stabbed to death or killed by rubber bullets or tear-gas grenades aimed at their heads. The demonstrations were held to criticize political repression and failing social and economic conditions in Algeria. Many protesters were arrested in connection with these demonstrations and detained for several months.
The unresolved fate of thousands of "disappeared" people in Algeria is another of the continuing human rights violations reported in Amnesty International Report 2003. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika created a system to look into such disappearances following arrests since 1993 by Algerian security forces, but it is still unclear whether the system will be independent, impartial and effective enough to bring to justice those responsible for the crimes.
Egypt has also consistently violated human rights in the name of fighting terrorism, including systematic, widespread torture in detention facilities, according to Hanrahan. Authorities also fail to investigate torture quickly and comprehensively. The most common methods reported were electric shocks, beatings, suspension by the wrists or ankles, and various forms of psychological torture.
In one such case documented in Amnesty's 2003 report on Egypt, Wa'el Tawfiq, an activist for Palestinian causes, was arrested during the Cairo International Book Fair. He asserted that he had been tortured at the State Security Intelligence headquarters, and an independent medical examination found evidence supporting his claim.
In August, Human Rights Watch sent an open letter to Egypt's prosecutor general, urging him to drop emergency law prosecutions for peaceful dissent. The letter expressed particular concern that the charges against five defendants would punish them for legitimate expression, and that they would be denied due process and a fair trial. Stork noted that the ruling party in Egypt has recently emphasized the importance of civil rights and urged continued engagement with the Government of Egypt.
Israel was criticized for rights abuses including restrictions on freedom of movement. Human Rights Watch recently wrote an open letter to President Bush, asserting that the West Bank separation barrier violates freedom of movement of the Palestinians, endangering access to food, water, education, and medical services for an estimated 150,000 Palestinians during the first phase of construction.
Closures, curfews, and other obstacles to free movement of people have remained concerns in Israel, according to Hanrahan. She noted that reports of torture and ill treatment have also surfaced. She cautioned that she could also criticize Palestinian groups for violations, but suggested that since they lack nation status and are not an OSCE Mediterranean Partner, she would not examine that topic at the briefing.
Jordan has put its restrictions on various freedoms into the legal code, including laws that restrict what individuals are permitted to say about the king, Stork stressed. Laws quickly introduced after September 11 continue to diminish the right to freedom of expression, according to Amnesty's Report 2003. In August, officials closed the local office of the Qatar-based TV channel al-Jazeera after it showed one phone-in program considered insulting to the royal family.
Stork and Hanrahan met with King Abdullah during his September visit to Washington. While the king verbally committed to the protection of human rights, there are still problems, especially violations in the name of fighting terror, according to Hanrahan. Stork had positive words for Jordan, suggesting that it is the only OSCE Mediterranean Partner taking forward-looking steps on human rights, including women's rights.
Smyth devoted particular attention to the situation of journalists in Morocco as a country that currently imprisons journalists for their work. Though Morocco is not usually associated with chronic press freedom abuses, CPJ has noticed disturbing trends in the country. Over the last year, five Moroccan journalists have been detained in connection with their work, and two remain imprisoned.
The weakening of press freedom is largely the result of Morocco's attempt to fight terrorism, with the brunt of the crackdown coming after the May 16 terrorist attacks in Casablanca, which killed 44 people. An anti-terror law resulting from the attacks has been used to detain reporters who have written about militancy in the country.
Amnesty International released in February a report on Morocco, saying incidents of secret detentions and torture are on the rise. The report outlines concern about the anti-terror law, particularly its proposed provisions to widen the scope of the death penalty and extend the existing legal limit of detention without outside contact, where detainees risk torture and ill treatment. Stork noted some improvements in Morocco, where "disappearances," or kidnapings of dissidents, are less commonplace now than in years past.
"In the Arab world, where journalists have long suffered under repressive regimes, Tunisia's press freedom record has stood out as particularly appalling," Smyth said. Tunisian journalists have been censored, attacked and imprisoned for criticizing the regime since President Zine El Abdine Ben Ali came to power in 1987. At least two Tunisian journalists are currently in prison.
Zouhair Yahyaoui, a 34-year-old Internet journalist, was sentenced to prison for allegedly publishing false information and using "stolen communication lines" to post his web site, TUNeZINE.com. Yahyaoui angered Tunisian officials after posting an open letter from his uncle, criticizing the country's lack of judicial independence. Yahyaoui also satirized the president's 2002 referendum, which allowed him to run for a fourth term. Yahyaoui has staged hunger strikes to protest his imprisonment. Guards have confiscated his books and writing materials, according to Smyth, and guards have tampered with his food deeming it inedible.
Stork painted a grim outlook for Tunisia's government, noting that there is almost no point in trying to cultivate a dialogue. "While both Tunisia and Morocco are considered allies of the Bush administration, in its eagerness to encourage democratization in the Middle East, the United States cannot turn a blind eye to these flagrant human rights abuses," Smyth said. "After all, the United States must remember that the fundamental right of a free press is a crucial element to democracy."
An unofficial transcript of the briefing is available on the Helsinki Commission's Internet web site, www.csce.gov.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.
United States Helsinki Commission Intern Lauren Smith contributed to this article.