The Arab Spring began as a macabre protest against human rights violations. On December 17, 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire because of mistreatment by a policewoman. Human rights violations are all too common in the Middle East and have been one of the main demands for reform by protestors. Governments in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Libya, and others have certainly not been averse to killing and torturing their own people to maintain the status quo. A brief look at Jordan—one of the more “liberal” Middle Eastern states—will reveal the extent of the problem.
On their website, the Jordanian government states that they have “consistently been cited by Amnesty International as the country with the best human rights record in the region.” Jordan faces extensive problems with human rights, from bad prison conditions to harassment of journalists to torture of political prisoners. In general, the Hashemite monarchy pushes for reform and pays lip service to human rights, but a desire to maintain power and a lack of effective governance in the country leads a continuation of human rights abuses in the kingdom.
While Jordan has made progress in curbing human rights abuses, problems are still widespread, due mainly to the presence of the secret police, the mukhabarat. The secret police have their own courts, the State Security Courts, outside the law in pursuing and detaining people deemed a threat to national security. Although laws exist preventing the unlawful detention of suspects for more than ten days without being charged, extensions are usually granted. Certain detainees are often held for even longer times by the secret police. Secret police monitor just about everything and have informants in almost every organization: NGOs, mosques, churches (the LDS branch president of the Irbid branch in Jordan told me once that at least one member was a mukhabarat informant), newspapers, labor unions, and more.
Amnesty International states in one of its reports that Jordan has been one of the countries to which the United States has extradited suspected terrorists because of less restrictive prohibitions on the use of force. Prison conditions are sub-standard: the food and water are often unhealthy, living conditions are dirty, news is withheld from prisoners, and prisoners are often subject to mistreatment by guards. In the past several years, several prisoners have died in prison or while being taken in. Additionally, the government denies citizenship to Jordanians of Palestinian descent; the government monitors the Internet, private correspondence, and the press; television channels that run afoul of the government are shut down; and, freedom of assembly is generally limited. While laws guarantee most if not all of these freedoms, the government often finds ways to skirt them or just ignores them completely.
However, King Abdullah has recognized the need for reform and has at least instituted reform programs in the prisons. Additionally, the fact that the Jordanian government has allowed Amnesty International to assess prison conditions suggests a desire for more openness and reform within Jordan. Despite these small steps forward, Amnesty International suggests that conditions are slow to change because of a lack of “individual accountability”—that is, the government has difficulty monitoring the actions of the police and security forces. So, while the higher levels of government push for change, the lower levels are not always on the same page.
The saddest part of all this is that the Jordanian governments website is not lying—it does have one of the best human rights records in the Middle East. Libya is in a state of virtual civil war, Bahrain’s opposition is decimated after a bloody crackdown, and even Egypt still routinely imprisons opposition supporters. The Arab Spring has shown Middle Easterners that they do not have to chafe under oppressive rulers and consistent human rights violations. Unless Arab governments find a way to change, their lousy human rights records will prove their undoing. The United States also needs to recognize this fundamental shift in Middle Eastern domestic politics. By basing their support for Middle Eastern regimes on short-term security interests and not on principles—such those embodied in the concept of human rights—the reputation of the US will accompany its corrupt allies in the Middle East on the way out.