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United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR)
20 May 2010
OHCHR in the Field:
the Middle East and North Africa
Despite some improvement in human rights in the Middle East and North Africa region, many issues remain to be addressed more systematically. Fragile rule of law institutions and inadequate legal human rights protection mechanisms continued to trigger civil and political rights violations in many countries. This particularly occurred in terms of arbitrary detention and ill-treatment and torture of detainees, but also in relation to violations of freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Discrimination and violence against women persisted, although slight improvements were noted in some areas. The situation of migrant workers, especially domestic workers, remained difficult, and the rights of refugees, children and stateless persons continued to be of concern.
The situation in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) and Yemen was characterized by general instability and intermittent large-scale armed engagement that resulted in civilian casualties, displacement and infrastructure destruction, as well as the deepening of humanitarian needs. A large number of civilians were killed and displaced during the December 2008-January 2009 military operation in Gaza. In Yemen, an estimated 200,000 people were reported displaced by renewed clashes in the northern province of Sa’da. Continuous violence and political instability in Iraq presented immense challenges for the Iraqi Government and international and domestic organizations working on human rights, with movements and outreach severely limited. The previously publicized intention by the Government to institute a moratorium on the death penalty was abandoned, and more than 120 death-row inmates were executed during the year.
Some positive developments also were noted: President Mahmoud Abbas declared the Palestinian Authority’s adherence to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Kuwaitis elected four women to Parliament for the first time. Lebanon continued to stabilize, and the new Government renewed commitments to progress on human rights issues.
New national human rights institutions were established in Bahrain and Oman, and positive engagement with the Human Rights Council was recorded in the context of the UPR. In Iraq, a Committee of Experts responsible for the selection of Commissioners for the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights was established.
OHCHR has a stand-alone office in oPt, a regional office for the Middle East in Beirut, Lebanon, and the Human Rights Training and Documentation Centre for South West Asia and the Arab Region in Doha, Qatar, the latter as of May 2009. To celebrate the inauguration, the Centre hosted a training course on international human rights mechanisms, including the UPR, for countries in the South West Asia and Arab region. OHCHR also supported the work of the Human Rights Office of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), and in September 2009 an agreement was signed with the Government of Mauritania to establish a country office in Nouakchott. Discussions are ongoing regarding the establishment of a regional office for North Africa. A section of ten professional and three administrative staff covered the region from headquarters, monitoring areas of concern, preparing briefing materials and providing substantive and administrative support to field presences and the human rights component in Iraq.
Stand-alone Office -- Occupied Palestinian Territory
The Israeli blockade of Gaza is now in its third year, severely impeding enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, most urgently the right to food, movement, water, work, sustainable livelihoods and adequate health care. More than a year after the armed conflict in Gaza, much reconstruction remains at a standstill because of the blockade. Territorial fragmentation of the West Bank continued, and links between East Jerusalem and the West Bank were increasingly obstructed. Human rights developments in East Jerusalem were of particular concern, with many Palestinians forcibly evicted from their homes, which were either demolished or taken over by Israeli settlers. Settler violence against Palestinians persisted. Parties to the Israel-Palestinian conflict engaged in serious violations, such as extra-judicial executions, arbitrary detentions, torture and ill-treatment. The continued stalemate in intra-Palestinian reconciliation efforts negatively affected the human rights situation, with responsible authorities throughout Palestine committing violations. Accountability for violations of human rights and international humanitarian law is the exception. Instead, impunity is the norm, thereby perpetuating the conflict and continued lack of respect for the dignity of all persons.
OHCHR is the only UN organization that focuses exclusively on improving the human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territory. Working in partnership with many Palestinian and Israeli human rights NGOs, OHCHR is engaged in monitoring, protection and advocacy work, technical assistance, capacity development and reporting. The Office has adopted a monitoring framework, identified strategic priority areas and collected information on violations by all parties. OHCHR chairs the inter-agency Protection Cluster Working Group and promotes integration of human rights into the work of the UN Country Team. It also co-chairs the inter-agency mechanism for implementing human rights activities agreed in the UN Medium-Term Response Plan. OHCHR further continues to provide substantive and technical support to the Palestinian national human rights institution.
Established a system for monitoring, documenting and reporting human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territory. Documented cases of human rights violations by all duty-bearers, which strengthened the ability of the Office to contribute to reports to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.
Chaired the Protection Cluster Working Group, which brings together UN agencies, Palestinian, Israeli and international NGOs, and other international humanitarian and human rights actors.
Development of a new, one-year strategy for the Working Group sets out a coordinated approach to protection activities in the occupied Palestinian territory.
Participated in the revision of legislation currently applicable in the territory, with a view toward sanctioning crimes committed in the name of “honour.”
Convened a human rights film festival in Jerusalem and several locations in the West Bank on International Human Rights Day. OHCHR also distributed public information materials with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights text in Arabic, Hebrew and English. Inaugurated “human rights corners” in public libraries in the occupied Palestinian territory.
Conducted promotional and capacity development activities together with the Independent Commission for Human Rights, the Palestinian national human rights institution and other local human rights organizations. These included a training course for Palestinian lawyers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a training of trainers course on human rights standards for 25 journalists in Gaza, and a seminar on economic, social and cultural rights for human rights activists in Gaza.
Organized the first conference in Gaza on the death penalty, in partnership with the NGO Palestinian Commission on Human Rights.
Conducted an in-depth training course on human rights standards for Palestinian civil court judges, in collaboration with the Jordanian Judicial Council. A full day of this course was dedicated to violence against women, including crimes committed in the name of “honour.”
In cooperation with the Palestinian Ministry of Education, organized workshops for teachers in the West Bank. The Office also provided support to UNRWA in Gaza to develop a human rights education curriculum, which includes a training for trainers component.
As part of an advocacy campaign to commemorate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, organized a training course, workshops and children’s activities in Gaza.
Establishment of a working group on human rights, governance and rule of law amongst UN agencies has resulted in the inclusion of human rights as a priority issue in the UN Medium-Term Response Plan.
Partnerships with human rights defenders and human rights organizations have empowered them in their work. Notably, the Palestinian national human rights institution was upgraded to level ‘A’-status by the International Coordinating Council of national human rights institutions.
Human rights education at primary and secondary levels has been advanced, following cooperation with the Palestinian Ministry of Education.
Human rights concerns were integrated into plans and strategies adopted by the Humanitarian Country Team, including the Common Humanitarian Action Plan and the Needs Analysis Framework, with the assistance of OHCHR.
Challenges and lessons learned
The lack of progress in moving toward peace continues to be a fundamental challenge to improving respect for human rights.
Absence of reconciliation between various Palestinian political groups poses a further challenge to human rights work, in particular in Gaza.