An Insight on Human Rights Work from the Arab Region

Elie AbouaounThe Arab region has experienced a number of historical developments in the last two years, a dynamic of change unseen since the 1950s. Analyzing the whereabouts of this dynamic might be pretentious for a grantmaking organization like the Arab Human Rights Fund (AHRF); nevertheless, reflecting on how this reshuffling of the cards would affect the situation of human rights in the region is a much-needed exercise at this stage.

Cautious as we are, adopting a blanket approach during this reflection is undoubtedly counterproductive. Instead, a set of the largely shared elements that exist at the regional level have to be explored.

While it looks obvious that the recent popular awakenings will open windows of opportunities for human rights actors in the region, the accrued weaknesses of these actors over the last six decades will not be easy to overcome.

The devolution of government services, performance, and accountability in many Arab countries led to an increased role for nonprofits in filling the gaps left by the underperforming governments, paralyzed or ineffective parliaments (when they existed at all), and the bureaucratic/corrupt public administration. However, this was not translated in an effective contribution to the policy-making process, and this shortcoming badly affected the credibility and sustainability of NGOs and more specifically human rights organizations.

At times, the work of human rights organizations was depicted (whether rightly or not) as serving a certain political agenda, leading to a certain apprehension. The fact that most opposition groups in the Arab countries used human rights or rights groups to act against established regimes contributed to the image of human rights activism serving a struggle for power instead of fight for values.

The quasi absence of independent Arab originated funding to support human rights initiatives in the region strengthened the monopoly of foreign donors which left scars on an already negative perception that rights groups are acting in the stream of foreign agendas.

The context of political repression and the fact that most of these organizations in general failed to embrace high standards in their work consolidated these apprehensions, and prevented them from building mass support through small givers and volunteers.

At another level, the repressive framework in most countries of the region contributed to the disengagement of many actors, not the least being the private sector and high net worth individuals. “Capital holders” channeled their donations to “safe interventions,” mostly of social, cultural, and environmental nature. Initiatives related to human rights, policy-making, accountability, and similar topics were avoided in general due to the perceived risks of creating conflicts with governments.

The recent developments in the region have triggered the interest of many governmental and private actors from outside the region. Some countries are flooded with money by major donors, while at the same time NGOs are mushrooming.

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Consequently, donations will now be sought and used by a large number of organizations of various capacities and purposes. The chaotic development of the civil society sector (more specifically organizations working on human rights, democratization and the like) in the countries undergoing a transition is therefore a major challenge to funders such as the AHRF.

The transition processes in the region (as in most other places) will be painful and lengthy. Previous experiences show that such transitions are not reversible and no matter how costly they can be, they will lead to a renewed social contract in each of the affected countries. Moreover, this dynamic will spill over to other countries. In this context, partnering with local and regional grantmaking organizations to maximize on their local knowledge is a key strategy for donor agencies.

In light of the above, the role of a regional fund such as the AHRF is crucial.

Established in 2008, the AHRF was formed at the behest of the Arab region’s human rights community to serve as a regional funding agency with an enduring commitment to the region, to the full spectrum of human rights, and to the painstaking work of mobilizing resources from the region to support human rights projects in the region.

The AHRF is a not-for-profit philanthropic organization that provides support for the promotion and realization of all human rights in the Arab region. The AHRF defines “all human rights” as those enumerated in the International Bill of Rights and all international instruments dealing with human rights and humanitarian law.

It carries out its responsibilities and programs in accordance with these rights and principles without discrimination by reason of gender, ethnicity, religion, national or social status, political opinion or any other distinction. The AHRF is independent of any governmental, political, religious or other interests and is committed to operating with transparency and accountability.

Since 2008, the AHRF has made over $2.2 million in grants to eighty-seven actors to support human rights work in twenty countries in the Arab region.

Responding to the new environment, the Fund is committed to increasing its support for human rights initiatives that seek to use, expand or protect the new political spaces being created by the popular uprisings sweeping the Arab region.

Dr. Elie Abouaoun joined the Arab Human Rights Fund as Executive Director in December 2011. Previously, he worked as a senior Program Officer at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), program manager for the Iraq program of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and program coordinator for Ockenden International-Iraq. Elie regularly writes articles for the French-speaking Lebanese daily newspaper L’Orient le Jour. He is also a visiting lecturer at Notre Dame University-Lebanon and at Saint Joseph University- Lebanon. Read other articles by Elie.