Conceptualizing a Regional, Human-Rights Oriented Documentation Network
By UMAM Documentation & Research
© UMAM D&R, 2012
English - Arabic

For years, the very concept of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region—the Arab world—was synonymous with advocacy work. Because of that, the documentation efforts that accompanied such activities never went beyond simply highlighting specific human rights violations. The intent behind announcing and denouncing those violations was to invite widespread condemnation of horrific and/or unlawful actions. However, despite the steady increase in human rights violations, the documentation employed to catalog and report those abuses typically focused on individuals or small groups of offenders.

That observation is certainly not intended to demean the efforts made by human rights activists in the past or diminish the severity of the violations they documented. Rather, this commentary seeks to highlight some of the new challenges being faced in a number of sensitive areas, including human rights. Those hindrances are associated directly with the transformation that enveloped the MENA region in December 2010, when a wave of transformation (referred to typically as the Arab Spring) washed over the Arab world.

Since those sweeping changes began, several political regimes have been overthrown, and many more transitions are likely to occur – peaceably or otherwise. Each time a regime has been toppled, however, its historical practices and the impact they had on society have come to light. The fact that these events were ultimately disclosed has places countries of the region on the path to self-examination and accountability, both from a moral and legal standpoint. In essence, these transformations have raised questions about what should be done with the weighty legacy imposed by decades of human rights violations. Those questions pertain as well to the abuses that occurred during each instance of national transformation. More specifically, while such injustices certainly yield still more victims, they also represent elements of the memories shared within each country and society involved.

The current "wave" of transformation is not the first the MENA region has experienced. Yet, regardless of the depth and drama involved, or even the timing of such massive changes, if they are to be effective, the motivation for those radical shifts must be found within each country and society involved. Based on that proviso, it becomes immediately understandable that the transformation, which changed the face of the Arab World following World War II, concerned itself largely with the legacy of "the past." Notably, that past was managed by applying scathing moral condemnation (from a quasi-religious perspective) and developing a reliance on the use of the guillotine. 

Thus, these transformations (the preponderance of which paralleled the creation of the State of Israel) were characterized by the infiltration of each country's political realm by their organic military institutions. That sequence of events, then, helps explain the sharp rise of dictatorial governments throughout the region.

In contrast, the transformations occurring today cannot ignore the fact that since the end of World War II, the prevailing notion of human rights has become the criteria used to differentiate between what is "good" and what is "evil." Further, the concepts that provide the basis for human rights are constantly being expanded and applied to the formulation of national and international laws. Accordingly, claims that justice is being advanced along the accepted notion of human rights (each instance of which acknowledges a deficiency or insufficiency in state law) must be reviewed closely and assessed in terms of accountability. 

Therefore, when human rights are referred to as the overriding vision for the future rather than just another implement in an activist's toolbox, it becomes easy to recognize that documentation indeed plays a central role in human rights

This publication was made possible by funding from the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa).