What the United States Government Should Do to Promote Human Rights in the Middle East

As people throughout the Middle East and North Africa continue to demand their basic rights and freedoms in the face of repression from their governments, Human Rights First is urging the U.S. government to lend support to their aspirations by articulating a consistent, principled message favoring respect for human rights and the spread of representative government everywhere.

Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks notes, “As President Obama, and both his Republican and Democratic predecessors, have stated, the spread of freedom and democracy throughout the world is in the best interests of the United States.  The events of the past weeks clearly demonstrate the unsustainability of policies that place stability ahead of human rights.  While the people of the Middle East and North Africa will decide how to structure their own governments, the United States can and should adopt policies that support the exercise of human rights.”

According to Human Rights First, President Obama and other leading administration officials should clearly state that:

  • Governments throughout the region must listen and respond to the legitimate demands of their people for greater rights and freedom and for more representative and more responsive government.
  • The use of violence against peaceful protesters is completely unacceptable and counterproductive.
  • Denial of basic rights to freedom of expression – including censorship or blocking access to the Internet, to satellite television and cell phone usage – association and assembly will not resolve political tensions anywhere.
  • The United States stands ready to assist peaceful transitions toward more democratic government everywhere through the provision of targeted aid, technical assistance, support for free elections and for democratic institutions of all kinds.

The core principles that the U.S. government supports should not differ from country to country, depending on whether or not it is a U.S. ally.  Support for those calling for respect for basic rights and freedoms must apply in Iran and Syria and also in Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco or Saudi Arabia.

The group also put forth the following recommendations in response to specific country situations:


The U.S. government should make clear to the Bahraini government that negotiations with the opposition must continue and that any return to violent confrontation with the opposition would have immediate negative consequences on the bi-lateral relationship with the United States.


The U.S. government has been slow to support international action to bring an end to the crimes against humanity currently taking place in Libya.

In addition to continuing to demand an immediate end to Libya’s massacre of its own citizens, the U.S. government should:

  • Take the lead in the U.N. Security Council to condemn the ongoing violence; establish an international commission of inquiry into the alleged crimes against humanity with the power to recommend measures to ensure accountability for these crimes; establish a no-fly zone to protect civilians from attack by helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
  • Impose targeted sanctions on Muammar Qaddafi, his family members and others directly involved in repression.
  • Work with regional organizations, especially the Arab League, the African Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference to ensure the broadest possible international support for measures designed to stop repression in Libya.

Egypt and Tunisia

  • Maintain close relations with interim governing authorities and a broad spectrum of opposition elements, as well as the military.
  • Construct emergency aid packages to address short term economic damage resulting from the overthrow of authoritarian rulers.
  • Consult with the interim authorities, the opposition, independent civil society — including professional associations and trade unions — and state institutions, including the judiciary, to support practical measures to move toward constitutional and legislative reform, and the creation of conditions in which free and fair elections can take place in an atmosphere of peace and transparency.

Finally, the group recommended that in the near future, President Obama should make a major foreign policy speech in which he sets out the basic principles that will guide U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East in the weeks, months and years ahead.  That speech must acknowledge that support for repressive governments has not brought stability to the region, nor served the national interest of the United States.

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