Ensuring minority rights during change
The processes of transition in the Middle East and North Africa that were kick-started by uprisings last year in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen have been experiencing a predictably rough ride over recent months, as new administrations struggle to turn the page on past abuses and to bring in lasting changes to institutional and legislative frameworks.
Minorities in these countries had hopes raised by the ousting of regimes that had subjected them to discrimination, failed to recognize their cultural rights or denied their identity altogether. However, while the diversity of those who participated in the uprisings has been celebrated, members of certain groups, including Copts in Egypt and particular Amazigh communities in Libya, have been the target of deadly attacks, leading them to be anxious about the future of ethnic and religious relations in their countries.
Meanwhile, fears of increased attacks against minorities within the context of the conflict in Syria are a constant concern, with the spectre of continuing sectarian violence in neighbouring Iraq and memories of Lebanon’s civil war looming large. Members of the minority Shi’a population of Saudi Arabia are at the forefront of demonstrations against the authorities in the east of the country, in which they are, in part, protesting the discrimination they experience. In so doing, they are defying a nationwide ban on demonstrations and facing the heavy-handed response of the authorities.
Against such a backdrop it is imperative that one of the key imperatives for those leading countries into or through periods of transition must be to ensure that constitutions being developed or planned enshrine human rights guarantees that protect all citizens of the country, whatever their race, colour, sex, language, religion, or national or social origin. All persons must be equal before the law and be entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. While it will take much more than new constitutions to prevent human rights violations against minorities, they are guiding instruments that set the standard for subsequent legislative reform.
This issue of Mawared aims to contribute to such a process by discussing both the situation of minorities in the Middle East and North Africa and their rights in a legal framework. The situation of religious and ethnic minorities is explored through a range of focuses on individual countries and particular groups, such as Copts and Shi’a in Egypt, Yazidis in Iraq and a range of minorities in Iran, as well as on the challenges facing stateless people across the region. The pieces combine both historical and comparative approaches.
Other contributions set out the rights of minorities in the framework of international law and standards, the opportunities presented by the current period of transition in the region to advance those rights and the recent attempts by activists and legislators in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt to formulate provisions aimed at guaranteeing them. Finally, a selection of resources and profiles of organizations working on minority rights provide a means to obtain further information on the topic.
Interim Programme Director for the Middle East and North Africa Programme