It was a valuable opportunity for Al Jazeera Net to meet with a senior official of Human Rights Watch to ask him about the role of this human rights organization and how to perform its work, as well as his assessment of the human rights reality in the world and future prospects.
During a visit to the Qatari capital, Doha, Al Jazeera Net met with Moroccan Ahmed bin Shamsi, director of communication and advocacy in the Middle East and North Africa division, at Human Rights Watch, where a dialogue took place that extended from the establishment of the organization through its roles and how to perform its work, and finally the extent of his optimism or pessimism about the global human rights situation.
The organization, as it defines itself through its website, is a non-governmental, non-profit human rights organization that aims to push for change in policies and practices, for human rights and justice around the world.
The organization has about 400 employees worldwide, and its team consists of human rights experts, including: experts in specific countries, lawyers, journalists, and academics, from different backgrounds and nationalities, and it may often partner with local human rights organizations.
Human Rights Watch says it publishes more than 100 reports and briefings on the human rights situation in about 90 countries each year, which receive wide coverage in local and international media.
Details of the dialogue are as follows:
Human Rights Watch was founded in 1978 and over the years has become one of the most prominent human rights voices in the world.
In fact, we have a record of achievements, but it is important to say that we are part of the global human rights movement, as human rights work is based on concerted efforts, and in the end our main goal is to consolidate a culture of human rights.
We were part of the International Demining Movement, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, pioneered the campaign that led in 2008 to ban cluster weapons, and contributed to the idea of UN inspection commissions in conflict zones.
However, we reiterate that the main effort is to spread the culture of human rights, an expanded effort that began after the Second World War and came to fruition after a long struggle, as the whole world became aware of and embraced human rights, despite the existence of violations on the ground.
What is the use of human rights awareness if violations continue?
Awareness of human rights has itself become a tool of pressure on the world's rulers and power-bearers, as even non-democratic regimes can no longer completely ignore the people and the international climate.
At least rulers can no longer show public contempt for human rights, and even those who commit abuses are keen to claim respect for them.
Some people think that human rights organizations do not work much to prevent human rights violations; what do you think?
In my opinion, they believe that achievement is only what can be touched, but the truth is that human rights work is inherently related to the long term and does not necessarily bear fruit quickly, especially as it is more about changing culture, than its ability to achieve tangible achievements that may not be possible on the ground, unfortunately. Human rights organizations may only succeed in reducing abuses, and because people dream of eliminating them, they believe that organizations do not achieve much.
We remain with the accusations leveled against your organization and other human rights organizations, which are selective in their work and interests, what is your comment?
You may be surprised to admit that they are indeed selective, but not in favor of certain regimes, but unfortunately because we cannot follow up on all human rights issues in various countries of the world, due to funding considerations, and the consequent lack of staff working in the organization.
Let me give you an example of a country like Egypt, which is an arena for many human rights cases and violations, yet our team includes only two researchers specialized in Egyptian affairs, so they cannot follow up on all cases.
We receive funding from individual and institutional donors, and this is not enough, because we do not accept any funding from governments, because for us they are the ones who commit violations, so we cannot accept funding from those we aim to prosecute and expose their violations.
Because of that, we are forced to focus on issues that we see as having only an important symbolic dimension.
Bin Shamsi (right) during the interview conducted by the journalist Al Jazeera Net Anas Zaki (Al Jazeera Net)
Can you put us in how Human Rights Watch does business?
In fact, our work is based on 3 axes or pillars: investigation, expose, advocacy and support.
– The first axis: It is represented in our investigation in order to first verify the occurrence of violations, who committed them, where and how, and the talk here is about data from reality and not just opinions. In fact, we have criteria by which to measure the existence of violations or not, most notably international human rights law and relevant international treaties.
– After verification, we come to the second axis: shaming, knowing that we choose topics with a symbolic dimension that the media can be interested in, since our original goal is to disseminate a culture of human rights, it is important for us to have the support of the media.
– Then comes the stage of advocacy, advocacy or support: we are making efforts with governments if we can, institutions, parties and the media.
Are governments listening to you, especially in the Middle East?
In the Arab world, we have communication with governments such as Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, while other countries, such as Egypt, never communicate with us.
By the way, we are taking advantage of every possible opportunity, including that States like to boast of their respect for human rights, and this helps us to pressure these States to be consistent with their stated principles.
Do you think that major countries, especially the United States, are serious about fighting human rights violations?
Unfortunately, the reality is that this is often linked to political accommodations and economic and military interests. It is clear that major Powers take into account their interests before their principles, and their relationship with countries known for their human rights violations is one of the most prominent examples in this regard.
From time to time, government newspapers in the region criticize your organization, and accusations of politicizing the human rights file, or having private "agendas", what is your comment on this?
What we read in some state media in many countries that witness human rights violations seems to us to be a kind of absurdity and judgment of intentions, while ignoring the actual reality.
We at Human Rights Watch have clear and documented reports and statements, we hope that the authorities and critics will read them, and we welcome any correction of our information if they prove it to be wrong, but unfortunately they do not.
In many cases, we sent dozens of questions to some countries to get the authority's narrative before we issued our reports, and we asked them to correct any facts, but they never responded to us, and when we issue reports, they attack us and accuse us of lack of objectivity.
Are you optimistic about the future of human rights in the Middle East and the world?
After the end of the Cold War, there was hope that a transition to greater democracy and the preservation of human rights would be inevitable, but since the Arab Spring revolutions and the subsequent victory of the counter-revolutions, we have seen a regression.
Even in Western countries, we see victories for extremists and populists in many important countries.
But as I said at the beginning, human rights work is long-term, and 50 years ago no one knew about human rights, while now everyone knows and no one can deny them, even if they seek to disavow them, so I am optimistic in the long term, because humanity is progressing.