In 2019, the Arab World was rocked by countrywide protests demanding representative governance and respect for fundamental rights. In November of that year, the Human Rights Foundation held its first Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF) Working Retreat for the Arab World, bringing together a group of 60 human rights advocates. Participants at the OFF Working Retreat came from 13 countries in the Middle East and North Africa: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, and Tunisia.
The retreat united a community of individuals working on and in the Arab World, who shared their experiences and strategies for fortifying human rights under authoritarian rule. A series of workshops and exercises brought together participants to brainstorm ways to capitalize on their strengths, and overcome the weaknesses and threats they face in their work.
Based on findings from this retreat, HRF published the OFF Working Retreat report — Building and Uniting a Movement in the Arab World — in August 2020.
The report details the key issues that participants identified as decisive to their work: legal impediments, access to funding, relationships with the media, healing from the trauma of living under a repressive state, and wellbeing. One of the main takeaways from the retreat was that activists from the Arab World need a stronger community. They need allies from within their own countries and abroad, and members of their diasporic communities to help them bring about sustainable change.
The OFF Working Retreat report now serves as a resource for activism in the Arab World: it identifies the strengths, weaknesses, and similarities in the struggles of advocates from the region.
Activists in the Arab World are confronted with a variety of legal obstacles, including the existing legal framework, judicial harassment, and a lack of legal and human rights education.
Civil society organizations find it difficult to operate in states that do not possess an independent judiciary or a transparent legislative process, a frequent problem in the Arab World where there is no separation of powers in governments. Activists in the region must confront laws that restrict, among other things, the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. To overcome this, international solidarity can be leveraged by creating alliances, and by utilizing international bodies and special procedures. Technology and access to the internet also give people a platform for their voices, but restrictive and flawed laws on free speech, often taking the form of terrorism and national security laws, also amplify the risks people may face as a result of speaking out. Activists can push back on restrictive laws by creating coalitions and campaigns that unite people from diverse fields, and by lobbying parliamentarians before domestic laws are adopted, as was successfully done in Tunisia. Another important step is to improve legal literacy and training in international human rights law so that legal professionals can start challenging restrictive laws by reforming law school curricula and opening debate in the Arab World.
Funding to NGOs must go hand-in-hand with assistance in developing the institutional knowledge and skills that NGOs need.
Many organizations in the Arab World struggle to find funding opportunities because of a crackdown by Arab governments on NGOs, and low interest from foreign donors. Due to constant geopolitical shifts in the region, donor states have been cutting their funding for human rights and democracy promotion efforts. At the same time, existing sources of funding are often fragmented, and activists find themselves meeting the requirements of narrow projects because foreign donors often fund only issue-based advocacy. Funding opportunities are often tailored to the needs of the funders, and not to the objective reality on-the-ground. This further limits access to funding and interferes with the growth of local NGOs and activists. Moreover, a lack of institutional knowledge and key skills, such as drafting and submitting update reports to donors, or meeting the legal requirements to be registered as an NGO, hinders the growth of strong institutions in the Arab World. To overcome this, NGOs can share grant application resources with each other, utilize training centers on proposal writing, and explore new ways to receive donations in ways that cannot be censored or seized by governments.
Media engagement is key for activism, but activists in the Arab World suffer from censorship and/or self-censorship, limited funding, and avoidance of government criticism in the media.
There are few independent Arabic-speaking media options, making it difficult for activists in the region to garner the media’s attention and disseminate their message. Dissident voices in Arabic-language media are hard to come by, and major Arabic media outlets are either outright owned or controlled by the government, hindering the spread of anti-government messages without fear of reprisal. Combined with restrictive freedom of speech laws, activists often find it difficult to avoid self-censorship, and only publish opinion pieces that they know will be safe. Moreover, international media outlets are unwilling or unable to support local campaigns, forcing activists to work with the few resources they have. Activists must always remember to focus on what inspires their movement, and use that to develop their messaging.
Proper mental health care is critical for activists who experience both first and second-hand trauma in carrying out their work within the Arab World. Due to stigmatization of mental health issues, activists often do not or are unable to seek help for these mental health and wellbeing challenges.
Human rights advocacy can be taxing on one’s mental health, and unfortunately, the topic is often stigmatized and ignored. A lack of awareness around mental health and wellbeing can lead to dysfunctional activism, which sometimes translates into a conscious choice to deprioritize oneself. To overcome these challenges, activists in a mental state of survival need allies, support, and a sense of community. They must recognize the importance of taking time to care for themselves and focus on post-traumatic growth, which is possible only when activists acknowledge a problem and seek professional support. Activists can then transform the trauma they experience into knowledge and power.
Since the OFF Working Retreat took place, ongoing political unrest has continued to challenge the status quo in the Arab World, especially since authoritarian rulers have used the COVID-19 outbreak to intensify repression and prevent any progress.
Authoritarianism and human rights abuses have been the rule rather than the exception, and activism is now more important than ever for the Arab World.