Bridging the Gap: A Decade of Human Rights in MENA, Navigating Pathways and Hurdles to Collaborations within Academia
RoundTable VIII-3, sponsored byThe Freedom Initiative and MENA Prison Forum, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Saturday, November 4 at 11:00 am
The resurgence of autocracy in the aftermath of the Arab Spring has created a reality in which academics face restrictions in their access to the ground while a cohort of human rights organizations have grown to capture this space. Complementary as they are, collaborations between these communities remain minimal despite tremendous potential. This roundtable brings together practitioners and academics to bridge the gap between different vocabularies and domains of access in an attempt to foster more areas of collaborations. We encourage participants to think of how data collection and analysis developed over the last decade and how do we incorporate it into academic work? What are the potential funding resources for joint projects between academics and local and international NGOs? How can both fields work to incorporate research into larger social impact campaigns? How do we manage risks on the ground, both for researchers and participants? How can different types of theorizing, methodologies, and concepts in both fields be complementary, if at all? And finally, how do we interrogate our respective lexicons to center participant experiences outside of disciplinary and developmental jargon?
Academia provides the resources and skills required to make sense of various phenomena, but this rarely translates into implementation in the sphere of advocacy and human rights, which itself is moving towards a more research-oriented methodology. This requires efforts to make academia more accessible without compromising the quality and rigour demanded by academic research. In my research, I strive to incorporate various methodologies developed in the social sciences to contribute something new to the existing corpus of knowledge and immediately and effectively applicable to various NGOs in their internal evaluation and advocacy. For this, I have curated three databases which shed light on various human rights violations under Egypt’s current regime–a database that is also usable by each of the NGOs used as sources, and if made open-source, usable for creating both individual and comparative human rights reports. Furthermore, the databases also help identify which sets of issues and individuals, usually dealt with by NGOs in isolation from others, have been and should be prioritized in their advocacy efforts. Ultimately, this sort of research has the potential to identify not only what Sisi did to individuals but what the NGOs did–and for which individuals.
As an expert in human rights and the legal system in the MENA region, I have experienced the lack of Academic and reliable Arabic human rights materials and sources. Therefore, in an attempt to bridge the gap, I founded Qanun, the Arabic Human Rights Platform. Our main mission is to provide human rights practitioners with human rights instruments, such as International treaties and other fundamental resources. Qanun seeks to disseminate knowledge of human rights issues at two levels: the legal, and human rights specialists’ level, such as those working in judicial and security institutions, and the non-specialists’ level, as well. This will, in turn, make human rights visible, not only in the academic world but also reflected in the general culture, as well. We are working toward enhancing the Arabic human rights library and make accessible to everyone. I will address the challenges and opportunities facing this mission.
In this roundtable I aim to highlight the significance of solidarity networks for advocacy of women’s rights in the context of Iran’s ‘woman, life, freedom’ movement. I will to speak about the Women’s Bill of Rights that a collective of feminist scholars and activists published in an effort to challenge the historically discriminatory and oppressive structures of the theocratic regime. This process witnessed the close workings of individuals who utilized a feminist lens, but drew from academic research on gender and politics, as well as practitioner and legal implications of women’s rights in Iran.
Research, Advocacy and Public Policy: New Paradigms for Human Rights Scholarship and Activism in the MENA
After three decades in which human rights were at the rhetorical forefront of international policymaking, the last decade has seen the worst retrenchment of human rights globally in half a century. Even during the initial phase of the Arab uprisings era, a long-term disconnect between what human rights scholars were studying and writing about, the struggles of activists on the ground, and what governments and policymakers were willing to enact to protect human rights, remained troublingly broad. It had become clear that human rights research had little impact on the work of activists, and this lack of relevance negatively impact their ability to impact public policy.
To address this gap between research, advocacy, and public policy (RAPP) across the Middle East and North Africa, in 2009 a group of scholars affiliated with the Center for Middle East Studies at Lund University and the Issam Fares Institute at AUB established the largest ever study on human rights in the Arab world, which for most of the next decade brought together upwards of two dozen scholars and human rights advocates to work together to study the gap between research and advocacy, and whether greater synergy between them might positively impact the ability of activists to reshape government policies related to human rights in the Arab world.
Our team engaged in three broad areas of study: research on one or more aspects of human rights in individual countries across the region, in-depth oral histories with the "founders" generation of human rights practitioners in the region, and finally, semi-structured interviews with a dozens of grassroots and professional activists and human rights workers today on a variety of issues related to the history and present dynamics and challenges of human rights activism in the region.
My presentation will discuss the main findings related to the complex interactions between research, advocacy and public policy in the Arab world, the lessons for human rights research today, and how scholars and practitioners can better work together to produce policy-relevant knowledge and strategies in the context of ongoing and even worse abuses across the region. My focus will be on freedom of expression, and particularly artistic freedom, as an area of research and advocacy, and on the role of testimonies and writings by political prisoners as primary sources for research.