//Torture is key issue in region, says rights watchdog official

Torture is key issue in region, says rights watchdog official

By Zoi Constantine, Gulf News
Dubai: Human Rights Watch’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa said greater efforts must be exerted to address the wide variety of pressing problems despite some progress on human rights in the region.

"In the Middle East, some of the main human rights issues include torture, the targeting of civilians, arbitrary detention, as well as issues of freedom of expression and freedom of association," said Joe Stork.

"While there has been progress in some areas, major obstacles still exist."

In the region to meet with intellectuals, representatives from the media and civil society on a number of issues including the practice of armed groups deliberately targeting civilians, Stork said it was imperative to create an environment where this was unacceptable.

"Under international law, attacks that target civilians or cause indiscriminate harm to civilians constitute crimes of the gravest sort," Stork told Gulf News.

Citing torture as one of the main issues that Human Rights Watch (HRW) is trying to tackle in the region, Stork conceded that as a US-based organisation it was a difficult subject area.

"Certainly it has become increasingly difficult because of the actions of the US government outside the US, which has had an extremely undermining effect on human rights around the world."

Stork said there have been improvements in the region, citing Bahrain as a largely positive example of political reform in the Middle East.

"You can also look at the case of Egypt, where there is a level of discussion and open criticism against the government that only a few years ago would not have been possible. However the improvements are fragile, with many political reforms largely cosmetic," he said.

Human Rights Watch tackles varied issues

Made up of lawyers, journalists, academics and regional experts, Human Rights Watch (HRW) is an independent international human rights organisation.

Aimed at promoting international human rights and humanitarian law around the world, the organisation’s global work tackles a range of issues including torture and abuse, women’s rights, arms control and international justice.

In 1997, HRW and its partner organisations in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines won the Nobel Peace Prize.

It also played an active role in action brought against the former Chilean leader, Augusto Pinochet, which set the precedent that former heads of state can be held accountable for human rights violations.