12/10/2018, 18.20
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Middle East-North Africa worse in terms of human rights

Some positive steps have been taken in Tunisia, Lebanon and Qatar, but gender segregation remains in Saudi Arabia. For the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “domestic laws must not punish criticism of religious leaders or prevent commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith.”

New York (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Middle East-North Africa is "the worst region in the world in terms of human rights," said today Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division, speaking on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"The major obstacles remain the governments in most Arab countries, which do not respect the freedoms and rights of their citizens," she told Lebanese newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour.

Yet, despite the situation, she acknowledges the "positive actions" undertaken by some countries in the region, most notably Tunisia’s proposed new inheritance law, seen as "a decisive albeit rare step towards gender equality", as well as Lebanon’s new law against torture, and Qatar’s law on asylum and refugees of September 2018.

However, according to Whitson, "if we look at the region as a whole, respect for human rights is in a state of crisis, with on the one hand the catastrophic wars in Syria and Yemen, and on the other, the ongoing conflict in Libya and the violence in Iraq, Gaza and the Sinai." Currently, 13 Arab countries are at war or fighting in a military coalition.

Saudi Arabia, one of the region’s most influential countries, did not sign the Declaration 70 years ago because of the clause that protects the right to change religion, i.e. apostasy.

Sarah Whitson does note some recent “improvements in the social sphere” in the kingdom “such as the opening of cinemas, stadiums and concerts. However, [gender] segregation remains." Indeed, "Saudi Arabia is full of ironic anecdotes and there is a sort of schizophrenia between what the government wants to do, on the one hand, and its intense repression, on the other".

In 1948, certain Muslim-majority countries like Syria, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan voted in favour of the Declaration. However, in relation to countries like Pakistan, “The UN Human Rights Committee has emphasized that domestic laws must not punish criticism of religious leaders or prevent commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith,” writes the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

According to the Pew Research Center, about one country or territory in four had anti-blasphemy laws or policies in 2014, the last year for which figures are available. Some 13 per cent had laws or policies penalising apostasy, in some cases making it punishable by death.

Recently, Pakistan was back in the news over Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy and acquitted by Pakistan’s Supreme Court.

“Her case is one of the best-known examples of how blasphemy laws can all too easily be used to pursue private vendettas,” says the UN Office of the High Commissioner.

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