The Plasticity of International Human Rights Frameworks in Arab Transitions

By Asli Bali
Submitted to Session P3744 (The Rule of Law in Contemporary Arab Societies, 2014 Annual Meeting
Arab States;
Human Rights;
The MENA region is currently going through an extraordinary series of transitions and transformations, which have been expressed in the form of constitution-drafting and wide-ranging legal reform in a number of critical countries. Decades of rule-of-law programs, “good governance” agendas and international human rights advocacy have generated frameworks, vocabularies and reference points that have shaped the course of these new constitutional and legislative trajectories. Critical analysis of the significance of “rule of law” discourses in the region—in the form of transnational and international influences particularly during this period of transition—is much needed and in short supply. The pace and scope of events in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain continues to confound long-standing conventional wisdom about the region’s resistance to pressures to liberalize, democratize or take constitutions seriously. Yet no new paradigm has emerged to explain the current trajectories, and important divergences among these countries suggest that there is no single comfortable explanation for the causes or likely outcomes of the legal and constitutional initiatives underway.

This paper will offer a preliminary assessment of the role that international human rights frameworks have played in the constitutional and legal reforms underway in these four countries. In Bahrain, the independent commission appointed by the monarchy to assess alleged rights violations during the protests of 2011 yielded several recommendations, few of which have been implemented. In Tunisia, the constitutional assembly at times invoked international human rights standards as a reference point for specific provisions being debated in the constitution. The resulting draft has been received favorably internationally as reflecting substantial rights protections. The cases of Egypt and Yemen fall somewhere in the spectrum between Bahrain and Tunisia, representing more than a cosmetic reference to international legal frameworks but deploying the vocabularies of human rights and the rule of law in the service of a reversion to authoritarian practices albeit following transitions that have somewhat transformed the configuration of domestic stakeholders. This survey of the invocation of international human rights and rule-of-law priorities across all four cases will shed light on the plasticity of these frameworks and the potential legitimating function of international actors whether in instances of meaningful liberalization or democratic reversal.