12:30 pm EST - 2:00 pm EST

Past Event

The Role of the UN Human Rights System, International Norms and the Transformation of the Middle East

Thursday, February 23, 2012

12:30 pm - 2:00 pm EST

Qatar University
Administration Building Conference Room


Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

On February 23, 2012, the Brookings Doha Center and Qatar University welcomed H.E. Dr Ali bin Fetais Al Marri, attorney general of the State of Qatar, and Ted Piccone, senior fellow and deputy director for Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, for a policy discussion on the role of the UN Human Rights system and its response to the Arab revolutions. The event, moderated by BDC director Salman Shaikh, was held at Qatar University and was attended by students and staff of the university, as well as members of Doha’s diplomatic and media communities.

Ted Piccone began by outlining the “international architecture of norms” that was defined and endorsed by states in the aftermath of the Second World War. This system is made up of both a series of treaties defining universal rights – “hard law” – and an array of “soft law” mechanisms to encourage, and at times pressure states to adopt and uphold those international standards. Piccone asserted that we are now in an “era of implementation” in which the mechanisms that have been established are being tested and elaborated. Important steps have been made in that regard, Piccone said, mentioning the creation of a new UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in 2006, its effective use of “special procedures,” and the increasing adoption of a human rights agenda in the decision making of the UN Security Council.

Turning to the Arab Spring, Piccone said that the “explosion of UN activity” which ensued had included a great deal of unprecedented action. Piccone referred to Libya’s suspension from the Human Rights Council – the first such incident – and the adoption of Security Council resolutions for referrals to the International Criminal Court and then granting a mandate for the protection of civilians that became, by necessity, a mandate for regime change. In the case of Syria, the HRC’s fact finding mission became “the key reference point in the international debate” by providing credible coverage of the killings on the ground. 

Piccone acknowledged that this shift in mandate towards regime change had caused “friction and tension” with states that prioritized principles of national sovereignty and non-intervention, and had blocked Security Council action on Syria. Highlighting the voting pattern of India, Brazil, and South Africa, however, he noted that these “IBSA” states are shifting course and becoming more comfortable with the idea of international intervention. This was evidenced in India and South Africa changing their position and voting in favor of the most recent Security Council resolution against Syria. These rising democracies – also including Turkey and Indonesia – remain inconsistent advocates of human rights and are generally against military intervention, given their histories of post-colonial struggle and their own regional and global agendas. Still, Piccone did recognize an overall shift away from the principle of non-interventionism and a recognition of the fact that inaction “is itself a choice with consequences that are increasingly intolerable and unjustifiable from the perspective of human rights, human dignity, and the rule of law.”

H.E. Dr. Al-Marri began his remarks by stating that in the Arab world, the issue of human rights can only be addressed alongside broader concerns related to social injustices. Al Marri argued that a failure to realize ideals of justice in region was a source of the Arab spring itself. He stated that throughout history different polities have attempted to develop systems of governance that are just, with varying degrees of success. Al Marri referred to the Florentine republic, with its separation of three arms of government; the 16th and 17th century ‘Latin school’ which granted greater power to the judiciary; and the caliphal system in which executive and judicial authority were personified in the figure of the Caliph. He stressed the need for the Arab world to establish systems of governance that take the best elements of these various experiences and evolve over time, rather than attempting to import any single framework.

In the case of Qatar, Al Marri argued that the emir, Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, had long been aware of the need to address these issues, and through a new constitution had sought to separate the executive and judicial authorities and ensure that those authorities are accountable. Only such a state, built on principles of transparency, justice, and the rooting out of corruption, could be strong and successful, Al Marri said.

Following presentations from both speakers, moderator Salman Shaikh asked how the Syria question could be addressed through the international system, given the impasse at the UN Security Council caused by Russia and China’s veto powers. In response, Piccone emphasized that the crisis in Syria is not just one of regime led bloodshed – there is also a humanitarian dimension that can and must addressed by the international community. He stressed that the international community had thus far not been effective in finding ways to provide the necessary humanitarian support. In the meantime, five times as many have been killed in Syria as had been Libya before the NATO led intervention there.

Both Al Marri and Piccone welcomed the reinvigorated role played by the Arab League in response to the revolutions in Syria and elsewhere, coming up with its own concrete proposals to facilitate transitions. This role was further important, Piccone emphasized, given the desire of IBSA states to see regionally led initiatives.

Asked about how education can play role in developing a system and culture of human rights, Al Marri stressed that there was a crucial role to be played by universities and schools. He argued that the idea of compliance to the law was taught rather than received, and that education systems had a duty to “sow the seeds of a culture of justice.”

One audience member proposed that perfecting the international human rights system may necessitate a separation of issues relating to the violation of human rights from the more general maintenance of the rule of law. Citing the work of Gay McDougall, he argued before there could be a maximal adherence to international human rights standards – enforced by the mechanisms already mentioned – there would have to be a minimal level of public order maintained in the world. “You cannot create chaos in the world, and then expect order out of it,” he said. Piccone agreed with this principle up to a point, but said that if the “maintenance of order” is prioritized to too great an extent, this can allow those in charge to deny people rights which are “not strictly aspirational” and must be respected.