By Emily Johnson, Content Editor
Two weeks ago, Sarah Leah Whitson was anxiously waiting for the news that her colleague was still alive.
Whitson was en route to give a lecture at the University of Nebraska Omaha in front of hundreds of university and community members on Oct. 25. It wasn’t until she was minutes away from the university that she received some very good news – the colleague, a representative of a research assistant in Iraq who had been taken hostage, was safe.
As Director of the Middle East and North African Division of the Human Rights Watch, lectures and travel are part of Whitson’s normal routine, along with hostage situations, undercover reports and mediating and reporting upon the tense politics in the Middle East.
In her lecture, “The Black Swan of the Middle East,” Whitson talked about the histories, cultures and seismic “Arab Spring” revolutions that have blazed throughout the region and how those events have forever changed the world, using Egypt, Libya and Syria as primary examples.
“What so many have been waiting for, hoping for, wishing for, working towards for so long, the awakening and uprising of the Arab people against the moribund authoritarian ruling regimes that have been the norm for so many decades, for the entire lifetimes of so many in the region, has at last arrived,” Whitson said.
Whitson has edited more than 20 research missions of human rights situations, in addition to leading investigations and promoting human rights advocacy in the Middle East. Also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, she is considered a general expert on Middle Eastern and North African issues.
Lecture moderator William Blizek, a UNO professor of philosophy and religious studies, introduced Whitson to the audience as “someone whose boots are on the ground.”
“When we look for people to speak at the Goldstein lecture, we look for people who are in the trenches, people who are where the action is, people who are in the heart of things,” Blizek said. “When you get into this business, it’s a tricky business and a difficult one. Drastic change taking place in this region of the world, and they’re taking place at the speed of light.”
Blizek pointed to the Egyptian revolution that began in January, ignited in part by the public backlash against the government’s torture of Google employee Wael Ghuneim. After eleven days of torture, Ghuneim gave an interview that pushed outcry into action.
“Think about that – that was nine months ago that the Egyptian revolution began taking place and being successful,” he said. “A year ago at this time, no one would have imaged that Egypt would have a new government, and that we would be watching Hosni Mubarak taken into court on a stretcher from his prison cell. No way we would have predicted that.”
Equally unpredictable, he said, were the simultaneous situations that unfolded across the region. The Iranian public rose up to protest their government, Osama bin Laden was discovered and killed in Pakistan, Libyan rebels removed from power and killed Muammar Gaddafi, and the Syrian government killed thousands of its own citizen during an uprising over the past eight months.
Whitson agrees, and discussed how global and social media have influenced the movements, and what actions the Human Rights Watch has taken to document human rights violations in the area.
“This is an unprecedented moment of hope and opportunity for the region and the global media attention has been awesome,” she said. “In 1970, Gil Scott-Heron declared in his poem, “The revolution will not be televised.” In 2011, Arab youth have declared, “The revolution will be televised,” and posted on Facebook, and tweeted, and YouTubed and live-blogged 24/7, minute by minute, blow by blow.”
She predicts the uprising in Syria will be the next big area revolution, which the government has impeded by issuing a countrywide media blackout. Journalists, non-profit aid organizations and even United Nations efforts have been denied.
On Oct. 24, the United States called home Syrian Ambassador Robert S. Ford, fearing for his safety. A smear campaign suspected to be promoted by the government was spread after the ambassador showed sympathy for the oppressed Syrian populace and criticized President Bashar al-Assad.
On Oct. 30, multiple media sources worldwide reported the following reaction from Assad, in response to growing debates over possible Western intervention: “Syria is the hub now in this region. It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground, you will cause an earthquake,” Assad said. “Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?”
As the relationship between Western countries and Syria crumbles and the United Nations continues to issue threats, Whitson said the likelihood of a black swan rising is more possible. The term “black swan” comes from a theory developed by Nassim Taleb, used to describe an event of great rarity and impact that is out-of-the-norm for which people try to develop predictable and reasonable explanations after the fact.
“The best and worst aspect of the uprisings in the Middle East has been their nature as black swans,” she said. “The uprisings emerged without any organized political leadership, just pockets of eruption in various places led mostly by novice activists bringing to the streets first-time protestors, most of whom had no pervious experience of political activism. In this sense, their unpredictability and lack of centralized leadership is the best feature about them, because if they had been predictable or predicted, if they had had a central, organized leadership, they would never have happened. This is because the governments in the region never would have let them happen.”
Thousands of years of monopolizing power, she said, give the oppressive governments the upper hand in ruthlessly quashing all criticism and opposition. The governments of the region have for years silenced freedom of speech, disbarred rights to assemble and denied their citizens the right to participate in competitive politics. She stressed that “Islam played virtually a non-role” in the uprisings, but is closely guarded and politically used by extreme conservatives to control the hearts and minds of the people.
“Indeed, the one area where Arab governments have excelled above all others in the world is not economic growth or development or literacy or infrastructure or literacy or music or art or education, but staying in power, whatever the cost or consequence,” Whitson said. “You know, we can award five gold stars to Mubarak, Gaddafi and Ben Ali, some of the longest lasting leaders of recent memory.”
Whitson called the civil conditions “mortifying,” citing mass torture, police abuse and impunity, false arrests and searches, and murder in countries with authoritarian governments such as Syria, Egypt, Iran, Tunisia, Jordan and Bahrain. She displayed a photo presentation with a few minutes of silence during the lecture to honor the countries’ victims and activists.
As of Sunday, Nov. 13, The New York Times reported that more than 3,500 Syrians have been killed in the last eight months by the Syrian government. Media coverage has slowly begun to trickle through the blackout as international activist groups such as the Human Rights Watch have worked to infiltrate the country on the ground to conduct official reports.
The situation in Egypt was similar. In January, Whitson said, only eleven people were reported as killed by the government. The HRC interviewed families, visited morgues and thoroughly analyzed police reports and came up with more than 300. Soldiers testified to killing unarmed soldiers, and more than 10,000 were detained in prison.
“The number we reported sent shockwaves throughout the international community, which was struggling to figure out how to respond in the face of what had just happened in Tunisia,” she said.
The Human Rights Watch has at least two undercover researchers in Syria now, and has been conducting research to call out the government’s false death tolls.
“We’ve concluded that Syria’s actions account to crimes against humanity, the most serious of violations of international law,” Whitson said. “The vast, overwhelming majority of those detained and killed have been entry level local activist youth, mostly neighborhood groups inspired by the events of the region rising up to protest their own governments; and many just there as observers, having never participated in politics on demonstrations in their lives, filming with cell phones and uploading videos to Facebook and YouTube.”
However, the governments need to enact profound legislative reform to complete the transitions, she said. Egypt has made little to no progress because although its dictator was displaced, the same military-enforced, authoritarian system is in place and trying thousands in military court for criticizing the government. Likewise, she said, the United Nations need to be firmer in its punishments for countries that have deliberately violated human rights law.
It was almost easy to react to the actions of former Egyptian ruler Muammar Gaddafi, Whitson said, because he was the “perfect enemy – the man that everyone could agree to hate.” Tougher challenges for the United States, IPSA countries and United Nations to admit to and face are the conflicts of interest surrounding oil dependency and human rights violations of Israel.
Whitson briefly discussed the controversies surrounding Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and the violence between Israel and Pakistan. Though both sides have made mistakes, she said, Israel must stop.
“The US government was long-time friend to Egypt and Jordan, only because of their friendship with Israel, regardless of domestic policies,” she said. “Behind almost $3 billion annually given to Israel for military support (the largest recipient of foreign aid in the world despite its own violations of human rights laws), Egypt still receives $1.3 billion and Jordan $500 million in aid, never did U.S. consider suspending that aid based on human rights records.”
For the first time, though, Whitson said, citizens of the region have started to look at their governments’ internal issues and demand their civil rights, a sign she sees as promising. With more media coverage, Assad can no longer portray Syrian protestors as domestic terrorists. Though not as swift as Libya’s revolution, Whitson hope that with international support, the Syrian people can find success.
“It is thus the bravery of the Arab people, standing up in the face of so many decades of oppression and overcoming so many decades of fear, that is at the heart of why the world has been so moved by the images of the men and women, many no doubt exactly the age of the university students here, taking to the streets, demanding for a different future, standing for hope and even dying for their freedom,” she said “These are the role models for liberty today.”