One of the biggest problems facing true human rights advocacy is the fact that so many people today cynically call themselves human rights activists when their agenda lies elsewhere. Former Irish President Mary Robinson and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark often used the rhetoric of human rights to pursue political agendas replete with religious intolerance. Many groups in the Middle East, for example, describe themselves as part of civil society when they are not truly non-governmental organizations (NGOs) but are instead GONGOs, government-operated NGOs. In Iraqi Kurdistan, for example, every politician worth his stripes founds a university, starts a media company, and launches a charity, the latter of which more often than not becomes more a vehicle to launder money. Outside of Israel and a couple cases in Iran, ministries of Labor control unions. Only a handful of countries — Israel, Morocco, and Tunisia — provide significant space for independent civil society.
It’s bad enough when governments seek to co-opt civil society or undercut human rights monitoring and advocacy. It’s worse when terrorists cloak themselves as human rights advocates to claim moral superiority, create a platform from which to criticize political opponents, or simply distract from their true agenda. Abd al-Rahman bin Umayr al-Nuaimi, for example, an Islamist designated an al-Qaeda financier by the U.S. Treasury Department, founded an organization called al-Karama which described itself as a human rights organization. Al-Karama consistently peddled reports — of uncertain reliability to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International from where they found themselves in U.S. State Department human rights reports. All along, however, Nuaimi appeared most interested in supporting Islamist opponents of the United Arab Emirates, including those seeking to stage a violent coup. Likewise, British police recently arrested Moazzam Begg, outreach director for CAGEPrisoners, a United Kingdom-based advocacy organization for those unjustly imprisoned as part of the war against terror. While journalists might have described him as a civil society activist speaking truth to power, he was charged with “providing terrorist training and funding terrorism overseas” with regard to some of his alleged activities in Syria.
The problem also extends to the Bahraini opposition. Make no mistake: There are many real human rights and political reform issues that must be addressed in the Arab island nation. On December 16, however, a British court convicted self-described Bahraini human rights activist Abdul Raoof al-Shayeb of terror-related offenses. When al-Shayeb, whom Human Rights Watch had once embraced as an anti-torture activist, was arrested, he was in possession of highly detailed manual on the assembly and capabilities of weaponry such as sniper rifles, mortars, and explosives, as well as reports on various surveillance techniques. Bahraini authorities had previously designated al-Shayeb as a facilitator for several terrorist acts including a July 17, 2013, car bomb that exploded near a mosque in Riffa.
There’s a tendency among Islamists — both of the velayat-e faqih and Hezbollah-type on one side of the sectarian spectrum and the Muslim Brotherhood, Deobandi, and like-minded groups on the other side — who live or have lived in the United States or United Kingdom not to embrace Western values but rather to learn how to use the language of the West in order to better pull the wool over the eyes of Western officials and academics. In Iran, for example, Hassan Rouhani has taken his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s human rights record and made it worse, all the while convincing Western officials like President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry and his team that he is sincere about reform, never mind that he simply replaced the Revolutionary Guard veterans who surrounded Ahmadinejad with just as radical Ministry of Intelligence veterans to staff his own inner circle. For many Islamists, U.S. diplomats and well-meaning but often politicized human rights organizations and activist groups like Human Rights Watch and the American Friends Service Committee make easy pickings to insert and launder bad information in order to promote agendas that have little to do with human rights and much to do with providing cover to terrorists who seek a very violent alternative.
As the situation in Saudi Arabia following the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr throws fuel on the fire in Bahrain, it is essential that both the U.S. government and human rights group take care before embracing the narrative of local activists who might only be utilizing the language and principles of human rights advocacy in order to pursue revolutionary and violent aims. At the same time, the Bahraini opposition should recognize that any justice to their cause is undercut and de-legitimized when they allow those like al-Shayeb into their fold.