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“Human Rights” in the Arab World: the Instruments of War, a Test Case for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


Sometimes I love Republicans. They lay bare with such clarity what underlies and drives US foreign policy– the bottom line strategic interests without the pretense that more adept politicians use to justify US military aggression: the US government’s “concerns” about “human rights” for instance.

Take Syria.

John McCain laid it all out in his interview on CNN’s Situation Room in 2013:

“Look, the Middle East is about to erupt. This is turning into a regional conflict: Lebanon is destabilized, Jordan can’t — the king of Jordan can’t last, the conflict is spreading throughout the region, Hezbollah is all in. This is becoming a Sunni-Shia conflict . . . and it’s an unfair fight!” While arguing for more US military intervention in Syria, he goes on to say, “It’s a great blow to Iran — the greatest in twenty-five years, and they’re cut off from Hezbollah, which would mean that Hezbollah would die on the vine.”

It is strange to hear American politicians wring their hands about the instability of the Jordanian monarchy and its regime while pontificating about US intentions to “bring democracy to the Middle East.”

Over the past two decades, we have witnessed the increasing use of the human rights discourse by the United States as justification for US military aggression. In some cases, these human rights abuses (as in the case of Iraq) proved nothing more than Department of Defense propaganda that was later proved false. More recently, the Assad regime in Syria has been accused of such violations as torture and arbitrary arrest and detention, though the US hasn’t been above using these  alleged services themselves. (US former CIA agent Robert Baer once said of US held prisoners, “If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria.”)  The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has echoed these allegations about the Syrian regime. These alleged human rights abuses, the same ones that Jordan continues to perpetrate against its own citizens with impunity,  have been used as justification for US military intervention in Syria, including the arming and training of rebel forces in Jordan by US troops, which has resulted in the deaths of at least 220, 000 people and over 3 million refugees. These interventions have done nothing to advance the human rights of the Syrian people, but have achieved some strategic goals for the US and Israel: Hezbollah, the only player that poses a serious threat to American and Israeli strategic interests regionally, is now embroiled in a Syrian civil war, and as McCain stated, a “great blow” has been served to both Iran and Hezbollah.

Last year, at his confirmation as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights by the General Assembly, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein spoke of his commitment to push forward human rights on the Asian continent. It has been hard to take seriously this pronouncement when the High Commissioner has used his office to support concrete measures that, not coincidentally, mesh with US strategic interests, while he remains silent about the human rights abuses in his own country, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Jordan is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, yet has one of the most abysmal human rights records in the world. The recent case of Amer Jubran reveals the entire spectrum of repression to which Jordanians are subjected.

Amer Jubran is an internationally known Palestinian activist, speaker and writer on the rights of Palestinians and against US and Israeli policies in the Arab world. He has also distributed information about US involvement in destabilizing Syria.

Jubran was arrested in Jordan on May 5, 2014, when 20 men in black military uniforms broke into his home in the middle of the night. He was held incommunicado by Jordan’s secret police, the General Intelligence Directorate (GID) for 2 months at an undisclosed location, in violation of Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. A petition against arbitrary detention was filed on his behalf with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Nothing came of this.

Jubran was finally charged in August, 2014 under a new law that makes “harming the relationship with a foreign government” a crime of “terrorism.” The wording of this law is so vague that it criminalizes a broad range of political activities including journalism, in violation of Article 19 of the ICCPR, guaranteeing freedom of opinion and expression.

This same law was enacted one month after Amer Jubran’s arrest, also constituting a violation of Article 15 of the ICCPR, which stipulates, “No one shall be held guilty of any criminal offense … which did not constitute a criminal offense…at the time when it was committed.”

Jubran was tried before Jordan’s State Security Court (SSC), a military tribunal that fails to meet even minimum standards of judicial independence, violating Article 14 of the ICCPR, which guarantees the right to a fair trial by a  “competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law.” Jubran’s defense team effectively proved the “terrorism” charges against him false, but the verdict of the SSC was reached without regard for evidence. The only evidence presented in Jubran’s trial was the coerced testimony of other defendants, also arrested in May, 2014, subjected to interrogation, and all of whom received reduced sentences of two to three years.  Robert Baer also said: “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan.” While Jubran was being detained incommunicado and “interrogated” he was threatened not only with imprisonment, but with being disappeared when he refused to infiltrate Hezbollah and act as an informant for the GID. He was recently sentenced to ten years of hard labor by Jordan’s State Security Court (see statement by Amer Jubran on his sentencing.)

The human rights abuses perpetrated against Amer Jubran are the rule in Jordan, rather than the exception. Jordan’s long history of the use of arbitrary detention and torture have been well documented by the UN. In 2013, the UN Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a report on Jordan, detailing a series of cases like that of Jubran in which basic political freedoms had been trampled. The report had a special section on the State Security Court:

“The Committee against Torture and the Human Rights Committee have repeatedly recommended that Jordan abolish special courts such as the State Security Court…The Committee reiterates its 1994 recommendation that the State party consider abolishing the State Security Court.” (Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, November 2013).

What has the UN High Commissioner done thus far to respond to these recommendations and push forward the issue of human rights in his own country? When asked during a press conference as to whether it was illegal to criticize the king in the press  in Jordan, the Human Rights Chief replied, “Essentially, we believe we are still a family,”  while plugging the king’s new book (USA Today August 13, 2014). The UN High Commissioner failed to mention Jordan’s long history of criminalizing speech and imprisoning journalists like Jamal Ayyoub.

Interestingly, Jubran has written nothing about the Jordanian regime. His writing has consistently concerned itself with the policies of the US and Israel in the region. This speaks to the new law of “harming relationships with foreign governments.” Mr. Jubran has stated that he was told directly by his GID interrogators that any decision made about him would involve “our American and Israeli friends.”

Recent revelations about NSA cooperation with Jordanian intelligence agencies underline the central role Jordan plays in the US and Israeli “security” regime for the region. Spying on Palestinians and providing intelligence about “high security targets” is perhaps the least of the services Jordan provides. The abuses of fundamental freedoms in Jordan are consistently carried out, as in Amer Jubran’s case, in the interests of protecting US and Israeli power.

Institutions like the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights are supposed to exist to guarantee the protection of human and political rights globally. The real test of the UN High Commissioner’s commitment to push forward the issue of human rights in Asia must begin in his home country of Jordan and will involve a confrontation not only with that regime, but with the nation states calling the shots. Will the UN High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein use the powers of his office to advocate for human rights, when those powers come in conflict with the US, Israel, and their regional allies? If not,  then the term “human rights” has become nothing more than Orwellian doublespeak, and  the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is just one more weapon in the military arsenal of US regional dominance.

More details about the case of Amer Jubran can be found at

Lana Habash is a Palestinian physician living in Boston, MA. She can be reached at

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