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HA Guanqun: The Narrowness and Transcendence of “Middle East Exceptionalism”

2023-07-27 10:48·Forum on Global Human Rights Governance
by HA Guanqun

The Narrowness and Transcendence of “Middle East Exceptionalism”

As a milestone in the development history of the world's human rights cause, the World Conference on Human Rights adopted the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action in 1993, which clarifies that the right to development is a universal and inalienable human right and emphasizes that all peoples have the right to participate in, promote and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development. Looking back at the global practice of the right to development over the past thirty years, China, as the world's largest developing country, adheres to the principle of development as the absolute principle and combines the universality of human rights with its actual condition to open up a new path for human rights protection in the history of human civilization development, 1which reflecting the increasingly expanding and consolidating position of the right to development on the international human rights stage. 2However, China's significant achievements in exercising its right to development are not the common situation among developing countries, of which the Middle Eastern countries’ absence of development rights is the most representative. On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, this paper takes the human rights situation in the Middle East as an entry point to analyze the narrowness of the Western world in judging the human rights situation in the Middle East, and emphasize the importance of the right to development in the human rights governance of the Middle East countries.

Narrowness: Reflection and Disenchantment on "Middle East Exceptionalism"

In the field of international human rights, a very unfair and unreasonable phenomenon is that international human rights discourse has long been dominated by Western countries, forming a situation where Western countries define, interpret and judge human rights. Taking the evaluation on human rights in the Middle East as an example, Western societies have recklessly fabricated the so-called "Middle East Exceptionalism", which examines the political system of the non-Western world from cultural perspective, argues that Islam poses an insurmountable obstacle to the development of democracy, and 2firmly believes that it’s difficult to form a free and democratic political system in Middle Eastern countries. 3However, there are two obvious mistakes in defining the human rights situation of Middle Eastern countries by Western countries in this way.

Firstly, the so-called "Middle East exceptionalism" confuses the cognitive order of human rights and its own logic, and ignores the multiple dimensions of human rights development. Throughout the development of human rights thought in the world, the human rights theoretical circle has gone through "three generations of human rights". During the Enlightenment and the Bourgeois Revolution, human rights in this period, severing as the weapon of the bourgeoisie and enlightenment thinkers, advocated the freedom of social members, and then bred the civil right and political right. The Workers' Movement in the 19th century demanded that the bourgeoisie and the state took active action to safeguard people’s new rights in the economic, social and cultural fields. In the 20th century, third world countries emerged and put forward the rights to survival and development facing the evil legacy of colonialism and imperialism and their own needs for survival and development. Western countries' interpretation of human rights in the Middle East is mainly based on the perspective of civil and political rights, which highlights the narrow and arbitrary nature of Western countries in defining the human rights situation in the Middle East because the recognizing order of human rights is not the inherent logic. The understanding of human rights by different individuals is always restricted by their religious beliefs, political systems, economic conditions and other factors. Therefore, there is no distinction between the three generations of human rights, nor does it mean that the human rights of any country must be promoted in this order. Moreover, the path and basic viewpoints formed by Western countries on human rights issue cannot be regarded as the sole standard for the development of the world's human rights cause.

Secondly, the "Middle East Exceptionalism" shapes the cultural hierarchy of the "West-Others", ignoring the autonomous development of the democratic cause in the Middle East. The main reason for the formation of the "Middle East Exceptionalism" is that Western scholars view the Western democracy nurtured in the development of Western history as the only and absolute democracy, and then infer that democracy is not suitable for the vast Middle East countries to a large extent based on the heterogeneity of Islamic society to the West. Behind this viewpoint lies the cultural structure of "Western-centered —non-Western others", and also a value-based ontological hierarchy, where universality is higher than particularity. From the perspective of epistemology, there are obvious defects in this logic of thinking, because the current democratic system operated and promoted by Western countries is not achieved overnight, and its relatively mature external form is obtained after a long and arduous exploration. However, some Western scholars use this to measure the Middle Eastern nation-states that were just born in the 20th century, which is bound to belittle or ignore the efforts of Middle Eastern countries to independently explore democratic systems. In fact, the democratic practices of the vast number of Middle Eastern countries have achieved initial development since the beginning of the democratization process in the Middle East in the mid-19th century. It’s true that the democratization process in Middle East countries is slower than that in other parts of the world, but the slowness can only show that the democratization process in the Middle East is facing greater resistance caused by the particularity of the Middle East region, rather than the so-called inferred "exceptionalism".

Transcendence: Examine the Human Rights in the Middle East with the Right to Development

It’s stated in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action that the implementation of human rights principles must take into account national and regional characteristics, as well as different historical, cultural and religious backgrounds. Therefore, the criteria for evaluating the human rights situation in the Middle East must be based on the development trajectory and basic characteristics of the region, and the identity as developing countries is an important prerequisite for evaluating the current human rights situation of countries in the Middle East. When it comes to the evaluation of human rights in developing countries, the "right to development" is undoubtedly the human rights concept that best meets the objective demands of developing countries because the process of establishing the concept of the right to development during the Cold War was also a process for developing countries to seek better development. On the one hand, the difficult development process of developing countries after the war shaped the epochal character of the right to development. On the other hand, the reform of the international economic order initiated by developing countries defined the directive character of the right to development.

Different from the previous two generations of human rights, the right to development endows human rights with a concept of dynamic development, focusing on the comprehensive improvement of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights in terms of both quality and quantity, and emphasizing the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms. Looking back on the past thirty years, this was used as the judgement to evaluate the disorder dilemma of the right to development where the vast number of Middle Eastern countries were trapping in. In terms of the right to life, approximately 209000 Iraqi civilians died in wars and violent conflicts from 2003 to 2021; External military intervention has made at least 350000 people in Syria lose their lives; In terms of economic rights, the current per capita annual income in Iraq cannot reach the level of 1990 ($7,050); External economic sanctions have caused economic losses of $200 billion to Iran; Libya has suffered economic losses of up to $33 billion as a result of sanctions. In terms of political rights, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and other countries have been subjected to "forced transformation" by external countries, resulting in the breakdown of their political order and social stability, and the destruction of their social unity and national cohesion. In terms of the right to health, about 20,000 Iraqi doctors fled after the war, and a large number of medical facilities were destroyed in the flames of war. 98% of Afghans do not have enough to eat, and nearly half of all children under the age of five will fall into severe malnutrition. In terms of the right to education, approximately 3.2 million Iraqi school-age children are currently out of school and approximately 5,300 schools have been severely damaged or converted into shelters.

Middle Eastern countries are rich in oil resources, abundant in development funds, and relatively unitary in ethnic composition. The basic conditions for achieving prosperity and development are very favorable, and the Arab nation has also created glory in history. However, why do Middle Eastern countries generally suffer from disorder in the level of the right to development? Western interventionism is the primary reason. Since modern times, the two major hegemons of the Western world, the United Kingdom and the United States, have happened to be the sea powers hanging outside of the Eurasian continent. Considering that their own territories cannot be expanded, the basic goal of their geostrategy is to weaken and divide the Eurasian countries as much as possible so that they are unable to challenge the sea powers. The Islamic world is one of their key targets for suppression. Especially after the end of the Cold War, the Western world led by the United States used economic, political and military means to urge some Middle Eastern countries to change their regimes or policies for the benefit of the entire West world under the pretext of other countries’ "violation of human rights". The humanitarian disasters caused by "violation of human rights" have become increasingly severe in countries suffering Western interference. In this regard, Geneva International Centre for Justice released a special report in March 2023, which recalled the humanitarian disasters suffered by Iraq since 2003, exposed the conclusive evidence that the United States waged the war under the pretext of lies, and discussed the direct link between the decline of various human rights indexes in Iraq and Western military intervention. It can be seen that the pretext for Western intervention may appear to be "moral", in fact, it is "violating human rights" in the name of "protecting human rights".

The ideal pursuit of human society is enjoying equal opportunities for development, sharing the fruits of development, enabling everyone to achieve comprehensive development and realizing the full right to development. At the 51st session of UN Human Rights Council in September 2022, Ambassador Chen Xu, Permanent Representative of China to the United Nations Office at Geneva, pointed out that developing countries will face serious challenges to achieve the 2030 goal of sustainable development under current situation. Therefore, it’s recommended that the international community should review the spirit of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, actively promote the cause of global development and effectively safeguard the people's right to development. Looking at the way out for human rights governance in the Middle East from the perspective of the right to development, promoting human rights through development is the core concept for improving human rights in Middle Eastern countries. On the one hand, peace and stability in the Middle East region are the environmental guarantees for Middle Eastern countries to realize their right to development. On the other hand, the realization of the development right of Middle Eastern countries requires not only the development strategies and policies formulated by the governments in accordance with their own national conditions, but also the joint efforts of the international community.

(The author is Director of the Institute of Human Rights Publicity of the Human Rights Research Center of Northwest University of Political Science and Law)