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The news is packed with footage from Middle Eastern countries, where people are demanding freedom or bravely fighting for it through war. There's a lot to be done in those countries, which are desperately looking for professionals that can help them become democracies or at least get rid of the current despotic regimes. If you are interested in human rights and the Middle East, listen to Krystel's advice. 

Hossam_el-Hamalawy
Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy (Creative Commons License)
Arab women and men demonstrating at Tahrir Square,Egypt.

What is the "Arab Spring"?

Growing discontent with the extreme poverty, vast economic disparity, high unemployment, Human Rights violations, massive government corruption and despotic governments, led to the wave of revolutionary protests that took the Middle East and North Africa by surprise. This series of uprisings began at the end of 2010. Since then, citizens have toppled despotic rulers from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Syria and Bahrain continue to be the scene of agitated civil uprisings, and the remaining days in power for their heads of state seem numbered. The streets of many other neighboring Arab countries have also erupted in discontent as citizens demand democratic reform.  

What role do the Human Rights advocates play in this?

Human Rights activists have played an essential role in all of these cases. Advocates throughout the Middle East shared methods of advocacy, social media tools and civil disobedience in order to both expose the abuses that were occurring and also to take action.

The uprisings in each country, although similar in demands, have followed different paths, and reached different results, due to the differences in history, legacies, cultures, and social dynamics of each country. Still an important message sent from all the revolts was the harmonisation of norms of social justice activism, civic participation and common Human Rights values. Human Rights advocates sponsored the protesters in their demands for regimes that would integrate marginalised groups, and respect freedom of expression and Human Rights.

The role of human rights workers in the transition varies depending on how the conflict ends or how it unfolds.

The role of Human Rights advocates is indispensable both during and after the transition from authoritarianism to democracy. Their mission is to prevent past abuses from reoccurring, ensure that the new government respects its promises and protect Human Rights, and make sure that justice is granted for the victims. They try to guarantee that the winners of the conflict do not impose their notion of right, and abide by international norms and standards of Human Rights.

The last months have brought drastic changes to the political structures of states across the Arab world, and created new space and opportunities for Human Rights efforts, but have also led to new risks for workers in this field.

The transitions in the Middle East and North Africa are not definite nor are they concluded, as the path from dictatorship to democracy is complex. The role of Human Rights workers in the transition varies depending on how the conflict ends or how it unfolds. Still, Human Rights work will always be key to a country moving forward. The tasks facing Human Rights advocates range from raising awareness about the atrocities taking place during the conflict to advocating for justice and accountability after the conflict ends, in addition to promoting reconciliation, stability, and lobbying for institutional reforms so that past abuses do not reoccur.

What are the skills required to become a successful Human Rights advocate in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)?

Well, The Human Rights field in the MENA countries is really broad, and engages a variety of disciplines. It extends from lobbying and networking in social and political environments, to litigation and advocacy before tribunals fact-finding, documenting, monitoring and reporting. I believe the most important skills for this job are: strong interpersonal skills, and passion for Human Rights and the Middle East region in general. It is also essential to be able to work in a group, have strong organisation skills, open-mindedness, tolerance, creativity, innovation and especially cultural sensitivity.

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Photo: Maggie Osama, Creative Commons License
There's still a lot of work to do for the young generations.

If you want to succeed as a Human Rights advocate, you should definitely work on your foreign language skills. Mastering English or French is very important, as most Arab Countries  use one or both of these languages. But speaking Arabic is definitely essential. I would advise enrolling in a full time Arabic course, and following any exchange program in an Arab speaking country - it is the best way to learn and perfect your Arabic skills.

What studies should one pursue in Europe to be able to work in Human Rights in the Middle East?

Take as many classes related to Human Rights as possible. Most of the European universities offer classes in Human Rights, and a number of institutes or non-governmental organisations also offer certificates and training in this field. This knowledge is essential for working in the field. It can be combined with a traditional education such as law, politics, or other humanities subjects. Personally I would favor a major in Middle Eastern Studies. Practical experience on the ground can sometimes reduce the necessity of a formal academic background in Human Rights.

Is there a future ahead for this type of job in the Middle East?

Definitely! There are a lot of opportunities and space for initiatives. Unlike other parts of the world, Human Rights in the Middle East is a new developing area. This year's Nobel Peace Prize was granted to Tawakul Karman, an Arab woman and Human Rights activist, who played a major role in her country's transition from repression. This is an important accomplishment for the Arab Human Rights community, efforts in the region have been remarkable and a lot of work is still to be done.

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