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Governments across the region responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by declaring states of emergency or passing legislation with excessive restrictions on freedom of expression. People were prosecuted for their legitimate criticism of their governments’ handed response to the pandemic. Health workers protested a lack protection at work, including inadequate protective gear and access to testing, but faced arrest and prosecution for raising concerns about conditions of work and public health. Governments discriminated in their responses to the pandemic, including in vaccine distribution.

The region’s human rights defenders continued their work despite the high risk of imprisonment, prosecution, travel bans or other reprisals. Security forces used unlawful lethal or less-lethal force that killed or injured hundreds of people with impunity. Overcrowding and insanitary conditions put prisoners in the region at particular risk of COVID-19, a situation that was exacerbated by inadequate health care and torture or other ill-treatment in prisons.

Parties to armed conflicts committed war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. In the midst of the pandemic, the authorities restricted humanitarian aid, exacerbating the poor state of health care systems which were already depleted. Other military powers fuelled violations through illicit arms transfers and direct military support to combatants. Smaller countries continued to host over 3 million refugees from Syria but a range of push factors forced many Syrians to return. Military offensives and other fighting and insecurity in several countries displaced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.

Workers across the region faced summary dismissal or reduced wages as the pandemic’s economic impact caused hardship. Migrant workers were particularly vulnerable given that the kafala (sponsorship) system ties their residency to employment in many countries. Domestic violence increased, especially during national lockdown periods, and “honour” killings continued with impunity.

Authorities heavily repressed the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, arresting them for their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity and subjecting some men to forced anal examinations.

Right to health

Health workers in Tunisia and Morocco organized protests against the lack of adequate protection measures provided to them, citing insufficient PPE, access to testing and failures to designate COVID-19 as an occupational disease. In Egypt and Iran, health workers faced reprisals, including arrests, threats and intimidation for voicing their concerns or other criticism of the authorities’ response. The Egyptian authorities arrested at least nine workers who expressed safety concerns or criticized the government’s handling of the pandemic and detained them pending investigations into “terrorism”-related charges and “spreading false news”.

The Syrian government failed to provide adequate protective gear or access to testing for health workers. In December, the Israeli Health Ministry distributed COVID-19 vaccines exclusively to citizens and residents of Israel, including Palestinians living in illegally annexed East Jerusalem, discriminating against the nearly 5 million Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza in violation of its obligation as occupying power to ensure preventive measures to combat the spread of epidemics. In southern Libya, Tabus and Touaregs faced barriers in accessing adequate health care as rival armed groups controlled access to major hospitals and, in some cases, because they did not have identity documents.

Authorities should ensure that the health care they provide, including preventive vaccines, is delivered without discrimination, that health care workers are adequately protected and that any restrictions on rights to combat the pandemic are necessary and proportionate.

Freedom of expression

Governments across the region used the COVID-19 health crisis to justify further clampdowns on freedom of expression, thereby denying people the right to information on the virus or to debate government responses. The authorities in Algeria, Jordan and Morocco issued decrees or legislation citing a state of emergency that criminalized legitimate expression about the pandemic. These were promptly implemented, with the authorities prosecuting people for “spreading false news” or “obstructing” government decisions. In Bahrain, Iran, Oman and Saudi Arabia judicial authorities dedicated teams to prosecuting people for spreading “rumours” about the pandemic that disturb public opinion. Authorities in Egypt and Iran arrested or otherwise harassed journalists and social media users for questioning the official narrative around COVID-19. Shorter-term arrests or criminal investigations occurred in Jordan and Tunisia for criticizing the government or local authorities’ handling of the crisis.

Across the region, authorities used overly broad and subjective Penal Code provisions, criminalizing “insult” to silence online criticism of the authorities and leading to harsh prison sentences including against the writer Abdullah al-Maliki in Saudi Arabia, who was sentenced to seven years. Journalists in Egypt and Libya faced prosecution and imprisonment for their work and additionally, in Iran, one journalist was executed. The Lebanese authorities investigated dozens of journalists or activists who had taken part in the October 2019 protest movement. In Tunisia, nine social media users faced criminal investigation and, at times, brief periods of detention for publishing Facebook posts criticizing local authorities or the police.

Regional governments continued to censor the internet; the Egyptian and Palestinian authorities blocked access to websites, and the Iranian authorities blocked social media channels. Governments invested in expensive digital surveillance equipment like that produced by the NSO Group, an Israeli spyware company, to target human rights defenders. Amnesty International investigations revealed how the Moroccan authorities used the NSO Group’s notorious Pegasus software to target human rights defender and academic Maati Monjib and independent journalist Omar Radi, both of whom were arrested and faced prosecution on trumped-up charges. In July, a Tel Aviv court rejected a case brought by Amnesty International and others asking the Israeli Ministry of Defense to revoke the NSO Group’s security export licence.

Governments must release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally, halt all investigations or prosecutions related to peaceful online or offline expression, and stop blocking websites without due process. As a priority, authorities should repeal subjective provisions that criminalize “insult” and must decriminalize defamation.

Human rights defenders and freedom of association

Human rights defenders continued to pay a heavy price for their bravery. The authorities tried to silence and punish them for their work, using various tactics. The Israeli authorities used raids, judicial harassment and travel bans against critics of the military occupation, including Amnesty International employee Laith Abu Zeyad whose travel ban was upheld by the Jerusalem District Court in November. The Iranian authorities unlawfully closed businesses or froze assets of human rights defenders and carried out reprisals against their relatives, including their children or parents. In Egypt, security forces arrested three staff members from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and, in a rare move, released them weeks later, following a global campaign. At the same time, judicial authorities arbitrarily added at least five human rights defenders to “terrorists lists” for five years. Virtually all Saudi Arabian human rights defenders were in exile or imprisoned. In December, a court sentenced women’s rights defender Loujain al-Hathloul to five years and eight months in prison.

The Algerian authorities passed legislation further restricting freedom of association, introducing a 14-year prison sentence for receiving foreign funding to undermine “the fundamental interests of Algeria”. The Moroccan authorities arrested Maati Monjib in December and investigated him on charges related to the receipt of foreign funding.

In June, Nabeel Rajab, head of the outlawed Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, was released on probation, after serving a four-year prison sentence for a Twitter post in which he criticized the government’s human rights record.

States must recognize their obligations to respect and guarantee the right to defend human rights by ensuring that human rights defenders are able to work free from arbitrary arrest and prosecution, threats, attacks and harassment. Authorities must respect the right to freedom of association and remove arbitrary restrictions on civil society organizations.

Protests and the unlawful use of force

Protest movements in Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon continued to organize in the first few months of the year until the spread of COVID-19 led to their suspension. Peaceful protesters faced arrest, beatings and, at times, prosecution for participating in protests. In Iraq, federal security forces arrested thousands of protesters in the first few months of the year. Kurdistan Regional Government officials cited COVID-19 as justification for dispersing protesters in May in the city of Dohuk and charged them with “misusing electronic devices” in organizing a protest.

Security forces throughout the region used force to disperse protests, including through use of less-lethal weapons. The force used was frequently unlawful, often because it was unnecessary or excessive, and weapons were used in a manner they were not designed for. In Iraq, security forces used live ammunition and military-grade tear gas grenades, killing dozens of protesters in Baghdad, Basra, Karbala, Diyala, Najaf and Nasriya. In Lebanon, security forces used rubber pellets in a shoot-to-harm manner in January and February, injuring hundreds of protesters. In Tunisia, police used unnecessary and excessive force when dispersing a peaceful protest in the southern governorate of Tataouine, recklessly firing tear gas in densely populated residential areas with canisters landing inside homes and near a hospital. In Iran, security forces fired pointed pellets, rubber bullets and tear gas, beating and arresting scores of peaceful protesters.

As economic hardship increased, sporadic protests took place later in the year against worsening living conditions in a number of countries. In Libya, there were rare protests in the east and west against corruption and unaccountable militias and armed groups, who responded to protests by abducting protesters and using live ammunition against them, killing at least one man. In the city of Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq, protests against unpaid wages and corruption were met with live ammunition by Kurdish authorities leading to scores of deaths. In Egypt, rare protests led to the arrests of hundreds of protesters and bystanders who remained in detention pending investigations into “terrorism” and protest-related charges.

Authorities should ensure that their law enforcement officers comply with international standards on the use of firearms and less-lethal weapons, investigate the unlawful use of force and hold law enforcement officers to account. States should always uphold the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

Detention conditions and torture

Prisoners in several countries were at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 due to overcrowding, insanitary conditions and poor ventilation in conditions that amounted to torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment. Overcrowding was common because of arbitrary detention practices, including prolonged pre-trial detention without effective appeal, as in Egypt for example, or administrative detention, such as in Israel and Palestine. In Morocco, the authorities increased the prison population when they imprisoned people solely for breaching pandemic-related measures.

Prison visits were banned during national lockdowns and sometimes beyond, for example in Bahrain and Egypt. Prisoners were not provided with alternative means to communicate with their families.

In Egypt, prison officials failed to distribute adequate sanitation products or to introduce testing and isolation measures and punished prisoners who raised safety concerns. In Iran, where prison authorities themselves acknowledged the lack of resources to respond to the pandemic, security forces responded to prison protests and riots calling for better protection from COVID-19 with unlawful force, including by using live ammunition, pellets and tear gas, in some cases leading to killings. Prison health care was often inadequate and in Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia, prisoners with a political background were sometimes deliberately denied health care as a punishment. In Egypt, at least 35 detainees died in prison or shortly after release, following medical complications and, in some cases, denial of adequate health care.

Torture or other ill-treatment in state custody continued in at least 18 countries, particularly during the interrogation phase to extract “confessions”. Across the region, courts convicted defendants on the basis of torture-tainted evidence. Prison officials in Bahrain, Egypt, Iran and Morocco used prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement, itself often amounting to torture, to punish prisoners for their political views or speech or to extract “confessions”.

Authorities should prioritize medical care and overcrowding in prisons. To counter the spread of COVID-19, they should release all those arbitrarily detained or detained without necessity, such as pre-trial detainees. Judicial officials should investigate torture and other ill-treatment in places of detention as well as punitive ill-treatment in prisons, including the use of prolonged solitary confinement, and end the use of torture-tainted statements in legal proceedings.

Impunity and access to justice

Across the region, security forces enjoyed impunity for human rights violations, especially for the unlawful use of lethal or less-lethal force and torture. In June, the Iranian authorities revealed for the first time the official figures for those killed during the November 2019 protests, but continued to cover up the real death toll , and publicly praised security and intelligence forces for their role in the crackdown. In Iraq, the new Prime Minister’s promises to investigate the killing of hundreds of protesters and to compensate their families were not realized. In Lebanon, judicial authorities failed to investigate over 40 complaints of torture and the unlawful use of less-lethal weapons that had caused hundreds of injuries to protesters between 2019 and 2020. In Egypt, prosecutors routinely failed to effectively investigate torture and enforced disappearance complaints, with the rare exception of deaths in custody in non-political cases like that of shop owner Islam al-Australy who died two days after his arrest in September.

There were some steps towards accountability, often a long struggle, at the international level. In June, the UN Human Rights Council established a fact-finding mission to investigate violations and abuses of international human rights law and international humanitarian law committed by all parties to the conflict in Libya since 2016. In December, seven UN experts wrote to the Iranian government warning that past and ongoing violations related to prison massacres in 1988 may amount to crimes against humanity and that they would call for an international investigation if these violations persisted.

Ten years after its revolution, Tunisia’s transitional justice process continued, with the government finally publishing the Truth and Dignity Commission’s concluding report and establishing a reparations fund. Dozens of trials continued before dedicated criminal courts but security force and police unions continued to boycott the process while accused officers refused to respond to court summons.

In countries including Egypt, Iran, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria, exceptional courts, such as military, revolutionary and security courts, were used extensively, and trials grossly violated fair trial standards. Trials before ordinary criminal courts were often equally problematic, with mass trials continuing to take place. In some countries, notably Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the death penalty was imposed and implemented following grossly unfair trials.

Israel continued to carry out systematic violations, including crimes under international law, against Palestinians with impunity. A pre-trial chamber at the International Criminal Court was still looking at the question of the court’s jurisdiction in the OPT, the result of which may allow for the Office of the Prosecutor to open an investigation into crimes under international law.

Israel continued to impose institutionalized discrimination against Palestinians living under its rule in Israel and the OPT, displacing at least 996 Palestinians in Israel and the occupied West Bank through home demolitions.

National judicial authorities should hold members of security services to account for abuses, to ensure judicial oversight of the executive, and uphold due process standards without recourse to the death penalty.

Violations in armed conflict

The lives of civilians in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen continued to be afflicted by years of armed conflict, where fluctuating levels of violence by state and non-state parties to these conflicts reflected shifting alliances on the ground and the interests of external military powers. Multiple parties in the conflicts committed war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. Some carried out direct attacks against civilians or civilian infrastructure. In Libya, armed groups and militias continued to attack medical facilities and abduct health workers. Al-Khadra General Hospital in the capital, Tripoli, designated by the Health Ministry to treat COVID-19 patients, was shelled in April and May. Syrian and Russian government forces carried out direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects, including hospitals and schools, through the aerial bombing of cities in the governorates of Idlib, Hama and Aleppo.

Almost all parties to the fighting in the region carried out indiscriminate attacks that killed and injured civilians in the form of air strikes and shelling of residential areas with artillery, mortars and rockets. The transfer of weapons used to commit war crimes and other violations continued. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) continued to illicitly divert weapons and military equipment to militias in Yemen. In Libya, countries including Russia, Turkey and the UAE, continued to supply their allies with arms and military equipment, including banned anti-personnel mines in violation of the UN arms embargo. Turkey and the UAE directly intervened in hostilities through airstrikes which killed civilians and people not directly participating in hostilities. In Syria, Russia maintained its direct support of military campaigns by government forces that violated international law, while Turkey backed armed groups that engaged in abductions and summary killings.

Some actors continued to restrict humanitarian access as a tactic, exacerbating socio-economic hardship and particularly undermining the access of affected civilians to health care during the pandemic. In Yemen, all parties to the conflict arbitrarily restricted humanitarian assistance, further worsening the state of the already depleted health care system, which had only 50% of its hospitals and other medical facilities operating. The Syrian government continued to impede access to UN humanitarian aid agencies and Damascus-based international NGOs, so that the UN Security Council-authorized mechanism for cross-border aid from Turkey remained the only lifeline for some communities, although the number of crossing points was reduced from four to two.

In Gaza and southern Israel, sporadic bursts of armed hostilities flared up between Israel and Palestinian armed groups. Israel maintained its illegal blockade on the Gaza Strip.

Parties to armed conflicts must abide by international humanitarian law. In particular they must end direct attacks against civilians or civilian infrastructure and indiscriminate attacks, and refrain from using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in civilian areas. Military powers must halt arms transfers where there is a significant risk that they will be used in violation of international law, as was the case in the ongoing conflicts in the region.

Rights of refugees, asylum-seekers, migrants and internally displaced people

Already at heightened risk due to overcrowding, refugees, migrants and internally displaced people (IDPs) living in camps were hit hard by movement restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, limiting their access to employment outside the camps and the ability of humanitarian workers to deliver aid.

The barrage of attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure in northwest Syria increased the population of already overstretched IDP camps close to the Turkish border by nearly 1 million people. In Iraq, the authorities closed at least 10 IDP camps, subjecting tens of thousands of people to secondary displacement and, for those perceived to have ties to the armed group calling itself Islamic State, the risk of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance.

Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey continued to host most of the 5 million refugees who had fled Syria since the start of the crisis in 2011, illustrating the failure of the international community to share the burden of responsibility. In Jordan, Syrian refugees were among those most affected by the national lockdown due to their largely informal employment and a lack of written contracts, social security and health insurance cover or valid work permits.

In Libya, the suffering of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants was compounded by the economic impact of COVID-19, border closures and movement restrictions. State and non-state actors subjected them to indefinite arbitrary detention, abductions, unlawful killings, torture and other ill-treatment, rape and other sexual violence, and forced labour. Thousands were forcibly disappeared upon disembarkation by the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard, while at least 6,000 were expelled from eastern Libya without due process.

Authorities continued to arrest and detain undocumented migrants, often without legal grounds. Algerian authorities denied detained migrants any access to legal recourse, sometimes for months, expelling over 17,000 of them. In Tunisia, a group of 22 migrants won a case challenging their detention in Ouardia Center and the Ministry of Interior complied by releasing them gradually.

Governments must halt the direct and constructive refoulement of refugees and asylum-seekers to Syria and other countries, while western and other states must take a much greater share of their responsibilities, including through resettlement.

Workers’ rights

The economic impact of the pandemic led to widespread job losses across the region. In Egypt, tens of thousands of private sector workers were dismissed, forced to accept reduced wages, work without protective equipment or take open-ended unpaid leave. Workers and trade unionists often faced arrest solely for exercising their right to strike. In Jordan, a protracted dispute between the government and the teachers’ union was exacerbated by the government’s decision to freeze public sector pay until the end of 2020 due to COVID-19, which was met by new protests in August. Jordanian police raided 13 union branches, arrested dozens of union and board members and a court ordered the union’s dissolution.

The pandemic aggravated the already vulnerable position of migrant workers whose employment was governed by the kafala system in Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Inadequately protected from abuse by their employers and agents, migrant workers faced arbitrary dismissals and unpaid wages and were also at heightened risk of COVID-19, due to insanitary conditions and overcrowding in camps or shelters. They rarely had access to social protection or alternative employment since emergency in-kind and cash assistance was limited to country nationals, for example in Jordan, where only daily workers who were Jordanian were eligible. Thousands of migrant workers who lost their jobs also lost their residency status, and were therefore at risk of arrest, detention and deportation. Those wishing to leave the country often could not do so because of COVID-19-related travel restrictions. Governments, including in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, extended residency permits or announced amnesties for permit violators, allowing them to leave the country without paying fines if they had no debts or ongoing court cases.

Reforms to improve protection for migrant workers were announced in several countries, particularly in the Gulf, where they constituted a high proportion of the workforce. In Oman and Qatar, the authorities made legislative changes to allow migrant workers to change jobs without their employers’ permission. In Kuwait, the authorities prosecuted at least three cases of physical abuse by employers against migrant domestic workers as well as cases of human trafficking and illegal visa traders.

Governments should ensure that workers’ rights are upheld, that they protect the right to strike, extend labour law protections to migrant workers, including migrant domestic workers, and abolish the kafala system.

Women and girls’ rights

Women’s rights organizations, helplines or shelters for survivors of violence reported an increase in calls for help due to domestic violence, and requests for emergency shelter during national lockdown periods, including in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia. “Honour” killings continued in Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait and Palestine where the authorities failed to take action to prosecute the perpetrators. In Libya, state and non-state actors subjected women and girls to gendered abuse, intimidation online, abduction and assassination, as in the case of lawyer Hanan al-Barassi in Benghazi. In Iran, the “morality” police enforced discriminatory forced veiling laws by subjecting women and girls to daily harassment and violent attacks.

Women continued to face entrenched discrimination in law, including in relation to marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance and, in Saudi Arabia and Iran, employment and political office. The suspension of court proceedings during lockdowns had an adverse impact on women’s access to a remedy, including in prosecutions of violence against women in Morocco.

In Egypt, an online campaign by young feminists led to the arrest of several men accused of rape, resulting in one trial, but the authorities also arrested survivors and witnesses who had testified in these cases. At least nine women social media influencers in Egypt were prosecuted on charges of “violating family principles” for their videos on TikTok.

In a positive step, the Kuwaiti Parliament approved a bill criminalizing domestic violence, offering further protections for victims of domestic violence as well as legal and medical services.

In addition to addressing long-standing discrimination against women in law and practice, authorities should publicly condemn all forms of violence against women. They should prioritize policies to ensure that women and girls who are victims of violence are accorded an effective remedy and that their abusers are held to account.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people

Throughout the region, LGBTI people faced harassment, arrest and prosecution, on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. In some countries, forced anal examinations, a practice amounting to torture, took place to gather evidence of same-sex sexual conduct in the case of gay men. Criminal courts continued to treat consensual same-sex sexual relations as a crime, often sentencing men, and sometimes women, either under public decency or dedicated provisions. Algerian police arrested 44 people for a party they described as a “homosexual wedding”, and a court later sentenced the hosts and all guests to three years and one year in prison, respectively, for “inciting homosexuality” and “debauchery”. Tunisian courts convicted at least 15 men and one woman under Article 230 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes “sodomy”. In Libya, Al-Radaa Forces continued to detain men for their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, and tortured and otherwise ill-treated them.

Governments must release all those detained for their real or perceived sexual orientation and drop all charges against those facing prosecution. Legislative authorities must repeal provisions criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual relations, scrap anal examinations and enact legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.