Freedom of Speech and the Right to Memory in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)

A Coalition-funded exhibition of “memory boxes” in Afghanistan. Through the initiative, organized by Coalition member The Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization, survivors of the country’s recent conflicts preserved personal effects of their loved ones in specially designed boxes, which were then displayed publicly.

On November 15, 2018, 13 academics were detained by police in Istanbul, Turkey, accused of being involved in anti-government protests that occurred in the city’s Gezi Park in 2013. The unlawful detentions are part of a pattern in Turkey and the region at large that aims to erase a long history of human rights abuse and silence citizens and survivors. Out of the 21 countries and territories in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Freedom House reports that 0% has a free press.

To address this urgent need for freedom of expression, the Coalition is working hand in hand with its members in the region, providing them with both technical training and opportunities to connect and share experiences with one another – two key steps to ensuring a vibrant rights-based movement can flourish in the region, which is necessary for a peaceful future. “We want public engagement and involvement…We want to turn the negativity into positivity, harness pain to power,” explains Nayat Karoköse, Program Coordinator at the Hrant Dink Foundation, a Coalition member in Turkey.

“Memory initiatives are often one of the only ways to publicly address issues of human rights abuse, mass atrocity, or repression without raising concern within governments,” explains Mohamed el-Khamlichi, the Regional Coordinator for the Coalition’s MENA Network, which now includes 22 members in 10 different countries, including some of the most volatile in the region such as Yemen and Syria. “Many Sites of Conscience members in the region are now uniquely positioned to consider how democracy-building programs might be carried out.”

Harbub Prison in Tunisia where, before the revolution, political prisoners were sent.

One outcome of the Coalition’s regional support has been the Digital Mapping and Documentation in MENA project, which began its second phase at a regional meeting hosted by the Coalition from October 22-24, 2018 in Beirut, Lebanon. Funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the project will produce a pioneering digital map identifying sites of human rights violations in the region, where prisons, checkpoints and former clandestine sites of torture are at risk of destruction.

Given that the physical preservation of these sites is not always possible in the current political climate, documenting them in a digital format provides survivors a platform to share their experiences with national and international communities, and can serve as an integral source of information for activists and lawyers seeking accountability in the future. A pilot map was completed in 2017, along with a toolkit that illustrates the digital mapping process for Coalition members worldwide. During the next phase, the Coalition and its MENA members will add sites to the map, incorporate oral testimonies, and use the map in advocacy initiatives – using memory and technology to equip members with the tools they need to make long-term change in the region.

“Mechanisms – like the map – where the individual is no longer seen as a subject by the powers in place, but as a full-fledged world citizen with the possibility of choosing his rulers and his political programs in an institutional and political framework – voluntarily and freely – will be the backbone around which activists and survivors build democracies in the region,” says el-Khamlichi, who works with Coalition member the Human Rights Center for Memory and Archives in Morocco.

To learn more about the MENA Sites of Conscience Regional Network, please contact Linda Norris, the Coalition’s Global Networks Program Director, and follow us Twitter, Instagramand Facebook, where we post regular updates.

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