Foreign Affairs and International Relations

Combating Injustice in the Arab World: In Conversation with Rachid Mesli

Binit Agrawal speaks with French Algerian human rights lawyer and activist Mr. Rachid Mesli in an exclusive interview for LSPR.


Mr. Rachid Mesli is an Algerian criminal lawyer who has defended the rights of dozens of individuals often subjected to unfair trials in the crisis that broke out following the halting of the legislative election process in the country in January 1992. On 31 July 1996, he was kidnapped by security forces and detained for three years following repeated beatings, death threats and a severely flawed trial, in violation of international fair trial standards. Fearing for the safety of his family, he moved to Geneva in the year 2000 and participated in the creation of Alkarama in 2004. In 2001, he submitted the cases of Abbassi Madani and Ali Belhadj, the detained leaders of the banned Islamic Salvation Front, to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in Geneva, which ruled that both were being detained arbitrarily. Since then, he is heading Alkarama’s Legal Department, supervising the work of the regional legal officers and establishing the organisation’s work strategy as well as overseeing the interaction with the United Nations human rights protection mechanisms.


LSPR: Sir, you are a co-founder of the Alkarama Foundation, which has done extensive work against torture, detention, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, etc. across the Arab World. Can you please tell us more about the contributions you have made?

Rachid Mesli: We have submitted several thousand cases of victims of serious human rights violations to the main United Nations procedures, including the special rapporteurs, the working groups, the Human Rights Committee and the Committee against Torture. Our work consists of providing legal support and assistance to victims using the procedures that have been put in place by the UN to protect human rights. We also submit alternative reports to treaty bodies for countries that are parties to the treaties.


LSPR: How difficult is it to navigate through the complex political-economy of these nations? What are the risks activists and human rights defenders like yourself face? And what is it that keeps you going?

Rachid Mesli: We are based in Geneva and we incur no particular risk, but our sources of information on the ground are very often subject to reprisals and arrests. Their personal safety, physical integrity, and sometimes lives are at risk. For example, all the human rights defenders with whom we collaborated in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are now in prison.

What keeps us going in our fight to help these victims is our motivation above all, knowing that these victims often have no possibility to access justice in their countries. The UN human rights mechanisms, despite their limitations, often remain the only way to protect the rights of many of these victims.


LSPR: What are your views on the recent murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Embassy in Turkey? Do you think it shows a new low in violation of liberty by the Saudi? Until when can countries keep remaining dictatorial, while also trying to modernise their economy, lifestyle, and education?

Rachid Mesli: Like everyone else, we were shocked but not really surprised by this assassination. You must be aware of the absence of the rule of law in Saudi Arabia and that the Saudi regime controls whether its citizens live or die. Such a decision to assassinate Khashoggi could only be taken at the highest level of the State. This is not the Saudi regime’s first political assassination. Does the execution of the death penalty following unfair trials not also constitute an assassination?

This assassination is part of a new political context in which the crown prince, an irresponsible person, has managed to seize power using violence including against his own family. There no longer exists at the top of the State a relative counter-power traditionally exercised by the most influential members of the royal family. This unprecedented situation can indeed lead to an even more serious deterioration of the human rights situation in the country.

In my opinion, there is no possibility of real modernization. There have been spectacular measures taken by the crown prince to gain the sympathy of Western public opinion, the only one that interests him, such as the measure to allow women to drive. For us, the real problem in this country is the question of fundamental freedoms and urgent political reforms of an archaic and medieval system, to restore dignity to people.


LSPR: Do you have faith in the Saudi prince’s agenda to modernise Saudi Arabia?

Rachid Mesli: Absolutely not. It will not succeed. Modernization is not only a question of financial means, it is also necessary to obtain a minimum of engagement of the society hence the absolute necessity to proceed first to deep reforms that the crown prince is not ready to achieve.


LSPR: You have yourself faced illegal detention and have suffered because of state arbitrariness. With each passing day, it seems situation of rule of law in the Arab World is worsening. Do you think justice system in Algeria, and in other countries have improved since your arrest in 1996? How do you think long term sustainable solutions can be found to create better justice systems in the Arab World?

Rachid Mesli: In Algeria, the political situation in general has not changed since independence in 1962 with the seizure of power by the army and the establishment of an authoritarian regime that continues to this day. We cannot talk about improving the judiciary without improving the entire political system. Justice is only one of the three powers, which must be independent of each other. There can therefore be no improvement in the judicial system without improving the entire system, that is, without the establishment of real counter-powers in society and without the establishment of the rule of law in the Arab world.


LSPR: You have done extensive work in the UN and other international organisations. Many say that these organisations have a bias against African and Arab countries, and unreasonably target them. Do you think there is any truth to this?

Rachid Mesli: It is true that this has been said especially about the International Criminal Court which has unfortunately focused its activities mainly on African countries without worrying about the violations committed by the great powers.

As far as UN human rights procedures are concerned, I do not agree with this statement. Most independent experts at the head of the special procedures enjoy great moral authority. They are as concerned about the violations that are committed by big countries as by small ones. We have had a positive experience with the UN experts.


LSPR: How important are these organisations to a person who is being persecuted by the state?

Rachid Mesli: All human rights organizations, whether nongovernmental or international, can have a positive impact on the situation of victims when they denounce or uncover the violations these victims suffer. The totalitarian States do not like the light to be shed on their crimes and are not indifferent to international public opinion, especially Western. Dictators do not like to have a reputation as slaughterers. But many totalitarian regimes in the Arab world refuse to recognize the serious violations they are responsible for and to collaborate with the UN procedures when they intervene. It is true that often, and despite all the attempts we make to improve the situation of victims, in some States we obtain little impact on their situation because of the lack of political will of these States to respect the human rights of their citizens.


LSPR: The three countries which have suffered the most in this decade are Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. It’s not a hidden fact that these countries have become victims of power struggles of western countries. Why are western countries able to destroy countries altogether, is it just military and economic might, or is it something else?

Rachid Mesli: There is today a growing awareness among people in the region that the USA and Western countries do not want to see a free and democratic Arab world because it could challenge their interests and those of Israel in the region. The West is perceived by Arab public opinion as having the deliberate will to fuel conflict and chaos in the Arab world. We hope that the war in these countries will cease and that a political solution acceptable to all parties to the various conflicts can be found. Nothing is impossible if people free themselves from totalitarian regimes.


LSPR: What are your views on the refugee question? Why should the western countries bear the burden? Are there some legal obligations on western countries regarding accepting refugees or is it a moral obligation?

Rachid Mesli: Refugees are a consequence of war and those responsible for triggering it should also bear the burden of refugees. Unfortunately, it is often the Western countries that have contributed to these states of war settling in these countries and they are therefore bound to bear the consequences. There are international conventions that they have ratified that require them to accept refugees and take care of them.


LSPR: One of your objectives is to spread a culture of human rights in the Arab communities and educate citizens about their constitutional rights and means of protecting these rights. What are the tools that you use to achieve this objective, and to what extent are such tools effective?

Rachid Mesli: The dissemination of the human rights culture in the Arab world is indeed one of our objectives. We have first focused on the training of human rights defenders on the ground who are our intermediaries with the victims and with society. However, in recent years, the totalitarian regimes in the region have realized the important role of these defenders and have taken very harsh measures to prevent them from acting and coming into contact with Alkarama. Today, all human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are in prison and have been sentenced heavily as a result of unfair trials and totally ridiculous charges. In other countries like Egypt, Yemen or Syria, some have been killed, others have disappeared after being abducted by government agents and many are in prison.

However, we continue our work of awareness raising and we just started a project to make videos about victims, which is also an opportunity for us to make young people in particular realize that they have “the right to have rights” and this is the first step towards substantive changes.


LSPR: As a parting response, how do you think youth from across the world can contribute to developing rule of law in the Arab World. Can we common man and woman contribute to securing the rights of our fellow brothers and sisters?

Rachid Mesli: Anything that can help to improve the human rights situation in the Arab world is welcome. All human beings have a duty of solidarity towards other human beings. India is a large country of almost 1.5 billion people, it can have a much wider presence internationally and I am convinced that Indian youth who have evolved in a climate of freedom can also contribute to the cause of human rights not only in the Arab world but throughout the world. The effort must also come from the Arab youth, it is up to them to bear the most important weight to improve their situation and preserve their future.

Picture Credits: Alkarama