UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres appointed Nada al-Nashif of Jordan as Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2020. Beginning her new role just as the COVID-19 pandemic began, al-Nashif had previously held high-ranking posts at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) headquarters in New York, Lebanon, and Iraq.

Indeed, this writer had the privilege of working under al-Nashif in the early 90s at the UNDP office in Tripoli, Libya – during which Nashif imparted a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region due to her wealth of experience and insight.

In an interview with Inside Arabia, Nada al-Nashif suggests that the coronavirus pandemic has magnified structural inequalities and exposed inherent biases in the global system of socio-economic, cultural, political, and civil rights. Yet, she notes, the pandemic has also created new opportunities for the development of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa.

Inside Arabia (IA): Could you summarize the highlights of your childhood and life that you most remember? How did they influence your decision to establish a career at the United Nations related to human rights?

Nada al-Nashif

Nada al-Nashif has previously held high-ranking posts at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) headquarters in New York, Lebanon, and Iraq.

Nada al-Nashif: I was born and raised in Kuwait, where I lived until the 1990 invasion by Iraq when my family had to relocate to Amman, Jordan. I attended an international English-medium school with students from over 52 countries, which exposed me from a young age to a highly multicultural environment. We grew up with myriad languages, national day parades, traditional costumes, and foods from across the world, and that environment was immensely enriching.

A second influence came from the community we grew up in – a diverse Jordanian/Palestinian community working closely with Kuwaiti civil society, through women’s societies, the Red Crescent, and university committees, on issues of support to female-headed households, refugee communities, and disadvantaged neighborhoods. I believe these elements carried the seeds of a lifelong interest and commitment that was further nurtured at university and fulfilled by working at the UN.

IA: There is a lot of talk about improving human rights in MENA, yet there are many obstacles: starting with the denial of fundamental rights such as access to food, jobs, healthcare, housing, free education, along with the imposition of debilitating sanctions. In this context, how has the COVID-19 pandemic affected human rights in MENA? 

Nada al-Nashif: The push back that we witness on human rights is, in many ways, at the heart of our motivation – as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) and as individuals in this domain – to persist. The COVID-19 pandemic, ironically, constitutes a powerful argument and clear opportunity in favor of the protection of human rights.

From a human rights perspective, we have seen that the COVID-19 pandemic has generally exacerbated existing patterns of violations in many countries of the MENA region. Throughout the pandemic, government agencies have harassed and, sometimes, arrested journalists and human rights defenders for reporting on COVID-19-related issues – particularly critiques of the government’s response to the virus and reference to the deteriorating economic situation experienced by many countries.

Demonstrators calling attention to issues of concern in relation to the pandemic – from the economy to healthcare – were often subject to arbitrary arrest and detention. Healthcare workers who complained about poor working conditions and lack of needed supplies also risked arrest and harassment. UNHCHR has also learned that many activists, journalists, media professionals, and bloggers have endured unfair trials. Some were accused of spreading fake news while others were targeted for simply doing their job and covering demonstrations. In some countries, authorities have used the COVID-19 pandemic to mark protests as illegal gatherings in violation of public health measures.

“In some countries, authorities have used the COVID-19 pandemic to mark protests as illegal gatherings in violation of public health measures.”

And then, we have also noted an alarming increase of domestic violence. At the close of 2020, the increase in domestic and gender-based violence in the region became clearer, as there was a marked increase of reported cases compared to the same period in 2019. Many countries have documented a [significant] rise in the number of reported incidents of gender-based violence in particular, in 2020, noting that women and children – especially those with disabilities – were already exposed to high levels of risk of domestic violence before the pandemic. And it’s important to note that many incidents go unreported. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, moreover, victims are also more secluded and thus vulnerable to abuse.

COVID-19 also brought to fore deeply enshrined inequalities and discrimination. Some people – including prisoners, refugees, migrants, and minorities – continue to be disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

[Flagrant Human Rights Violations in Egypt Exposed]

[Lisa Halaby: A Jordanian Queen from Washington, DC]

IA: To some extent, the pandemic has had similar effects worldwide, exacerbating existing problems. But you mentioned a silver lining: How has COVID-19 opened up new opportunities for advancing human rights in the MENA region?

Nada al-Nashif: Indeed, there is a silver lining. We have seen critical actions targeting the most vulnerable communities across the region. For instance, several countries in the MENA region have released prisoners to alleviate overcrowding and stop the spread of COVID-19 in places of detention. These countries include Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen. Releases have taken different forms including amnesty, early release, release on furlough, and release of pre-trial detainees on bail. Of course, returns of prisoners to their facilities present a set of challenges when screening, and when isolation protocols are not in place or where medical care is also scarce.

“Some governments have announced that they would include migrants and refugee populations in their vaccination plans, as the UNHCHR has advocated.”

Some governments have announced that they would include migrants and refugee populations in their vaccination plans, as the UNHCHR has advocated. For instance, the government of Jordan has opened its COVID-19 vaccination program to all residents, including migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees; and the first refugee was vaccinated on January 14, 2021. As of April 16, 2021, UNHCR Jordan reported that close to 3,500 refugees had received at least their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and that over 10 percent of the refugee population living in camps had registered to be vaccinated! The Jordanian government has established in-camp vaccination centers to make the vaccine more accessible for refugees. It has also launched a field vaccination campaign to assist the elderly and persons with disabilities, who may otherwise have found it difficult to reach vaccination facilities.

I remain hopeful that the COVID-19 pandemic will bring about change and allow even countries in crisis to develop lasting solutions, anchored in human rights, to build back better.

Nada al-Nashif

Deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Nada al-Nashif, in a video address, calling on governments to take urgent action to protect the health and safety of people during the COVID-19 pandemic, March 27, 2020.

IA: Has the so-called Arab Spring improved the human rights situation in the MENA?

Nada al-Nashif: I was the Arab States Regional Director for the International Labor Organization (ILO) at the time [of the Arab Spring uprisings] and we jumped at the opportunity to work intensively with independent trade unions, to tackle long-standing socio-economic inequities through tripartite social dialogue processes, to re-frame social justice challenges with clear national commitments to voice and participation. This led us to a whole range of partnerships – from effectively working with women’s organizations and young people who had been at the forefront of the civil protests to embracing formalization of domestic worker structures and academics/grass-roots civil society movements, which were at the heart of demands for more inclusive and productive Arab societies.

I think the entire experience demonstrated how comprehensive and truly transformative change requires fundamentally new paradigms: transparent, participatory, and accountable governance systems but also a sustainable and equitable development. The region had – and continues to have – many ingredients for success: a [vibrant] and increasingly educated youth population (despite brain drain); untapped potential in agriculture, industry, and services; and significant financial and natural resources.

More regional integration can help harness some of these levers of productivity. Also, better macro-policies, a re-defined role of the State, more balanced public/private partnerships, and an inclusive set of new social contracts constitute other missing ingredients. The trade-off between social and economic rights on the one hand, and political and civil rights on the other proved highly unsustainable. Without integrated approaches and citizens’ participation, the aspirations of millions of young women and men across the Arab world will remain unfulfilled.

IA: What do you think of “sanctions” and other coercive measures imposed by the United States and its allies, which the UN itself considers as violations of human rights – particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Nada al-Nashif: As mentioned by the High Commissioner in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, broad sector sanctions should urgently be re-evaluated at this exceptional time in light of their potentially debilitating impact on the health sector and human rights.

There is often some confusion between UN sanctions – chapter VII (article 42), recognizing sanctions as an important tool for peace and security (prior to use of military means) – and the use of sanctions by individual states in the pursuit of their foreign policy objectives. We must distinguish between broad sector sanctions that paralyze an economy with devastating effects on its entire population and sanctions that target specific individuals, groups, and institutions allegedly involved in human rights violations or abuses through asset freezes or travel bans. We don’t object to the latter.

In fact, on targeted sanctions, you will remember the landmark decision of the UN Security Council to imposed sanctions on six individuals involved in human trafficking in Libya in 2018.

“Our office has expressed concerns at the imposition of broad sector sanctions and highlighted the limited impact of humanitarian exemption schemes . . .”

Our office has expressed concerns at the imposition of broad sector sanctions and highlighted the limited impact of humanitarian exemption schemes in protecting the economic, social, and cultural rights of the most vulnerable in the regime of sanctions, such as the ones imposed against Iran or Venezuela.