Does Jordan live up to the international standards of human rights?

Jordan is in these days being examined by the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee (ICCPR). A long process which has included the Jordanian government, civil society organisations (CSOs) and the committee itself. Now the only step missing is the committee’s concluding report on the status of human rights in Jordan.

By Clara Tørsleff

In the middle of October, a delegation from the Jordanian government and representatives from the civil society travelled to the United Nations Office in Geneva in Switzerland. The two delegations had different objectives for the travel, as the CSOs were to present their concerns and recommendations regarding human rights in Jordan for the committee, and following this the committee requested some answers from the state delegation.

Jordanian Civil Alliance against Torture (JoCAT), a coalition of experts in the human rights field, largely constituted the participation from the civil society in Geneva. The coalition wrote a so- called shadow report that was published in September as a reply to the state’s own report on the status of human rights in Jordan.

Two of the experts from JoCAT who travelled to Geneva to present the Coalition’s concerns are the Jordanian journalists Mohammad Shamma and Mohammad Ghunaim. I spoke with them after the trip to learn more about their experience with the process.

First of all, what does this process mean to JoCAT and the fight against torture? The process of writing the shadow report, participating in Geneva and finally presenting the concerns for the UN Committee?

- In my opinion, this is very important for the NGOs and for the activists. Especially, because there is a part of the Jordanian NGOs and activist that fear handling the topic of torture. There are also some weaknesses in the perception of torture; the awareness and the definition of torture, how to monitor and document torture. So, regarding this visit that DIGNITY coordinated, it was an excellent experience for the Coalition to get to know the weaknesses and strengths in such a procedure and specifically to participate in the examination and create some kind of pressure on the government, Ghunaim stated.

- This process was really intensive and the committee was thorough. You could feel that they respected that we have genuine issues and that we should talk about them on an international level. We should try to convince the committee that we, in Jordan, have real problems which we need to solve; for example, through laws and the impact of the human rights experts. Our target as journalists is somehow to make a public dialogue about these issues and to raise awareness, Shamma said.

Muhammad Ghunaim continued:

- I have a small story to add to understand the impact of this process. In 2003, I was working as a volunteer journalist for a newspaper and it was the first to talk about UN mechanisms. I received material from Geneva talking about the UN Committee against Torture, and the chief of editing and the journalists they did not understand what this materiel meant. Now things are changing; journalists have started to cover news related to UN mechanisms – and the more information that is spread about these mechanisms, the more the journalists will understand about this international level and the more they will know what to report. So, things can change through this process.

And on a personal level – What has this experience meant for you as human rights defenders? 

- Personally, this is my first time to focus on this process as well as covering it as a journalist - I was there and I observed closely the session, the atmosphere, the people and the lobbying. Actually, it was a really different experience for me as a human rights journalist. This experience encouraged me and strengthened my way of thinking, said Mohammad Shamma, and Ghunaim continued:

- For me this is a very important question. Especially as I am defending a certain category in the community as a Palestinian and a journalist, and I am a person who was harmed and I have a story and a case to present. The ICCPR experience showed me the rules, the laws, the mechanism and how to present the ideas etc. What I have gained through writing the report and the visit to Geneva, is the push to keep on doing what I am doing. Actually, it gave me the courage and the guts to write and submit the first shadow report written for the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in Jordan. Nobody has ever submitted a report on this for various reasons.

Regarding the report itself, in your opinion, what was the most important and urgent issue mentioned in the report?

Shamma: -Counterterrorism Law. To talk about this law is really, really important. On the legislative level, it is a truly anti-human-rights law. So, I think it was great for JoCAT to focus on this and freedom of expression.

Ghunaim: -In my opinion, I can’t comment on one issue or one topic because the important part is the creation of the report in general.

This coalition started when Jordan was being reviewed by the UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) in 2015, and JoCAT submitted their first shadow report. Have you seen any outcome from the process with UNCAT? And can you expect the same outcomes from this process? 

Ghunaim: - For several reasons, I believe that the outcomes of the UNCAT in 2015 was way better than what I expect of outcomes of the ICCPR. The UNCAT process was the first time for the government to experience that kind of involvement of the NGOs in one of the UN mechanisms.  Although there was no changes or direct implementation after the UNCAT, we believe that it gave some kind of strong pressure on the government. Regarding the ICCPR, I have the impression from people in the government that there will be no huge impact from this process, because Jordan is going through some political circumstances right now which has a higher priority than these kinds of rights that are mentioned in the ICCPR. The problem is that the impact of the CSOs are not that strong, and activists are afraid - they don’t have enough protection to give more pressure on the government to fulfil the recommendation. Also, we have a problem regarding the general awareness of the community – the community itself has other worries; the worries are more about how to provide for one’s family and for some even how to feed their children. So, I believe that we should have more awareness to the community about their human rights.

So, it sounds like there is not much hope? 

Ghunaim: -No no, we are optimistic. We are on the way - but it is a really long one. I am an optimistic person.

What about you Shamma – are you optimistic regarding the possible outcomes? 

- Now things have changed. We have now in this time established many coalitions and CSOs – and there is an understanding of this tool (the UN mechanism) in society – an understanding of advocacy. So, let’s hope – because advocacy and raising awareness is the first step. More journalists do show interest in joining coalitions and doing advocacy, because they want to do something they believe in. And it is all about believing in human rights.

So, after this ICCPR process we can’t necessarily hope for a change in the laws within the next month - but it is about making movements in society?

- Shamma: »You know what Clara? It is all about lobbying; how to grow in this field, how to create these people individually or in institutions. It is about sharing the values and the experiences, and working together, like in this coalition. This really give us hope to do something in the future – not only in CCPR level but on other levels in the civil society. I believe in this. We don’t have anything to do, but just to ‘Yalla move on’.

JoCAT is a coalition of experts in the human rights field that originally started when Jordan was being examined by the UN Committee Against Torture and the committee wrote their first shadow report. DIGNITY provides technical and financial support for the coallition.

The UN’s Concluding Observations on the fifth periodic report of Jordan was published short time after the creation of this article.