Behind the Morocco-US Row: State Department Report Ignores Trends

Driss El Yazami

As the President of Morocco’s independent National Human Rights Council, a body recognized by the United Nations as pluralistic and independent from the executive power, I share the disappointment expressed by the Moroccan government – and others -- over the US State Department’s recent report on human rights. I share it with millions of my fellow Moroccans as well, who, while well aware that our country is not perfect, are also aware, and proud, of the human rights improvements we have made.

To begin with, the report has numerous methodological biases. First, it makes selective and incomplete references to the conclusions of the United Nations organs that monitor international human rights and have concluded that there has been positive improvement of human rights in Morocco. These bodies, because they include independent experts -- many of whom are American -- are best positioned to make an objective assessment. In 2014 and 2015, for example, the UN Committee on Economic and Social Rights and the Committee on the Rights of the Child praised Morocco’s institutional developments, the creation of agencies in charge of human rights, and the implementation of laws and policies aimed at human rights promotion. In addition, Morocco is a signatory to the main international human rights treaties and in the past few years has hosted UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteurs and independent human rights experts; and we maintain a close interaction with UN treaty bodies.

Furthermore, the report doesn’t identify what international human rights instruments it is based on, which results in vagueness regarding the definition of the concepts (arbitrary detention, discrimination, enforced disappearances, torture, political prisoners, etc.) discussed. The research methods and data are neither transparent nor refined regarding the sources and diversity of the information; the ways in which the information has been collected; and the required updates -- many paragraphs are identical to those found in the 2014 report.

Perhaps my most serious concern is that the report reveals a serious ignorance of long-term trends and provides a distorted picture of both the reality and the progress of human rights, which in its turn shows a profound misunderstanding of political and social dynamics at play in Morocco.

For several decades, at the very least since the first Gulf War, the world has been preoccupied with the question of how to bring change to the Middle East and North Africa. In other words, we have all been – and still are -- concerned with what is needed to establish and consolidate democracy and human rights for the people, and with the ways international partners, mainly the United States, can play an active role.
By now it is clear that a successful process of democratic reform can only develop from within, and that it requires a true alchemy of many ingredients: firm political will at the head of government, modern constitutional framework, strong and delineated institutions, free press, diverse media, and dynamic civil society. Finally, civil peace and stability are essential, too.
We have this in Morocco. And we also have an open and thorough discussion going on about what still needs to be done in terms of access to justice, equality, human rights of persons with disabilities, and other social reforms. The many reports easily available on our website and those of other independent institutions and NGOs, as well as our continued work speaking out about these issues and sharing information about the progress and obstacles we face, make that very clear. Not only do we know it, but we write and do a lot about it.
The annual report that I presented to the Moroccan Parliament in June 2014, and which engaged numerous political groups and the government itself in a lively discussion regarding potential reforms, is yet another example of our awareness and our willingness to improve the human rights situation in Morocco.
The portrayal of Morocco in the State Department’s report is bluntly distorted, decontextualized and schematic; and it overlooks the capacity of the actors in Moroccan society to engage with difficult issues and to discuss them peacefully in pursuit of a reform roadmap, while protecting our internal stability and regional security. This ability to calmly talk over sensitive topics (death penalty, abortion, etc.) and to progressively adopt reforms is an impressive distinction that defines the Moroccan approach. To ignore its power in fueling Morocco’s ongoing reform process is unfair and harms potential cooperation between the US and Morocco in the ceaseless quest for human rights and democracy.
Driss El Yazami
is the President of Morocco's National Human Rights Council