Wednesday, March 03, 2004


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By William Fisher

When the kings and heads of state of 22 nations meet for the Arab League Summit in Tunisia later this month, they will be asked to consider several amendments to the 1994 Arab Charter on Human Rights. The amendments strengthen the Charter by affirming every individual's right to life; the right to fair trial; the legal status of crime and punishment; the right to political asylum without extradition; and prohibitions on torture, deportation, and revoking citizenship. They also strengthen workers' rights and refer more explicitly to the equal rights of men and women.

One of the problems facing these modest amendments is that no Arab state has yet ratified the 1994 Charter. Another is that if the amendments are approved, the legislatures of seven member states will have to ratify the revised charter for it to come into force. Despite the virtually incessant talk of ‘reform’ in the region, there is little optimism that this will happen any time soon.

No doubt the Summit’s closing communiqué will proclaim yet again the myth of Arab unity. But the League is as deeply divided over the issue of democratization and human rights as it is over almost every major issue facing the Middle East.

For example, despite the fact that the League was formed in 1945 as a pan-Arab organization to challenge the emergence of Israel, members are far from unanimous even about the Israel-Palestine issue. Egypt and Jordan have made peace with Israel, while most Arab states are still at war. Arab League communiqués profess support for the Palestinian cause, but many League members wish the problem would just go away. The American invasion of Iraq was opposed by most League members, but not by all. Declarations against the war were undermined by the help some member states gave the US-led invasion force, while Saddam's opponents -- mainly Gulf states like Kuwait -- accused the League of siding with the now-ousted Iraqi leader The ‘war on terror’ is being supported actively by some League members, and supported largely in rhetoric by others. Some League members see the United States as the enemy of Islam, others as its ultimate protector – and largest financial donor. These are but a few of the conflicts and contradictions that have made the Arab League all but irrelevant to the future of their neighborhood.

Yet the importance of the human rights amendments should not be underestimated. The proposed amendments are for the first time based on the recommendations of independent Arab human rights experts. Even if the amendments are ratified, they will amount to ‘human rights lite’ because the amended Charter will still fall far short of constituting a viable regional framework. For example, the League’s Human Rights Committee rejected independent some of their experts’ recommendations relating to fair trials, compensation for unlawful detention, and free elections. Furthermore, Arab governments will still retain wide latitude to suspend the Charter's provisions to protect "the national security and economy, public order" or at times of "public emergency." The Charter also lacks any enforcement mechanisms, unlike those of other regional groups such as the European Union (EU), the Organization of American States (OAS), and the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Yet ratification of the amendments could represent an important step toward democratization from within.

The Middle East is rife these days with talk of reform and some countries have indeed taken the first baby steps in that direction. Most governments in the region have taken a negative view of President Bush’s efforts to ‘democratize’ the Middle East and North Africa, viewing the initiative as being ‘imposed from outside’. The new human rights amendments, however, have come from Arabs for Arabs. Their ratification would signify the region’s seriousness to advance this necessary objective.