The Arabs' Dance With Democratic Reforms

Progress Report Detects Some Changes

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AMMAN, Jordan, APRIL 23, 2005 ( The third Arab Human Development Report was released April 7 in Amman, the capital of Jordan. An independent group of Arab scholars and intellectuals put together the report, published by the U.N. Development Program (UNDP).

The report focused on the situation of political freedoms and how governments carry out their responsibilities toward their citizens. «Freedom is pivotal in human development,» the report notes in its introduction.

But, according to the authors: «By 21st century standards, Arab countries have not met the Arab people’s aspirations for development, security and liberation despite variations between one country and another in that respect. Indeed, there is a near-complete consensus that there is a serious failing in the Arab world, and that this is located specifically in the political sphere.»

The authors recommend a rapid acceleration of democratic reform. The report warns that pressures for political changes are building up and if action is not taken by governments they could face social upheaval in coming years.

The report rejects arguments that the Arab world has lagged behind in establishing democratic institutions due to cultural factors. The main cause for a lack of democracy, they argue, is political. The authors cite the decades-long imposition of emergency powers by authorities across the region, the systematic suppression of independent courts and parliaments, and the double standards of foreign powers. These foreign powers, the authors say, have accepted or even encouraged authoritarian rule in exchange for political stability and access to energy supplies.

Not all is negative. «There is a change in mind-sets in the region,» said Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, U.N. assistant secretary-general and director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States at the UNDP, who has been the chief overseer of the Arab Human Development Reports. «We are moving with greater confidence in a new direction now, and there is a strong awareness of the irreversibility of change — change driven by the Arab street, not change adopted from afar.»

Among the achievements listed in the report are the initiatives taken by private groups who have agitated for reform by organizing petitions and peaceful protests. However, overall the pace of progress has been disappointingly limited, the report states.

Black Holes

The report termed the excessive concentration of power in many Arab states as a kind of political «Black Hole» at the center of civil life. Be it military dictatorships, monarchy or a president elected without any real competition, the result is an overwhelming concentration of power by the executive.

This concentration means that the judiciary is prevented from carrying out its role of safeguarding the rights of the citizenry, the authors of the report say. «Where there is conflict between a political regime unfettered by legal controls and the judiciary, whose independence is upheld in the constitution and law, the Arab regime swiftly sweeps aside the independence of the judiciary without any hesitation,» says the report.

Corruption is another serious problem. In many cases the report alleges that corruption is institutionalized in government and business. Another factor behind the concentration of power is «clannism,» which, the report argues, reinforces a mind-set of passivity and obedience to authority, along with intolerance of dissent.

And while the constitutions in some Arab states in theory guarantee some freedoms, a common defect is that the manner of their implementation is left up to legislative regulation. As a result in the practice, the report notes, regulations restrict basic rights. The report described many of the constitutional provisions as «an empty facade.»

An example of this is the freedom of assembly. Most Arab constitutions provide for freedom of assembly, but many countries prohibit or restrict the exercise of the right to strike, demonstrate, hold mass gatherings or assemble peacefully.

Another example is freedom of the press. Currently, press freedom in 11 Arab countries can be blocked or curtailed by regulations that permit prior or post-printing censorship. Similar problems exist regarding the workings of the justice system.

Victims of violence

Another problem area noted in the report is violence against civilians. The report condemns terrorist actions against civilians, whether they be carried out by extremist groups through assassinations and bombings, or by means of armed confrontations between security forces and armed groups that often result in civilian casualties.

«These unacceptable acts affect children, women and old people who are innocent by any decent human standards, or any religious teaching,» the report states.

The authors also condemn foreign occupations, particularly the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, which, they argue, continues to violate the individual and collective freedoms of Palestinians through assassinations, raids on heavily populated civilian areas, arbitrary arrests, house demolitions and repeated closures. According to the report some 24,000 Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip have been made homeless by Israeli demolitions between 2000 and 2004.

The authors also single out for condemnation the attacks against civilian noncombatants by armed militants in Iraq — as well as the civilian casualties of armed actions by American-led occupation forces in the country, who they charge have failed to meet their obligations under the Geneva Convention to provide security to Iraqi citizens. «After dismantling the old state, the U.S.-led authorities made little progress in building a new one,» the authors assert.

Reforms recommended

Due to its oil resources the report noted that the Arab nations will likely continue to be the object of continued interest by major world powers, that are likely to press for democratic reforms. The authors declare that they would prefer to see reforms implemented as part of an internal process of change, but at the same time they admit that the Arab world cannot afford to ignore outside pressures.

Perhaps the best situation, continued the report, would be if those Arabs interested in promoting reforms were to seize the opportunities that come about as a result of the external initiatives by leading the reform process from within.

The report contains a number of recommendations to overcome the lack of democracy and respect for rights. In general the authors recommend that Arab countries sign all declarations, covenants and treaties that form part of international law. The report also calls for a gradual and negotiated transition of power to representative forms of government. As well, there should be a separation of the executive, legislative and judicial powers.

Among the specific reform proposals are the following points.

— Total respect for the key freedoms of opinion, expression and association.

— Ending all types of marginalization and discrimination against social groups and minorities.

— Guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary and ending reliance on military tribunals and other «exceptional» courts.

— Abolishing the «states of emergency» that have become permanent features of governance in the region.

The report rejects the idea that the reforms proposed are merely a Western view of freedom and human rights, alien to the Arab world. As an example the authors explain that there are sections of the Koran that recognize the value of religious freedom. And in the past, mainly the ninth and 19th centuries, there have been periods of relative freedom. Such freedom is urgently needed again, the report insists, even if achieving it will not be easy.

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