Democracy and Human Rights in the Broader Middle East and North Africa: Fostering Democratic Change

23 September 2004

Promotion of Democracy in the Arab and neighbouring countries, also known as the “Broader” Middle East, including North Africa, has been stated to be one of the principal foreign policy priorities by European countries, as well as by the United States, Canada, and Japan. Lack of democracy in the Region also represents one of the greatest obstacles to development.
There is undoubtedly a heightened interest in developing initiatives and modalities for the Arab world to adopt democratic principles, as evidenced by the documents issued from the US, with the “Greater Middle East Initiative”[1]Europe, with the “Strategic Partnership with the Mediterranean and the Middle East”[2]. These initiatives – in particular the proposals from the EU and the US – share as analytical premises the conclusion of the Arab Human Development Reports,[3] issued by UNDP in 2002 and 2003. The UNDP Arab Human Development Reports (AHDR) were widely discussed in the Arab world, with support and encouragement from the Arab League; some governments have already adopted many of their recommendations and taken steps to implement them., and from
The G8 Summit in June 2004 has also addressed this issue, noting the declarations related to reform emanating from within the region and committing themselves to a “Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative”. In so doing, the leaders of the G8 have noted the need for genuine cooperation with the region's governments, as well as business and civil society representatives to strengthen freedom, democracy, and prosperity for all.[4] Central to this partnership is the Democracy Assistance Dialogue (DAD), which seems to be inspired by the Sana’a Conference, by engaging all sectors of society in dialogue and strategic planning on strengthening democratic and human rights principles within the region as a whole.
The general consensus – both within and outside BMENA countries – on the need for democratic progress in the Region has generated a number of discussions and proposals between the end of 2003 and the first half of 2004. The wide discussions within the region highlight the importance of effective consultation to engender a feeling of ownership of democratic initiatives by BMENA countries,[5] as adopted both at the Sana’a Conference and in two other meetings that have been organised on these issues and within the Partnership for Progress and a Common Future, in particular the Democracy Assistance Dialogue.
The Sana’a Conference on Democracy, Human Rights and the Role of the International Criminal Court
The Sana’a Conference, organised by the Government of Yemen and the international NGO No Peace Without Justice, in partnership with the European Union and the Governments of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, together with UNDP and the Open Society Institute, represented an unprecedented meeting of representatives of Governments, Parliaments and Civil Society from Arab and neighbouring countries and took place in Yemen on 10‑12 January 2004.[6]
The Conference has been a pivotal point in the process of discussion and debate on democratic principles both among Governments and -crucially- between Governments and Civil Society, in Arab and neighbouring countries. The discussions before and during the Conference reverberated throughout the Arab world and contributed to mainstreaming the debate on democracy in the regional media.
The Sana’a Declaration
During the Conference, Government representatives from the Region (29 BMENA countries were represented by ministerial and/or parliamentary delegations) adopted the “Sana’a Declaration”, which marks an epochal change in the attitude towards the principles of Democracy and Human Rights for many Governments in the Region. Indeed, the level of participation – including Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Ministers of Justice, other senior Government officials and Members of Parliament – demonstrates the significance attached to the Sana’a Declaration by Regional Governments and their increasing interest in and commitment towards democratic and human rights principles.
The Declaration contains both general principles and specific commitments negotiated and adopted by Regional Government representatives during the Conference. In particular, among the principles, the Declaration highlights the indivisibility of democracy and human rights; the fundamental importance of democracy in the protection of the rights and interests of everybody without discrimination; the necessity for the rule of law in terms of protecting democracy and human rights; and the need for serious efforts to stop violations of international law, particularly crimes under international law.
The specific commitments are an important tool for the promoters of democracy within Governments and Civil Society in the Region. These specific commitments concern, among others:

  • the empowerment of women and their participation in public life;
  • equality before the law;
  • freedom of the media;
  • freedom of association and expression;
  • establishing elected legislatures; and
  • strengthening international judicial institutions.

As an Inter-Governmental document officially adopted by participating Regional Governments, the Sana'a Declaration constitutes a benchmark for both internal and external actors to monitor compliance and progress and an important starting point not only for other meetings held in the region, but also for the Partnership for the Common Future.
Some Key Elements of Success of the Sana’a Conference
Some of the key elements of success of the Sana’a Conference, which are reflected in the G8 “Democracy Assistance Dialogue”,[7] that need to be safeguarded to ensure future effectiveness are as follows:
§ "Regional" format, to ensure that the mechanisms and habits of existing inter‑governmental dialogue (such as the Arab League or others) are not duplicated and to facilitate cross-fertilisation of ideas. Breaking from the Arab League mould provided a wider regional perspective and prevented the crystallised multi-lateral dynamics of that organisation from affecting the mode of discussion among Governments and between Governments and Civil Society.
§ Positive reinforcement of the leading role of certain Countries in implementing democratic values. While democracy in the Region is still a long-term goal, some countries are leading the way in specific elements of democracy, such as universal suffrage in Yemen, participation of women in public life in Jordan, or a more independent judiciary in certain countries. These elements need to be recognised and reinforced, so as to encourage positive competition between countries on these values.
§ Integration of regional civil society, respected intellectuals, media representatives, political figures and experts in the discussion. Civil Society participation at Sana'a and its integration within the schedule of inter-Governmental dialogue was unprecedented and distinguished this Conference from any other international event in the Region. In fact, the level of integration of non-governmental intellectuals, political figures, media representatives and civil society experts compares positively with other inter‑Governmental events in the West. This key element should be maintained and reinforced by ensuring that any follow-up activity involves regional civil society in a constructive dialogue with Governments, to foster a habit of consultation and cooperation.
§ Participation by non-regional government delegations and international organisations, in particular UNDP, the European Union and its members States, other Governments and international organisations, to provide the opportunity for regional Governments to speak directly with governments and institutions, to reach mutual understanding about each other’s concerns and positions and to ensure high-level participation and thereby enhance the legitimacy of dialogue on these extremely sensitive issues in the Region.
§ Close partnership between experienced organisers and the Host Government, with clear political agreement on limited goals and objectives and autonomous sources of external financial and political support. Participants of or at the Sana’a Conference considered that the long and successful experience of No Peace Without Justice in working in partnership with Governments at the highest level placed the organisers in an ideal position to facilitate the best possible outcome.
Principal Outcomes of the Sana’a Conference
The Sana’a Declaration is the most important document on human rights and democracy adopted by Governments of the Region and the only one negotiated by Governments in full consultation with regional civil society and human rights experts. Hence, it represents a legitimate basis for BMENA organisations and individuals to hold their Governments to specific and wide-ranging commitments.
The Sana’a Conference was followed by a number of other meetings and events, including NGO meetings in Alexandria and Beirut and the Arab League Summit in Tunis, which led to the adoption of documents on democracy, the rule of law and human rights recalled by the Sea Island Summit Agreement on the BMENA initiative.
The Democracy Assistance Dialogue (DAD)  
At the G8 Summit in Sea Island in June 2004, participating Governments established the “Forum for the Future”, by establishing a framework for responding to the needs of the region as identified by regional governments, civil society and business actors in the abovementioned events and documents. As a significant aspect of this framework, the Democracy Assistance Dialogue is aimed at bringing together all relevant actors, both Government and non‑Government – as well as from the region and the G8 countries – to share experiences and discuss ideas for consolidating the process of democratic reform and the promotion and protection of human rights.

Perspectives for Future Action
The home-grown legitimacy of the Sana’a Declaration and of the other documents as far as the BMENA civil society is concerned, its principles and the specificity of its commitments, provides the “Forum for the Future” with a unique opportunity for concerted action on Democracy and Human Rights in the Region. The Sana’a Declaration and other documents facilitate specific follow-up activities, through the adoption of a process within which Government and Civil Society will participate on equal terms in sharing ideas and devising strategies for the strengthening of democratic and human rights principles in the Broader Middle East and North Africa.
As part of this process, Turkey, Italy and Yemen will co-host the first Democracy Assistance Dialogue meeting in late 2004, following the receipt of input from civil society and business groups in September 2004.
The contributions of all actors is essential for the success of an integrated plan that, finding its roots in the democratic aspirations of reformers within and outside BMENA countries, supports those struggling for democracy and human rights. It is critical that such contributions from government, civil society and business not be merely made “complementary”, but rather that they be fully integrated in a common plan.
Fostering Democratic Change
As one of the two organisers of the Sana’a Conference, No Peace Without Justice is committed to continuing its political advocacy work to ensure that the momentum gained during the Sana’a process is capitalised upon and that concrete action is taken to translate the commitments in the Sana’a Declaration into practical steps for the promotion and protection of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, in particular through the framework of the Forum for the Future, including the Democracy Assistance Dialogue.
No Peace Without Justice is planning its activities, in cooperation with other actors within and outside the BMENA countries, focusing on actions aimed at translating the commitments endorsed by the Sana’a Declaration and other documents, including the conclusions endorsed by the “Forum of the Future”, into practical steps for the promotion and protection of human rights, the rule of law and democracy, through a series of advocacy workshops, national and regional conferences and publications on specific issues. Specific priorities include building on and reinforcing existing efforts and NGO networks, promoting cooperation and dialogue between Governments and civil society and empowering civil society through advocacy and information sharing on pertinent human rights issues, including, in particular:

  • women’s rights;
  • freedom of expression and an independent media;
  • elected legislative bodies;
  • cultural and religious pluralism.

In so doing, NPWJ has already formed solid partnerships with organisations that have expertise in each of the four themes, namely the Arab Sisters Forum (Yemen chapter, for women’s rights); the Centre for Defending the Freedom of Journalists (Jordan, for the media); the Iraq Institute for Democracy (Iraq, for democracy); and the Arab NGO Network for Development (Lebanon, for pluralism). NPWJ’s program has also been developed in close coordination with Fundación Tres Culturas del Mediterráneo (Spain), the Westminster Foundation (UK), the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies (Egypt) and The Civility Project (UK).
Regional and Thematic Approach
At the national and sub-regional level, emphasis would be placed on monitoring and implementation. A series of advocacy workshops would focus on these four specific themes, namely women’s rights, in particular the right to vote; freedom of the media, including private media institutions and the electronic media; democratic reform, including elected legislatures; and pluralism, in particular non-discrimination and religious freedom. Participants would include key government and non-government actors on the specific themes under discussion who have the potential to implement, lobby for and monitor the implementation of the various commitments undertaken. The advocacy workshops would also be used to strengthen existing networks or to establish new networks comprised of relevant professionals and civil society representatives for the monitoring of progress in particular areas. A network responsible for monitoring national and regional progress in relation to that area would cover each of the four themes. Each partner would be responsible for compiling periodic reports on their theme with the relevant network, which will be disseminated to national and regional policy- and decision-makers and will guide discussions at the regional conferences. The partners would be encouraged to continue the thematic monitoring reports after the project has concluded.  
The advocacy workshops would also form the basis for four thematic regional conferences, co‑hosted by a government, and its regional partners, that is willing to play a leading role on one of the four themes addressed by this project. Each country would co-host a thematic regional consultative conference to discuss progress and strategies for regional action and will be encouraged to lead by example in the national implementation of concrete measures related to their theme. Participants in the regional thematic conferences would be identified in consultation with the relevant network and local partners and associates, who together with the governmental host will be involved in the organisation and running of the conferences.  
The advocacy workshops and regional thematic conferences form part of a process that would culminate in a Second Inter-Governmental Conference on Democracy, Human Rights and the Rule of Law that could be organised in one of the BMENA willing countries under the auspices of the “Democracy Assistance Dialogue” and of the “Forum for the Future”. Prior to this conference, participating Governments from the First Sana’a Conference will be requested to provide information on the progress made and challenges faced. This information, together with the outcomes of the advocacy workshops and thematic conferences, will be used to produce a “Democracy Report” to provide the basis for discussions at the Second Inter-Governmental Conference.
One key factor lies in strengthening relations between government and civil society, including facilitating specific initiatives to be undertaken by BMENA governments in collaboration with civil society. The activities outlined above, while important in their own right, are also designed to act as building blocks for the holding of the new Inter‑Governmental Conference. Thus, each activity is designed to reinforce commitments already undertaken, particularly in the Sana’a Declaration, so that they not only respond to specific needs already identified by regional actors, but so that they are also perceived to respond to calls from within the BMENA countries.

[1] A text generally recognised to constitute a reliable first draft of the initiative was published by the Al-Hayat newspaper on 13 February 2004 and is available at The proposal is said to have been amended to take into account criticisms and suggestions from the Arab world.
[2] See “Strengthening EU’s Relations with the Arab World”, Javier Solana, 4 December 2003 at the Council of the European Union (Brussels), available at
[3] Available at
[4] “Partnership for Progress and a Common Future with the Region of the Broader Middle East and North Africa”, adopted at the G8 Sea Island Summit, Georgia, on 9 June 2004.
[5] A feeling of “ownership” is identified as a major guiding principle in fostering democratic reform by the
Interim Report on the EU Strategic Partnership with the Mediterranean and the Middle East, presented
by the Irish EU presidency on 22 March 2004 at
[6] Documents, interventions and the full audio-video recording of the Conference are available in both English and Arabic at:
[7] “Partnership for Progress and a Common Future with the Region of the Broader Middle East and North Africa”, adopted at the G8 Sea Island Summit, Georgia, on 9 June 2004.