Inter-Governmental Regional Conference on Democracy, Human rights and the Role of the International Criminal Court

Remarks by Mona Makram Ebeid, Chairman of the Association for the Advancement of Education, Prof. of political science in the American University in Cairo - Sana'a, 10 – 12 January 2004

What kind of world is this we are living in today? It is a world of war and conflict in which total military spending equals fourteen times the amount the governments of industrialized countries spend on foreign aid for development; it is a world of unthinking consumption and destruction, in which 12% of known are species are threatened with extinction, and worldwide reserves of oil and natural gas could run out in the next fifty years; it is a world of fear, prejudice and intolerance, where many children are taught to hate their peers of another race, religion or ethnicity; it is a world in which greed trumps solidarity and cynicism and often clouds out hope.
Remarks by Mona Makram Ebeid, Chairman of the Association for the Advancement of Education [NGO in Special Consultative Status with the Economic & Social Council of the United Nations ECOSOC]
Let me first start by congratulating the organizers of the No Peace Without Justice organization as well as the Government of Yemen for choosing such a timely topic.
In this context, I would like to express some of my own thoughts on the topic of peace and justice. But let me first begin by posing the question: what kind of world is this we are living in today? It is a world of war and conflict in which total military spending equals fourteen times the amount the governments of industrialized countries spend on foreign aid for development; it is a world of unthinking consumption and destruction, in which 12% of known are species are threatened with extinction, and worldwide reserves of oil and natural gas could run out in the next fifty years; it is a world of fear, prejudice and intolerance, where many children are taught to hate their peers of another race, religion or ethnicity; it is a world in which greed trumps solidarity and cynicism and often clouds out hope. In other words we live in a world in crisis. All of us who watch CNN or other channels inundated inundated with one particular crisis: that of terrorism and the United States’ war against it. But terrorism is not the only crisis; indeed there are many other crises in the world that do not capture headlines, but are equally urgent. There is a development crisis when nearly a billion and a half people have no access to clean water, and a billion live in miserably substandard housing. We have a leadership crisis when we allow wealth to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, so that the world’s three richest people have assets that exceed the combined gross domestic product of the poorest forty three countries. It is a democratic crisis hen 1.2 billion people live on an income of less than one dollar per day and are effectively excluded from public decision-making because of the wrenching poverty in which they live.
What about us the Arab region?
On the eve of the American led war on Iraq, commentators and officials in the West and the Arab world outdid one another with predictions concerning its probable ripple effects. Supporters announced a democratic wave and a strengthening of pro-western elements, opponents predicted tumultuous upheaval throughout the region. No doubt that a clear effect of the war has been to reinvigorate debate about political reform and all evidence available suggests that radical change is in the making. The question is, will it be generally induced or externally? Will it be by conviction or by infliction?
Having said that let us briefly examine the development of international law during the past century.
In general, traditional international law purported only to govern relations between nations states; it did not regard individuals as having any international legal rights-they were considered objects rather tan subjects of international law; it denied any juridical standing to NGOs; it did not authorise individual representation to international bodies, it did not comprehend, let alone commit itself to a human rights foreign policy; it denied any state responsibility for the violations of the rights to its own citizens; in a word human rights was to be regarded as a matter that came within the “domestic jurisdiction” of each state, a principle which effectively denied other states, and the international community, the right to intervene on behalf of individuals. But the post world war II explosion in international human rights law-the internalisation of human rights and the humanization of international law-turned this traditional law theory on its head; Accordingly, international human rights law would now be premised on the notion that every state has an obligation to protect not only any aliens within its midst, but its own citizens. NGOs have recognised standing and status and may appear as intervenants in domestic court invoking international human rights law or in international for a. In a word, human rights law was no longer to be regarded as a matter of state sovereignty, or an “internal matter” immune from international scrutiny and sanction. The world community had both a right and a responsibility to protest and seek redress for violations of human rights.
Perhaps out of concern for Western sensibilities and aid considerations, most Arab governments continue to defend publicly their adherence to accepted human rights norms. All regional nations except one or two have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Although many of them hold regular parliamentary elections, have a relatively developed civil society that operates with a qualified degree of freedom; pre-conditions for genuine popular participation in elections are the inter-linked freedoms of expression, association and assembly. In these key aspects of human rights, critical building blocks for the development of a healthy civil society, there is not much improvement. The regional record remains an unending catalog of censorships: bans on meetings, demonstrations, publications and creative works; the closure of private associations; the arrest of journalists and government critics whose only offence was to espouse views unpopular with the political or religious environment. Intolerance was also driven by politically backed religious zeal. Contributing directly to the many travesties of justice that mar the region intermittently, is the endemic problem of torture in detention either for the extraction of information, for punishment, to secure “confessions” or a combination of all three motives. Discrimination against and persecution of religious minorities also figure in the record. Moreover, where a democratic process seems to be emerging, most are “managed” democracies where there are no mass based parties and where the true locus of political authority is not subject to removal by electoral means. But why did the outside world not support the respect of human rights in Arab countries?
There are some easy answers especially in relation to the Middle East in general Industrialized nations’ interest in cheap oil and the survival of Israel are better served by authoritarian regimes which will resist demands for a fairer share of oil revenues or for a fair deal for the Palestinians.
There are other factors at play however. The Arab world is deeply divided. The main divide is between those seeking a more central role for religion in public life and those opposed to this. The rising support for Islamists, and the division within Islamist trends coupled with the capture of power by some Islamist groups in Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan had worsened the tensions and increased the worries of the dominant secular regimes.
Is the picture that bleak? Certainly not. It is true that the wave of democratisation that has swept over many parts of the world in the past 3 decades has left the Arab world in general “high and dry” and a profound stagnation in the intellectual and political landscape. Some analysts search for “cultural” reasons for this anomaly. Democracy some argue, is alien to the “ Arab and Muslim mind”. Islam they say, emphasizes conformity and obedience and these societies have failed to develop civil society institutions. They also remain excessively patriarchal, rigid and secularisation-resistant. Secularisation is seen by these theorists as essential for democratisation. Others point to economic and social factors, such as low literacy rates, the state’s economic……society , and the weakness of civil organisations and…………………And while it is true that economic ,political and social factors make the fight for democracy a steep uphill struggle, yet in many Arab and Muslim countries, courageous individuals and burgeoning civil society movements have emerged to challenge the monopoly of power by dominant cliques. Moreover, women have been agents of change helping to transform social customs (such as genital mutilation for example) as well as laws, and through work, contributing to increased production, raising awareness on the importance of participating in public life. By concentrating in such fields as health, education and welfare, they have also helped improve the overall quality life. No doubt that the ongoing drama of the changing status of women and challenges they continue to face will feature highly in any radical change in Arab societies. Moreover, in many of these countries a broad alliance of democratic forces, which pursue politics of inclusion, has emerged to champion democratic reforms and respect for human rights. Of central importance though, will be resolving the role of Islam in the public arena. What then is the role of civil society in the promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law? How can we further the goals of peace and justice? Bob Kennedy, a great advocate of peace and justice once said; “ few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation”. And here comes the role of civil society in establishing a framework for the future.
Although we cannot ignore the Dickensonian character of the world we live in- “that it is the best of times, but also the worst of times” le jeu vaut bien la chandelle as the French saying goes.
Where do we start?
First: and foremost Arab States should establish an effective permanent Arab Human Rights Commission that has real authority to address balance of power between the central government and the rights of the individuals within that state. Countries of the Arab world have never differentiated society’s legitimate need for collective security from an individual’s right for personal dignity. It is this dilemma that needs resolving.
Second: NGOs are and should be playing a formative role in the initiation, interpretation and application of international human rights agreements and standard setting in general.
Third: Human Rights Education. This educational process involves “conscientization” or “sensibilizer”- creating a culture of human rights- and respect for the “right to be different”. This may include education as much at the non-formal as at the formal level involving consultations, workshops, including special training courses for women, trade unionists etc.. this role is very important during a period of transition to democracy.
Fourth: the promotion of human rights and democratic development. Human rights advocacy groups are not mass based organisations, nor are they political organisations in the sense that they seek political power for themselves; but they may be seen as “politically” engaged in that the struggle for human rights is often not only a struggle to curb abuses of power but also to promote the democratic exercise of power. And so NGOs have an important role not only as monitors of the election process but in developing institutional mechanisms for the protection and preservation of the electoral process itself. In other words, to promote the ability of people to know and act upon their rights and to thereby advance the process of democratisation and the Rule of Law.
Fifth: the constitutionalisation of Rights.
A corollary to – and support system for the development of the Rule of Law and the process of democratisation is the constitutionalization of rights in a Charter of Rights.
Sixth: Development of a code of conduct respecting Rights of Minorities. Accordingly NGOs have an important task in not only articulating the basic principles of a code of conduct respecting the rights of minorities, but of working for and monitoring the implementation of such a code. Indeed, the role of NGOs here is nothing less than creating, in the words of Prince Hassan of Jordan, a “community of conscience” from NGO “ coalitions of conscience”.
Seventh: A mandate for International Human Rights NGOs. At present, a disproportionate number of Western NGOs deal with matters pertaining to political and civil rights, while the cause of economic, social and cultural rights appears to be under-represented among the NGOs. Accordingly, while there are a host of NGOs for such causes as political prisoners, independence of lawyers and judges, prison conditions, freedom of the press and the like, most western based NGOs have not taken up such issues as the re-channelling and forgiveness of Third World foreign debt or toxic waste dumping in the Third World, or industrial pollution by multi-national corporations, or the transfer of weapons of mass destruction to the Third World whose economies are further impoverished through such purchases; or the internalisation of social welfare and the like.
In conclusion, the struggle for human rights and human dignity is really initially and ultimately the struggle for ourselves. And in this struggle each one of us can and does make a difference, each one has a role to play in the indivisible struggle for human rights and human dignity in an interdependent world. If we can establish a set of values that emphasize tolerance, and infuse our interactions with these principles on a local, national, regional and international scale, then we will have come a long way toward creating a more humane and peaceful world. The world that we would like to see today, is a world with more solidarity and less individualism; more honesty and less hypocrisy; more transparency and less corruption; more faith in humanity and less cynicism, more compassion and less selfishness.
In this context, the world’s sees great opportunity for the US to use its unique position as the world’s sole super power, for the common good. But the world is deeply frustrated at its failure to do so. The world it is true, owes a lot to the American people for fighting two totalitarian ideologies in the twentieth century: Nazism and Communism. But it is important not to confuse gratitude with servitude. The United States may be the only super power, but is not the only nation on earth. Its strategy today after its victory over the heinous regime of Saddam Hussein consists of pre-emption and the imperative of bringing democracy to countries that incubate terrorists or provide support and sanctuary for their work. And this by military force if necessary. However, let us be reminded of Raymond Aaron’s famous warning that there are ways of conquering that can quickly transform victory into defeat. Therefore, we urge the Bush administration to work with the United Nations on the countless programs and projects it undertakes to make meaningful differences in the lives of the voiceless in the fringes of our societies. This will be much more rewarding in furthering the goals of peace and justice than just focussing on the war on terror.
Let me conclude by saying that I truly believe that if we each contribute, the total of all those acts will lead us towards a future that is not bleak, but bright; not marred by despair, but charged with hope.
Mona Makram – Ebeid
Former Member of Parliament
Chairman of the Association for the Advancement of Education
Prof. of political science in the American University in Cairo