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

Report for Thematic Session III: - Sana'a, 10 – 12 January 2004

REPORT OF THEMATIC SESSION III: The Role of the Civil Society in the Promotion of Democracy and Human Rights

Delivered by Prof. Mona Mkaram-Ebeid
Thematic Session number 3 on “The Role of Civil Society in the Promotion of Democracy and Human Rights” has been attended by more than 150 participants and around 40 statements have been taken from the floor.
Most participants have underlined the fact that this was a special conference in more than one way. In fact, the first of its kind, where Governments and civil society could interchange their views on the role of civil society. However some deplored the fact that NGOs were not given a chance to present their views in front of Governmental at the first Plenary Session.
They would like to make sure that there will be a follow up to this conference, which has been considered a leap forward for civil society in the Arab region.
As a result of the debate I can say that NGOs present at this Conference would have liked to prepare their own document containing recommendations to be discussed directly with the Governments present at this conference. However, as time does not permit it, I will try to reflect in my report as faithfully as possible all the opinions and recommendations expressed in the debate. Given the limited time I apologize in advance if some of the valuable opinions that were expressed are not present here. I am sure that much part of it will appear in the written version of the NGOs’ report.
Many participants have attached great importance to the role that civil society can play in the promotion of democracy and human rights.
According to some of the participants civil society is not a new concept for the Arab world. In fact, during the 19th century the Arab World was characterized by the presence of clubs, endowments and scholars who played a very active role in their own countries. It was stressed also that the concept and the practice of Democracy is not a new concept for the Arab World until various forms of democratic institutions have been replaced by one man rule, which has curb the activity of civil society. It was stated that the demand for political reform has come from the Arabs before coming from Western countries and in fact any democratic change has to start from within the countries and not be imposed by external actors. Democracy is not a top down process.
Many also emphasized that democracy is definitely not incompatible with Islam as there are several mentions in the Holy Koran on consultations, negotiations and the like.
It was also underlined that dictatorial regimes such as that of Saddam Hussein of a one man rule who control the Government, the Party and the Military, have killed private initiatives and in particular the activities of civil society organizations. As a result, for three decades civil society in Iraq has not existed and therefore there was plea from Iraqi participants for regional and international civil society to lend their support to Iraqi reform activists who are pursuing the goal of a peaceful transfer of power from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the Iraqi people. Some of the participants expressed their solidarity to the Palestinian people under occupation and urged the international community to put pressure on Israel to implement all the relevant UN declarations.
Specific recommendations have been addressed to the Governments present at this conference:
1) Arab media should be freed by the control of the Governments, as in many countries are often under the control of the Ministries of Information, which do not allow the free flow of information and the exercise of freedom of speech. Civil society should put pressure on the media to report about their positive activities and not portray them as rivals or competitors, but as partners.
2) Strict regulations imposed by Ministries of Interiors on NGOs should be revoked and a mechanism of consultation between the Governments and civil society should be established. Moreover, emergency laws should be lifted to allow the exercise of civil and political rights such as freedom of speech, of assembly, of peaceful demonstrations and the like, and called on the Arab Governments to release all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience.
3) Several delegates stressed the fact that the final declaration should reflect the opinions of NGOs. This has been a major concern of the participants that opinions expressed in the debate should be reflected in the Governments deliberations.
The final declaration should have a clause stating that a vibrant civil society is absolutely necessary to solidify democracy and liberal values. They also underlined that democracy is an ongoing process and is more than just having elections. What is needed is political plurality, an independent judiciary, equality of all before the law, an independent media, the elimination of all discrimination against women, the respect for minorities, exposing corruption practices and calling for transparency and accountability. Most important is the issue of education and some suggested that a culture of human rights should be introduced in schools from the very primary levels.
In this context it was believed that the Sana’a Declaration will need a strong and well developed civil society to comply with its demands.
As such it can become a natural partner to Governments as it can encourage sound governmental policies by increasing the flow of knowledge and information in a society.
4) Some participants proposed that the next Arab League Summit to be held in March should be preceded by a Conference of Civil Society Organizations so that their opinions could be taken into consideration by Governments in their deliberations.
5)On e of the most burning issues of the debate was that of financing of NGOs, whether NGOs could receive foreign financing, whether they could receive Government funding and support, and if they receive any kind of aid transparency and accountability should be the rules of the game.
Although the issues discussed were not really new, what is new is the commitment to effectuate real change. In this context many participants have proceeded to an exercise of self criticism claiming that many non governmental groups do not apply within their association the liberal values that they are asking their Governments to implement, such as for example, democracy, rotation of power, transparency and accountability. They suggested that what is needed was capacity building, and they stressed the importance of networking at the regional and international level.
The experience of the Coalition for an International Criminal Court was considered an important experience that should be replicated also in relation to the issues of Democracy and Human rights. Some participants urged the Governments to ratify the Rome Statute.
They also suggested that a legal framework for the culture of civil society should be established and that laws that obstruct or suffocate the work of NGOs should be removed and replaced by a set of norms and criteria that would regulate both the relationship between Governments and civil society, as well as the rights and responsibility of NGOs.
6) Government partnership with NGOs. Many participants stressed the elements of civil society partnership. Among the most important were the following:
Civil Society Organizations are tension reducers, by channelling concerns and issues into forums for dialogue, articulating policies and programs that might alleviate social unrest.
Civil Society Organizations build “Democratic capital”, the concrete skills that are required to run and manage a modern democracy, enabling the future generation of citizens and future Governmental leaders to learn how to plan, make decisions, manage meetings and negotiate for common ends.
7) Women in this panel were very articulate in presenting their views, and it has to be said that the issue of women’s rights was also deeply discussed by men.
It is badly needed to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.
Many participants stressed the fact that NGOs should thoroughly study the 2002 UNDP report on the Arab World tin order to press Governments to adopt the necessary reforms to guarantee the respect of human rights.
Women are in fact kept in low position in the institutions when they are not excluded.
There cannot be democracy without women. As one participant said, as there is no peace without justice there is no freedom without women.
Some participants proposed that women should be included in quota in Parliament and local councils to allow them to be involved in the decision process, especially in evolving democracies and not on a permanent basis.
It was suggested that Arab States should establish an effective permanent Arab Human Rights Commission that has real authority to address the 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 legitimate right for personal dignity.
NGOs are and should be encouraged to play a formative role in the initiation, interpretation and application of international human rights agreements and standard setting in general.
As regards Human Rights Education it was said that it may include education as much as the non-formal as the formal level involving consultations, workshops, including special training courses for women, trade unionists etc. this role is very important especially in a period of transition to democracy.
Human Rights Groups are not mass based organizations, nor are they political organizations 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 fight to curb abuses of power but also to promote the democratic exercise of power. And so NGO’s 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 democratization and the rule of law.
It is necessary the respect of a Code of Conduct on the rights of religious and ethnic minorities and NGOs should become, in the words of Prince Hassan of Jordan “a community of conscience”.
I would like to conclude with some personal remarks.
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 pour interactions with these principles on a local, national, regional and international scale, then we will have come a long way toward creating a more human 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 sees great opportunity for the US to use its unique position as the world’s sole superpower, 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 sole superpower, but it 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 is necessary. However, let us be reminder of Raymond Aaron’s famous warning that there are ways of conquering that can quickly transform victory into defeat. Therefore, we urge the Bush administrations to work with the United Nations on the countless program and projects it undertakes to make meaningful differences in the lives of the voiceless on the fringes of our societies. This will be much more rewarding in furthering the goals of peace and justice than just focusing on the war on terror. Let me conclude by saying that I truly believe that if each of us contribute the total of all those acts will lead us towards a future a future that is not bleak, but bright; not marred by despair, but charged with hope.