MIDDLE EAST: The letter at the summit
William Fisher

As the heads of state of the 22 members of the Arab League meet in Cairo for their long-delayed summit, they’ll find a letter waiting. The letter is a to-do list submitted by 52 human rights and civil society organizations from 11 Middle East Arab countries. The signatories are from Jordan, Bahrain, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, and Libya. Saudi Arabia is prominent by its absence.

The letter, the product of an initiative of the Jordan-based Amman Center for Human Rights Studies, in cooperation with the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, outlines 15 recommendations for economic, political, and social reforms.

The preamble to the recommendations urges attendees “to take courageous decisions during the summit.” It goes on to say, “While reform initiatives flung at the Arab region such as the Greater Middle East Initiative testify to the need for, and importance of, economic and political reform, such reform must be in harmony with our culture and heritage. It will only be made possible through reform of the internal situation within our countries, which must precede any reform imposed on us by others.”

What are these reforms? Here are some of the more important:

Annulment of military and exceptional courts and implementation of the rule of law.

An end to the emergency laws in force in some Arab countries – emergency legislation is a principal threat to the fundamental rights and freedoms of Arab citizens.

Legislation to prevent violations of human rights and to bring to account the perpetrators of these violations.

Protection of children’s rights and prevention of their exploitation and mistreatment.

Legislation to allow women their full rights, including the ratification of international women’s rights treaties.

Guarantee the freedom of civil society associations to act and receive funding.

Anti-corruption legislation – corruption is the bedfellow of repression, despotism, and dictatorships.

An end to referendums as a replacement for free multiparty elections.

The letter concludes, “Embracing democracy and upholding respect for human rights constitute two aspects of the essential political reform that will allow Arab countries to extricate themselves from the current crisis afflicting the Arab region. Such reform is in harmony with the wishes of the Arab people who are hungry for change, for progress, for development, but who believe – and rightly so – that such reform can only be realized with their participation and with their creative input, based on democratic principles. Democracy is, after all, the basis of fundamental and inviolable human rights, and it is what Arab people currently lack.”

This letter is not brain surgery. Nor is it the Bush administration appearing to impose the will of the United States. It is a letter written by Arabs for Arabs – at some danger to themselves. Let us hope the summit conferees open the envelope.

William Fisher is a regular contributor to the Middle East Times