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The Arabs' Dance With Democratic Reforms

4/24/2005 - 5:00 AM PST

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Progress Report Detects Some Changes

AMMAN, Jordan, APRIL 24, 2005 (Zenit) - 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 ...

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