The Middle East needs an overarching, permanent body for social and political reform, government officials and activists say.
Delegates frustrated by slow progress
ABU DHABI // The Middle East needs an overarching, permanent body to push for and oversee social and political reform, government officials and activists said yesterday. The call came at the end of the five-day Forum for the Future held in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The fifth year of the forum drew government ministers from across the broader region and Group of Eight (G8) industrialised nations, who met with hundreds of representatives from civil society groups.
The conference was characterised by calls for less talk and more action, as attendees expressed their frustration with the slow pace of progress. Growing unemployment, a lack of participation of women, constraints on free speech and limited political plurality were among the issues raised. The 2005 UN Arab Human Development Report said the main impediments to human development in the Arab world were restraints on freedom, lack of access to education and the limited empowerment of women.
Some of the government delegates joined activists in calling for a permanent body to oversee reform in the region and assess the practical steps being taken by individual governments. The Yemeni foreign minister, Dr Abubaker al Qirbi, was among the supporters. "We have, since the beginning of the forum, underlined the importance of its institutionalisation and providing it with the means of follow-up mechanisms," Dr Qirbi said. "This will confirm that the forum works in a democratic manner, a process which will promote commitment to its decisions. There are existing mechanisms that may be looked at, once the principle is accepted."
There are hopes such a body might help to revive the forum, which one Gulf foreign minister said felt as though it was "fizzling out". Italy and Japan, which co-hosted the event, were the only countries to send their foreign ministers to the conference, which caused concern that industrialised nations had become preoccupied by economic problems at home. The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, was scheduled to attend, but cancelled because of the financial crisis.
"There is the risk that we are just talking, talking, talking," said Gianluca Eramo, a representative from No Peace Without Justice, an organisation that campaigns for the protection and promotion of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law and international justice. "Although some countries are moving forward, others are going backwards," said a delegate from an Arab group. "Everybody agrees on the common principles of democracy and women's empowerment, it's just that some governments are doing more to get there."
Among the proposals presented at the forum were guidelines to strengthen the relationship between government and civil society groups. They were drawn up by three of the groups, including No Peace Without Justice, and sponsored by the governments of Italy, Turkey and Yemen. They are calling for governments in the broader Middle Eastern region to recognise civil society groups as a "legitimate partner in the democracy-building process" and permit all citizens to legally join them, so they can choose and exercise their rights to freedom of expression.
The document asks governments to pledge to "reaffirm the crucial role of civil society in encouraging active citizen participation to promote the full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms". Mr Eramo said the agreement, which was 10 months in the making, had support from many government delegates. The Italian minister of foreign affairs, Franco Frattini, described it as "extremely important".
"We have to translate our good proposals and ideas into deeds," he said. "To do this it is essential that everybody agrees to work together. It is a suggestion for common work and precise goals." Delegates also proposed setting up centres to champion women's empowerment and political pluralism, and establishing a regional fund to finance research and technical studies. Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq's foreign minister, called for a reward system for governments that made progress in women's empowerment, political reforms and democratic freedoms.
"These centres are a good idea but I don't think it's enough," Mr Zebari said. "This forum, in my view, needs to be more than just an academic institution. I think there needs to be some mechanism for these governments to undergo real, genuine reform." The Forum for the Future began in 2004 after a summit between G8 countries and representatives from the Broader Middle East and North Africa region. Next year it will be hosted by Italy, head of the G8, in partnership with Morocco.