x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

States of emergency

A UN-backed report highlights the failure of Arab governments to provide security and rights for their citizens.

Bottom, a Palestinian man holds his head in his hands after Israeli forces launched an offensive in Gaza.
Bottom, a Palestinian man holds his head in his hands after Israeli forces launched an offensive in Gaza.

In the past two weeks, 20,000 Somalis have fled their homes in the capital, Mogadishu, because of fighting between the government and al Shaabab insurgents linked to al Qa'eda. Some have gone to refugee camps along the Kenyan border where they are at risk of cholera. Meanwhile, a court in London granted a young Saudi princess asylum because she has a child fathered by her British boyfriend and cannot return home for fear of being stoned to death.

Elsewhere, an olive grove was set on fire by Jewish settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, while Iraq was hit by a series of bomb blasts that barely registered on the news. The depressing litany of war, gender discrimination and occupation suffered by millions of Arabs every day underlines the findings of a disturbing new report released last week that harshly takes the region's governments to task for their failure to provide security and rights to their citizens.

The Arab Human Development Report 2009: Challenges to Human Security in the Arab Countries and sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme, states that dysfunctional, elected parliaments, security services with too much power and leaders wielding absolute authority have turned many Arab states into "menaces to human security". Countries in this region, home to about 330 million people, lag behind in economic, social and cultural development, it concludes.

"The report tries to get to the root of how people are vulnerable," said Zahir Jamal, senior adviser for the 284-page report, speaking from Beirut. The report calls on Arab countries to: Strengthen the rule of law Protect the environment Safeguard the rights of women Address the weak structural underpinnings of the Arab oil economy Tackle poverty and end hunger End occupation, armed conflict, and military intervention Boost public health

It warns that if the challenges are not tackled it could lead to extremism and further conflict. "There are two kinds of pressure on the Arab state," said Mr Jamal. "The external pressure - this is the only region in the world that has not made the transition to democracy - and internal pressure from the inside from those who feel disenfranchised. The bar on the population's expectations has risen. This is the age of the internet, a younger generation of Arabs have higher expectations and all of this creates a momentum within society to change."

The region also has the world's highest unemployment rate, 14.4 per cent versus a world average of 6.3 per cent. There is too much reliance on exporting oil - which leaves economies vulnerable to fluctuations of oil prices - and not enough emphasis on building knowledge-based societies. Remarkably, many Arab countries are actually less industrialised today than they were in 1970. Mr Jamal added: "The Arab state is a brittle, unrepresentative state and insufficiently responsive to the wishes of its people. It is vulnerable because it can't accept the trust of its citizens."

Indeed, at the news conference in Beirut on Tuesday morning at the Grand Serail, the headquarters of the Lebanese prime minister, Abdel Rahman al Solh, a representative of the Arab League, rejected the report. "It is only focused on the negative parts we all know," he said. Mr al Solh repeatedly accused the authors of jumping to conclusions without providing solid evidence. Aid workers with first-hand experience in Somalia may disagree.

One of the report's findings was that half of all refugees in the world, or 7.5m people, those who have been forced out of their home countries by war or other disasters, are in Arab countries, with another 9.8m who are considered internally displaced. A renewed offensive by insurgents in Somalia that began on May 7 has had a devastating impact on the population and children have been particularly affected because their schools have been destroyed or occupied by insurgents, said Iman Morooka, a spokesman with Unicef speaking from Nairobi.

"Somali children have been maimed or killed either in their own homes, in schools or on the residential streets of Mogadishu," Mr Morooka said. "Children are also threatened by the systematic and widespread recruitment into armed forces." These are local political issues but they have an impact on the Arab psyche. "Arabs feel themselves to be vulnerable to outside interference," Mr Jamal said. "To the man on the street or the woman, these events are directed against Arabs, not only Palestinians, Iraqis or Somalis. It is a collective assault."

Countries that are not war zones are often authoritarian states that repress dissent and freedom of expression. In six Arab countries, there is an outright ban on the formation of political parties, while Syria, Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, Sudan and the Palestinian territories are all governed under state of emergency laws that serve as a pretext to suspend civil liberties, exempt rulers from constitutional limitations and give sweeping powers to security agencies.

Under Egyptian law, insulting President Hosni Mubarak can land an offender three years in jail and a fine. On Monday a court overturned the jail sentence of an amateur poet, Moneer Said Hannaa, who had been convicted of writing verses insulting the president. Mr Hannaa said he would not write poems like that again. A few days later, on Thursday, 42 Arab human rights organisations signed an open letter condemning the Iranian government's crackdown on protesters in the violent aftermath of the contested June 12 elections and urged Iranians to learn from the Arabs' "bitter lessons".

"The undersigned organisations belong to a region where the peoples have lived through calamities under despotic regimes," the letter states. "We look forward to the day when the government of Iran respects the rights of its citizens to freely express their opinions and peacefully assemble." The UNDP report is the fifth in a series that has been published in the past seven years, drawing on the expertise of 100 Arab or Muslim scholars, most of whom are major figures in the intelligentsia. The last report in 2005 examined the role of Arab women.

"This report provides a rational, detailed ammunition for the reform movement in different parts of the region," Mr Jamal said. "It raises their morale and helps to revitalise the debate which has been polarised between radicals and conservatives. If you are in the centre where the bulk of interests lie for Arab citizens, you are branded with belonging to a foreign motivated cause. The moderates have basically left the room."

In countries where there are changes, women have had to fight hard for them, particularly as the conservative policies of Islamists increasingly gain ground. The report states that women have little redress when they are victims of assault while human trafficking is a growing business. "Much of the violence against Arab women is inflicted unseen in the home, on wives and sisters, daughters and mothers," said Munira Fakhro, a former associate professor at the University of Bahrain and an advisory board member for the report.

In Morocco, where women this week celebrated the fifth anniversary of the moudawana code, a series of sweeping reforms that has given women more equality with men, Sarah Zaimi, a young activist, said change was slow. "Society is evolving," she said. "Legally we are now very strong compared to the rest of the Arab world and the moudawana code is best. We're the only Arab country where a woman with a child outside marriage is allowed to give the baby the name of the mother and it is a child like any other. We abolished polygamy unless the woman herself tells the husband in a legal letter that he can marry another wife, but this is rare."

The report is equally bleak in its assessment of the environment. The impact of climate change will be catastrophic unless laws are passed and young people educated better on the environment, it states. If sea levels rose by one metre, Egypt would have six million refugees and the agricultural land in the Nile Delta would be flooded. Desertification threatens about 2.9 million square kilometres, or about one-fifth of the total area of Arab countries, while natural resources including fresh water, are being depleted at an alarming rate.

But will the report actually change anything? "It's really excellent at the level of diagnosis and analysis," said Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs in Beirut and a leading Arab writer. "But it is not an action-orientated report. It doesn't give a blueprint for change." As for reaction from Arab governments themselves, Mr Khouri said he had not yet heard anything.

"But it's typical of Arab leaders," he said. "They provide all kinds of platforms without adopting the actual recommendations." But Mr Jamal disagreed. "Jordan has used our previous reports as a basis for a national development framework. In the UAE a foundation for knowledge was set up by the Al Maktoums as a direct response to the second report in 2003 about knowledge in the Arab world," he said, referring to the rulers of Dubai.

He added: "Although this report may seem bleak, it is also constructive. It is about managing events before they reach a crisis and that is what any mature state would want to do." hgafour@thenational.ae