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Arab Foreign Ministers Call for Social, Political Reform Throughout Region - 2004-05-11

Arab League foreign ministers late Monday approved a document calling for political and social reform throughout the Arab world. However, while some political analysts say openly discussing issues such as greater human rights is a step in the right direction, others say the newly approved document won't accomplish much because the Arab League does not have the authority to require political and social reforms.

The document unanimously approved by the foreign ministers of the 22-member Arab League, calls for the establishment of democratic practices in Arab countries, including making the court systems independent, greater freedom and human rights for all citizens and increased rights for women.

Rarely has the Arab League adopted official proclamations dealing with issues of internal political change. Arab League officials say the one approved late Monday is historic.

However, the Arab League has no authority to directly implement political or social change. Consequently, some political analysts, like former Egyptian diplomat Abdullah al-Ashaal, who is an expert on Arab affairs, said that he thinks the Arab League document is nothing more than an effort to appease both internal and external demands for greater reform.

?There is no intention, no plan, no vision for the future,? he said. ?So, I think that this is just words to show that they are progressive and to show to their people that they are intending to reform. It's nonsense and I think that this is only to show the Arab society and the world that they are doing much in this direction.?

Arab League spokesman Hossam Zaki acknowledges that while the approved document calls for reforms, it does not outline any mechanism for implementing them. He said that's because the Arab League does not interfere in the internal affairs of its member states.

?We have to be realistic as well as optimistic,? he said. ?It's a good first start that we have a document that deals with these issues after so many years. So, in order for us to be able to go forward -- I understand the mechanism could be a good idea, but at the same time you have to understand that this is an organization where the interference in the internal affairs is something that's just not done.?

Mr. Zaki added that approval of the document was not the result of any outside political pressures, including the recent call by President Bush for greater democratization in the Arab world.

The head of the political science department at Lebanese-American University in Beirut, Sami Baroudi, said that he doubts the newly approved document will accomplish anything, but, he did say that publicly discussing such issues is a positive sign.

?You have first to recognize that there is a gap,? he said. ?There is a deficiency, and then you can start dealing with it. I mean, of course the fact these things are not tabooed, that they are in the open, there is talk about civil society, about human rights, it's all positive. Now, whether the record of human rights is going to improve in the Middle East as a result of this document, I really doubt that. But, it's a positive step that the organization that represents the Arab world is speaking about these issues.?

The human rights and political reform document will be debated at the Arab League summit, scheduled to be held in Tunis beginning May 22, where it is again expected to win unanimous approval.