The 18th Arab League summit opens Tuesday in Khartoum amid mounting international concerns over the deteriorating security situation in Sudan's Darfur region.
The last time Sudan hosted an Arab League summit was in 1967. The meeting was held less than three months after the Six-Day War, which ended with Israel's victory over the armies of Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Iraq, and left the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the Sinai peninsula under Israeli control.
In August of that year, Arab leaders met in Khartoum in a historic gathering of solidarity known as "the three nos summit" - - no peace, no negotiations and no recognition of Israel. Much like the 1967 gathering, this year's summit hopes to echo similar sentiments of solidarity.
The Khartoum government faces allegations of genocide in Sudan's Darfur region and may have to allow U.N. troop deployments there before the end of the year.
Rebels in Darfur took up arms in 2003 to protest discrimination and neglect by the central government. Sudan has been accused by the United Nations and the United States of responding by arming Janjaweed militias, which have been responsible for much of the death and destruction in Darfur. The government in Khartoum says it no longer arms or supports the militia. The conflict has left tens-of-thousands dead and created more than two million refugees.
The Darfur Controversy
Moreover, there is widespread concern that similar discontent among the Bija tribesmen in the eastern part of the country could erupt into a full-scale rebellion.
Against this backdrop, some observers question why the Arab League is holding this year's summit in Khartoum.
Ted Edwards, a U.S-based Sudan specialist with Amnesty International, says the meeting brings to mind January's African Union summit in Khartoum, which turned down Sudan's request to head the alliance. "This is similar to the African Union's rotation of presidency to Sudan, which ultimately didn't happen. But the A.U. summit in Sudan, like this Arab summit, rightly concerned a lot of people for choice of venue, given what's happening in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan," says Edwards.
Other analysts argue that both the venue and the timing of the Arab League summit in Sudan are questionable in light of recent United Nations reports about increasing militia attacks in Darfur, including the rape of refugees and raids on humanitarian supply lines. But some observers say the venue is not important, given that the African Union summit was also held in Khartoum and was more significant than the Arab League summit because of the A.U.'s peacekeeping efforts in Darfur.
The Arab League says it has clearly voiced its concern over Darfur to the Khartoum government as part of its ongoing mediation in the crisis. But it also says it does not agree that what is happening in Darfur is genocide. And Arab League spokesman, Ala'a Rushdie says the summit should be held as planned. "The summit in Khartoum was decided in Algeria in March of 2005. As for issues of genocide, the Arab League has sent a fact-finding mission from the very start to Darfur and we do not see genocide. Genocide is the legal term. It has particular meaning. Of course, there are human rights abuses in Darfur. But we don't see that stopping us from having the summit in Khartoum," says Rushdie.
Closing Arab Ranks
Some experts say the Arab League tends to close ranks when one of its 22 members faces criticism from the outside, even if it privately considers such criticism legitimate. Sudan's Ambassador to the United States, Khidir Haroun Ahmed, says his country is being treated unfairly.
"Any single country in the world today has some kind of problems. So if the criterion is that the summit should be held in a country which is problem-free, I'm afraid that you would not be able to find any country that would host anything. So I think this is irrelevant. We hosted the African Summit. It was very successful in terms of security, in terms of hospitality and everything else," says Ahmed.
Despite the controversy, some analysts hope that Arab leaders participating in the summit will be aware of the situation in Darfur when they begin their talks. Amnesty International's Ted Edwards says the real question is not whether Darfur and human rights abuses will be discussed, but whether they will be discussed honestly and openly. "What we can hope for is some recognition from the Arab community and these leaders that respect for human rights is an important part of their agenda. There's hope, and I certainly share it, that this summit might contribute to the peace talks," says Edwards.
Arab League Mediation Efforts
Despite an active Arab League role in the Darfur peace talks in Abuja, Nigeria, many observers say Arab leaders are concerned that the Darfur problem could lead to foreign intervention. University of San Francisco political scientist Stephen Zunes adds that Sudan, in particular, is worried that, if the situation doesn't improve, the international community may intervene.
"There is real concern that the international spotlight on the tragedy of Darfur could be used for greater outside intervention. And the Arab League, which has at best a mixed record in terms of conflict resolution efforts from within, has a real motivation to try to resolve this situation themselves, in addition to the efforts by the African Union, to try to get the spotlight away from Sudan on issues that they may consider more important," says Zunes.
According to the Kuwaiti newspaper, Al-Qabas, some Arab leaders are pressuring Sudan to finalize a framework for a peaceful settlement in Darfur before Tuesday's summit and to agree to hand over control of the African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur to the United Nations.
Whether Khartoum's second Arab summit will prove to be as decisive as its 1967 predecessor in formulating long-term Arab policy remains to be seen.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.