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Is the Arab League Relevant?

The Arab League, long regarded as an ineffective organization, began talks recently to reform its 60-year-old institutions and rewrite its charter.

Meeting at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, on December 29th, delegates representing all 22 members began discussing a 13-point reform program approved at last year's summit in Tunisia. High on their agenda was the need to change the Arab League's voting system from one that requires unanimity to a two-thirds majority.

Historically, the unanimity policy has prevented the Arab League from passing resolutions to deal with security issues, mediation efforts, sovereignty and attacks on Arab states, such as Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

The charter of the Arab League, established by seven states in 1945 to ensure a better future for all Arab countries, forbids any member country from using force against another member.

Following the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, a founding member of the Arab League, many critics questioned the relevancy of the Arab League. Its former Ambassador to the United Nations, Clovis Maksoud, resigned in protest.

Explaining the reasons his resignation, Ambassador Maksoud says, “We did not have in the Arab League Secretariat what you might call a preventive diplomacy operation. As a result of that, there was no way of handling the crisis except through the summit. And the summit was divided. As a result of the division, I resigned."

Two Arab summits that preceded the invasion in May and August of 1990 failed to resolve the dispute over oil between Iraq and Kuwait.

Learning from Past Mistakes

Ala'a Rushdie, the Spokesman for the Arab League Secretary General in Cairo admits that the organization, which celebrated its 60th anniversary last March, has made mistakes. But, he says, it is also learning from them.

"There is no doubt that there were shortcomings in the work of the Arab League. However, that does not mean that it should be shut down. If we look at things from this perspective, then we can very well say the U.N.- - and there were successes for the U.N.; there were shortcomings for the U.N.- - should also be shut down. Instead, I think everybody is now talking about reform within the U.N. And exactly the same is happening here at the Arab League."

Some reform initiatives, such as holding annual summits, have already been adopted.

Mr. Rushdie says the reforms under way have the support of Arab League member governments. He adds, "The issue of the success of any organization, whether the U.N. or the regionals, is, of course, a reflection of political will on the part of the governments. So far, I can say that the reforms that have been introduced are getting support from all the Arab governments. They're being implemented. We can see maybe some basis of success."

The Arab League and Democracy

Because most governments in the Middle East remain undemocratic, some analysts worry that these reforms may only be an attempt to address American and European pressure for democratization.

But political analyst Gary Gambill, Editor of the online publication The Middle East Monitor, says regional bodies can support democracy the way the Organization of American States did in the 1990s, when it took on an enforcement role to safeguard democracy once it was adopted by a majority of Latin American countries.

"I think that once countries like Egypt, Jordan, maybe even Saudi Arabia, embark on a path toward reform, you might see the Arab League acting more forcefully on the issue, or at least passing resolutions that underscore the need for reform. But certainly we're not there yet."

Mr. Gambill adds that no Arab state would be willing to cede its sovereignty to collective decisions made by the Arab League. He argues that, in the absence of democracy, the Arab League has been unable to become a fully integrated organization like the European Union.

Some area experts attribute the Arab League's inability to achieve similar integration to historical divisions between nationalists and traditional monarchies.

University of San Francisco Professor of Politics, Stephen Zunes says an effective regional organization would better serve the interests of the member countries.

"Indeed, it's the failure of the Arab League or some other pan-Arab association to assert the interest of the people in that part of the world that led, in part, to the rise of radical Islamist movements. And, of course, these have emerged as the greatest threat to the Arab nation-states today. So I think, in many ways, these nation-states are paying the price for not strengthening the Arab League, and not making it a more relevant regional body," says Mr. Zunes.

In addition to representing Arab interests in the global forum, some experts say the Arab League can be relevant in other areas, including tackling regional disputes, economic problems and development issues.

Looking Ahead

The Arab League says it is working on all of these levels and making progress. It envisions a common Arab market similar to the European market, and counts among its victories a successful conference held recently in Cairo to reconcile Iraqi factions, and the inauguration of the Provisional Arab Parliament in December.

Spokesman Ala'a Rushdie says reforms of the League's role must continue. He adds, "The Arab League role was not visible. Well, now it is starting to be visible. Of course, there still remains plenty to be done in the form of the continuation of reforms. And it might take some time before we see the full reflection of their results."

How effective these reforms will be remains to be seen. Some experts say changing the voting mechanism will make the Arab League more effective.

But critics are more skeptical, pointing out that the organization chose Sudan, a country accused of supporting genocide in its western Darfur region, as venue for its next summit in March.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.