The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) expresses, on behalf of 36 human rights organizations in the Arab World, fervent welcome to the draft Arab Charter of Human Rights, prepared by the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and presented by the Arab expert delegation within the Commission before the meeting of the Arab Standing Commission for Human Rights of the League of Arab States, which began today and continues until Thursday January 8th. The purpose of the meeting is to approve the “amended” Charter for Human Rights as a prelude to its endorsement by the forthcoming Arab Summit scheduled in March of this year.
CIHRS perceives this draft Charter as a support and reinforcement of the positions of Arab and international human rights organizations, epitomized in particular in Syracuse (1986), Casablanca (1999), Amman and Sanaa (2002), Cairo, Geneva and Beirut (2003). Finally, these positions were echoed in memorandums of both the Amnesty International and the International Commission for Jurists. As well as in the memo of 36 Arab human rights organizations from 11 Arab countries, presented by CIHRS on their behalf and expounded by Mr. Bahey El Din Hassan, CIHRS Director in a meeting with the delegation of High Commission experts on 21 December 2003.
This long period of time could have been spared had Arab governments lent an ear to human rights organizations and had they engaged in a dialogue with them. In particular, when suggestions were put forth in Casablanca Forum, in April 1999 by CIHRS. It called upon the League of Arab States to set up a joint expert commission with human rights organizations to draft a new charter.
The document of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is a victory first and foremost for the humanity of human beings in the Arab World. It is also advancement for universal human rights standards, as well as a rejection of the imperialist and racist logic –adopted by the Arab Charter of Human Rights in its original form (1994), updated in 2003. This Charter perceived the human being and nations within the Arab World as inferior to others, and ineligible for enjoying the same rights as do other people in every region of the world. Consequently, one of the ills of the Charter was not restricted to its being a valueless document for the protection of the human being within the Arab World, but could be used as a frame of reference to justify and cover up assaults on and violations of these rights within the Arab World. It also provided an alibi for discrimination against Arabs inside and outside their home, as they are considered as less eligible than other fellow human beings, according to the logic of the Charter.
The document put forth by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights stressed guarantees to all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, especially the right to life, political participation, free and impartial elections, formation of political parties, trade unions and private associations, and freedoms of opinion, expression, belief, religious practice, the right to a fair trial, peaceful assembly, prohibition of capital punishment for political crimes, prohibition of torture, restriction of the powers of governments to proclaim the state of emergency, guaranteeing the rights of minorities, women, children, the handicapped and other important rights. The draft Charter also suggests a tribunal for the protection of human rights within the bounds of the League of Arab States, providing for citizens to file complaints, and cooperating in full with human rights organizations. In this sense, it is considered a new and integrated draft for a convention for the protection of human rights in the Arab World.
It is noteworthy that the document of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was the outcome of a creative interaction – none of the Arab government members of the League of Arab States has ever attempted before. The High Commission asked human rights organizations to forward their opinion prior to the preparation of its document. The Commission also received representatives of these organizations, listened to their points of views directly and commented on each of them on the spot. The Commission has also participated with representatives in a number of conferences previously organized by these organizations regarding the Charter, the last of which was the Beirut Conference organized by CIHRS in June 2003.
It should be noted that the Arab Charter for Human Rights was issued in September 1994 following negotiations inside the League of Arab States which lasted for nearly 24 years. However, it has been sharply criticized by public opinion and human rights organizations, and failed to secure any ratifications except from one Arab country. In 2002, the League of Arab States suggested to “update” the Charter. The Secretary General of the League persistently stressed on various occasions that the purpose of “updating” the Charter is to promote and upgrade it so that it would be compatible with universal standards of respect for human rights. However, the majority of Arab governments dealt with this task as being some kind of a cosmetic step to save their reputation in front of the international community, especially after the September 11th incidents. Hence, in October 2003 the process of updating the Charter was not so much different from its counterpart original version, but even lagged behind it in several aspects!
CIHRS hopes that the Arab Standing Commission for Human Rights within the League of Arab States would adopt the draft of the UN High Commission for Human Rights without any amendments, especially after the boosting address given by the League Secretary General in this venue, and the proclaimed attitudes of delegations from Egypt, Iraq, Bahrain and Morocco, as well as the solidarity shown by a number of other states during the first session of the Commission’s meeting yesterday.
CIHRS fears though that once the door is open for amendments of the suggested draft, this might lead to its collapse from the inside, and hence it would become a new distorted version close to the philosophy of both the original and updated charters, which run counter even to the most basic human rights standards.
It is necessary that the Standing Commission takes into consideration that the attitude it would adopt vis-à-vis the question of the Charter would not be restricted to the latter exclusively, but would be a strong indicator for both Arab and international public opinion of the possibility of internal reform within the Arab World.
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