February 6, 2004 No.

On the Democracy and Human Rights Conference

Few columnists wrote about the regional Democracy and Human Rights Conference, held in the Yemenite capital Sanaa in mid-January 2004. One who did is columnist Ahmad Al-Rab'i, who wrote an article titled "Hackneyed Speeches at the Sanaa Conference" in the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. The following are excerpts from the column: [1]

"Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, hosted a conference on democracy, human rights, and the role of the International Criminal Court, which was attended by many [representatives] of Arab NGOs, European dignitaries, and representatives of Arab governments and parliaments.

"The aim of the conference was to create dialogue between the governments and the institutions of civil society in the Arab world and to discuss problems of its emerging democracy … but the representatives of the Arab civil society organizations were frustrated already at the opening session, when the Arab ministers and top officials mounted the dais, one after the other. Each one described his land as Paradise on Earth, as [no less than the new] direction of prayer [Qibla] for democracy, as a country that respects and encourages the institutions of civil society, as countries in which the living conditions of women are excellent, and where the situation prevailing in them is in general one of a land of 'milk and honey.'

"Such speeches caused the invitees to wonder about the value of the conference and why exactly it was being held. If the Arab countries are so democratic, then why hold [such a] conference from the outset?

"The opening session was a sight to see. [Representatives of] all the Arab governments spoke, while the role of the [representatives] of the NGOs was limited to listening to repetitive official speeches crammed full of bombast and hyperbole.

"[In contrast], the speeches by the European delegations, by the European parliamentary head, and by the U.N. undersecretary-general were all succinct and purposeful; they discussed issues on the agenda in a precise way, and proposed objective solutions.

"[But] in contrast to [the Western speakers], every one of the speakers and listeners alike of most of the boring official Arab speeches knew… that his words were idle chatter spoken to cover up the tremendous deficiencies from which these countries suffer in the areas of human rights and individual freedoms. "At the auxiliary sessions of the conference, in which the representatives of the civil social institutions in the Arab countries spoke, we could learn about the grim state of affairs in most of the Arab countries, in which these institutions are hobbled and civil rights are publicly violated; thinkers are prevented from writing, the press is restricted, and women live under conditions of severe discrimination. In comparing what is heard in the speeches of the official Arab dignitaries and what is heard from the mouths of the Arab residents, one senses a deep abyss, and an urgent need to deal with the problem. [One also senses] that continuing the pompous speeches, the alienation, and the failure to recognize the existence of the problems are humiliating to all of [Arab] society."

[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 10, 2004.