European Council on Foreign Relations

Madrid view: Arab League Awakenings

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The scandalous complacency with the Syrian regime shown by the Arab League’s observation mission has an upside: it points to the awakening of a culture of human rights protection in an international organization that has always stood for contempt for democracy and human rights, and in parallel for rejection of any foreign interference.

The profile of the mission chief could hardly be more unfortunate. He is Mustafa al-Dabi, ex head of military intelligence for the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir — who, remember, has an International Criminal Court arrest warrant against him for his role in the Darfur genocide. If there is anyone, the human rights organizations say, who has shown that using the army to repress the civilian population is legitimate, then General Dabi is certainly that person.

Bashar al-Assad’s blindness is such that he has not even profited from the opportunity afforded by a chief observer so biased in his favor. His government has not only ignored the promises previously made to the League, but has gone on intensely repressing Syrians. Doing so not only in presence of the observers, who have personally witnessed the terror and brutality with which the regime treats citizens who protest, but also for the first time in the presence of international news media, which have shown the world, and especially the Arab world, a reality that the Syrian regime denied, or masked with talk about foreign or jihadist plots. The Arab League’s mission has again shown the associated governments’ reluctance to oppose a member state, and to back democracy and human rights. True, in the past the League was little more than an instrument for condemning Israel.

If there was any regional bloc in the world where democracy was more the exception than the rule, that was the 22-state Arab League. At the end of 2010, just before last spring’s events, only three (Kuwait, Morocco and Lebanon) of the 17 League countries traditionally considered Arab could be termed “partially free,” while the remaining 14 were “not free,” according to the criteria and terminology used by Freedom House. In other words, some 88 percent of the region’s people lacked freedom. But the revolts of 2011 have obliged the Arab League to begin a process of apprenticeship and reinvention.

First, it has broken with the sacrosanct principle of non-intervention in internal affairs. After legitimizing the no-fly zone and foreign military intervention in Libya, the temporary suspension of Syria’s membership, agreed in November of last year, is a landmark for the League. As has been the sending of an observation mission. For the first time the League has played the role of mediator between government and citizens, breaking with another basic principle, that of representing and serving only member governments. True, the mission has failed, but the broadcasting of its failure has affected the League, as is apparent in the calling of an urgent meeting, while the League’s parliamentary assembly, indignant at Assad’s noncompliance and Dabi’s remarks, called for the mission to be withdrawn and its mandate and behavior reviewed.

In view of 2011’s events, all this goes to show that, in questions of democracy, a straight line is not always the shortest way between two points. Democracy is a closed, finished normative product, in that it is not in need of major innovations or repairs. But its application is not instantaneous or automatic; being ruled by trial and error, in contexts of uncertainty and with unpredictable actors. The Arab League, like the nations it represents, has begun to experiment with democracy; and things have to turn out badly at times, so that at others they can turn out well.

This blog post first appeared in El Pais in Spanish.

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