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December 28, 2010

The Arab Charter on human rights affirms the universality and indivisibility of human rights

Promoting positive change in mentalities, behaviours and ultimately changes in laws requires much attention and a large support. One of the new developments that really deserves encouragement and support is the launch of the different new human rights commissions and the entry into force of the Arab Charter on human rights.


Adopted at a summit of the League of Arab States in May 2004, the Charter came into force in March 2008 and has been accepted by ten Arab states: Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Libya, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. The Charter's significance lies in the fact that it is an instrument from the region, negotiated by states of the region.


The 2004 Charter came into being only after an earlier 1994 version had become subject of tensions among Arab states, Arab civil society organizations, and states outside the region. The 1994 version fell far short of international human rights law. A first draft by the Arab Commission on Human Rights (an Arab League body formed of representatives of Arab states) for a revised Charter however, was still far below those standards, although the standards had been accepted by many Arab states when ratifying international human rights treaties. After pressure from the international community and local civil society organizations, the Arab League agreed to review the Charter by a body of human rights experts independent from the Arab states. After input from Arab and international organizations, this body of independent experts produced a draft that was largely consistent with international law and that human rights groups in the region welcomed.


Yet this second draft was amended by the Arab Commission on Human Rights, who made substantial changes, mainly intended to accommodate positions of some Arab states in relation to issues in international law such as the death penalty, women's rights, rights of non-citizens, and freedoms of expression and religion. The resulting final Charter does recognize many important rights that are consistent with international human rights law as reflected in treaties, jurisprudence, and opinions of UN expert bodies. The Charter begins by affirming the universality and indivisibility of human rights, therefore putting an end finally to the continued questioning of universality of human rights by some Arab states. It recognizes the right to health, education, fair trial, and freedom from torture and ill-treatment, the independence of the judiciary, the right to liberty and security of person, and many other rights.


At the same time, the Charter does not prohibit cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishments, nor does it extend rights to non-citizens in many areas. It also allows for the imposition of restrictions on the exercise of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion far beyond international human rights law, which allows for restrictions only on the manifestations of a religion or belief, but not on the freedom to hold a religion or belief. Moreover, the Charter leaves many important rights to national legislation. For example, it allows for the imposition of the death penalty against juvenile offenders if national law allows it. It also leaves matrimonial issues as well as the regulation of rights and responsibilities of men and women in marriage and divorce to national law.


Although the Charter reflects to a large degree the areas of acceptance and reservations regarding international human rights treaties by member states of the Arab League, Arab States that ratify the Charter do need to be encouraged and stimulated to undertake to change their laws and policies in accordance with its provisions. Unfortunately none has actually done so thus far. A key role in this respect lies with the Committee to supervise the implementation of the Charter that was formed in January 2009, composed of members from the first seven states to ratify the Charter (Jordan, Syria, Bahrain, Libya, UAE, Algeria, and Palestine). The Committee will receive reports from states, examine the implementation of the Charter, and issue its conclusions and recommendations in public reports.


Aside from the obvious question of whether Arab states will follow through in making actual changes in law and practices to conform to the Charter, there is the question of whether Arab civil society organizations will engage in the process in the same way they do with other regional and international Systems as the Universal Periodic Review mechanism of the UN. States will have to submit reports to the Committee about their implementation of the Charter. Will local civil society structures and NGO's be able to present shadow reports? Will meaningful discussion take place between the Committee and government representatives on human rights in the countries reviewed? Will the new human rights commissions take up the Committee's recommendations and follow them up with their governments?

In sum some hopeful steps have been taken, yet many questions remain open. For more information regarding the topic please open the links below related to the wave of reform that is said to have hit the Arab world earlier in this decade and the GCC region in particular; listen to Dr. Mohammed Al Roken regarding the human rights situation and the reforms in the Gulf region (in Arabic).


Dr Mohamed Al Roken Mr. Al Roken is an Associate Professor of Public Law at the United Arab Emirates University (UAE). He is board member of Bridging the Gulf Foundation where he directs the program for human rights education and awareness raising. He is currently the chairman of the Jurists Association (2010-2012). Mr. Al Roken is also the author of several published legal research papers, articles and books.


HR GCC Al Roken