The League of Arab States and the Arab Charter on Human Rights

Seven States adopted the Charter of the League of Arab States in March 22, 1945: Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen. There are now 22 League members and its head office is in Cairo.

The League is the oldest International Organisation, founded before the United Nations and before the end of the Second World War.

The League has a number of functions that are in keeping with its role as a regional organization. The Charter of the League provides disputant States with two ways to settle their differences: mediation and arbitration. But the Charter did not establish a judicial body; there isn't any Arab Court of Justice.

The League has many organs: the Council, the permanent Committees and the Secretariat general. And there are also many Arab specialized Agencies like: the Arab league Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (founded in 1964), the Arab Health Organization (founded in 1970), the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa (founded in 1973), etc.

The League as a Regional Organisation has been in crisis for many years. One example of the crisis is the content of the Charter itself: there is no mention of human rights in this Charter, and it creates no institutions for the protection of human rights in the Arab World! In 1968, the Council of the League created the Arabic Commission of Human Rights.

Another example of the crisis of the League is the situation in Iraq. The league didn't do anything when Iraq attacked Kuwait in 1990 and we are asking now about his position concerning the occupation of Iraq?

I. The Arabic Commission of Human Right

In 1968, the Council of the League created the Arabic Commission of Human Rights. The main missions of this Commission are the promotion and the information about human rights. It can't make resolutions against Arab States who don't respect human rights. These missions haven't really changed since 1968! And we cannot compare this Arabic Commission to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for example. As we know this Inter-American Commission was created in 1959. The mission of this Commission was the promotion of human rights. But today, the mean mission is the protection of these rights because the Commission is an organ of the Organisation of the Americans States and an organ of the American Convention on Human Rights 1969.

As I said the main missions of Arabic Commission stile the promotion since 1968 and its role is very limited concerning the mechanism of the Arab Charter on Human Rights!

II. Arab Charter on Human Rights

All the regional Organisations adopted regional instruments for the protection of human rights: We have the European Convention on Human Rights 1950, the American Convention on Human Rights 1969 and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights 1981. Only on September 15, 1994, the Council of the League adopted the Arab Charter on Human Rights. But on May 2004, this Council adopted a new version of the Arab Charter on Human Rights.

A. Arab Charter on Human Rights 1994

It was a very important milestone for the League when it adopted the Charter in 1994 at its 50- year anniversary. The adoption of the Charter symbolized that the members of the League recognized human rights, and the importance respecting human rights in the Arab World.

This first version of the Charter has 43 articles following its preamble. The preamble speaks about the principles of religions "Which confirmed its Right to a life of dignity based on freedom, justice and peace". At the same time, the preamble reaffirms the principles of the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the provisions of the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. However, there is significant tension between the Cairo Declaration and the UDHR, with many questioning the compatibility of the two instruments.

The Charter, however, proclaims essentially the same rights as those embodied in the other international and regional human rights instruments

The core problem with the Charter is the lack of any human rights enforcement mechanism, as compared with the mechanisms within the European and American Conventions on human rights, or with the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. My own view is that the Arab Charter is primitive, compared to the other regional systems as far as enforcement mechanisms are concerned.

The Arab Charter is primitive because of the extremely limited system of monitoring state compliance with the Charter's provisions. The sole monitoring mechanism consists of presenting reports to an expert Committee, with no system of individual or State petitions to this Committee for significant violations of an article of this Charter by a State party.

B. Arab Charter on Human Rights 2004

Following the passage of the Charter, there was increasing criticism of its deficiencies by experts, NGO's, academics and others. Numerous meetings and conferences were organized in Europe and in the Arab World to push the Arab governments to modify the Charter.

In a resolution passed on January 10, 2003, the Arab Commission on Human Rights invited the Arab States to present observations and proposals to improve the Charter, with a promise that the Commission would examine the Charter again in January 2004.

On a parallel track, the High Commissioner for Human Rights invited many Arab experts for a meeting in Cairo in December 2003 to also present some observations and proposals to improve the Charter

Finally, in May 23, 2004, a new version of this Charter was presented to the Arab Summit in Tunisia, and the new version was adopted.

The new version of the Charter contains 53 articles after the Preamble. The Preamble is the same as the first version, despite the significant criticisms about the incompatibility of the Cairo Declaration with Universal Declaration of Human Rights!

Article 2 of the Charter is very similar to the second article in the International Covenants of 1966 concerning the rights of people (the Arab people) to self determination, to control their natural wealth and resources, to freely determine the form of their political structure and to freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

We can divide the articles of this Charter into four main categories:

  1. The first category concerns individual rights: the right to life (articles 5, 6 and 7); the right not to be subjected to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment (articles 8, 9, 18 and 20); the right to be free from slavery (article 10); the right to security of the person (articles 14 and 18).
  2. The second category concerns rules of justice: the right of all persons to be equal before the law (article 12); the rights to due process and fair trial (articles 13, 15, 16, 17 and 19).
  3. The third category concerns civil and political rights: the right to freedom of movement (articles 24, 26 and 27); the right of respect for private and family life (article 21); rights of minorities (article 25); the right of political asylum (article 28); the right to acquire a nationality (article 29); liberty of thought, balefire (I'm not sure what this is?) and religion (article 30); the right of private property (article 31); the right of information and liberty of opinion, expression and research (article 32); the right (to freedom of choice in?) of marriage (article 33).
  4. The fourth category concerns economic, social and cultural rights: the right to work (article 34); the right to form trade unions (article 35); the right to social protection (article 36); the right of development (article 37); the right of education (article 41); the right to participate in cultural life (article 42).

What is new and very important in the new version is the confirmation of equality between Men and Women in the Arab World (article 3 & 3). The new version also protects children's rights (article 34 & 3) and the rights of Handicapped persons (article 40).

But the main complaint with the old version remains in the new one: there is no effective enforcement mechanism. The expert Committee remains the only system of monitoring state compliance. The Committee, comprising 7 members, receives periodic reports from States parties, but a State party cannot make individual or State petitions to this Committee if there are any violations of an article of this Charter!

Another key omission in the enforcement system is the lack of an Arab Court on Human Rights.

I would mention that many meetings and conferences were organized in Europe and in the Arab World (last one in Yemen in 2004) in order to prepare a protocol amending the mechanism of the Charter and creating an Arab Court on Human Rights.


I would ask as a conclusion of my talk: Did we have an Arab human rights system? I can answer by yes and no. Yes because we have the Arab Charter on Human Rights and we have also the Arab Declaration on the Rights of the Child adopted in Tunisia in 1983. We have two texts like the African human rights system. We have the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights 1981 and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Child 1990.

I said also no because the Arab Charter on Human Rights not entered in force until now, we need 7 ratifications for that. Some Arab States signed it like: Egypt, Qatar, and Tunisia.

I think that today the actors of the Civil Society and specially the ONG`s in the Arab World are only able to change and improve the situation of human rights in the Arab World.


This is the summary of Conference given in Boston University, October 20, 2005.

Mohammed Amin Al-Midani is the President of Arabe Center of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Education, Strasbourg, France.