Newsletter 2011 - 1

The Arab Charter on Human Rights 2004: A new system for regional protection of human rights?

Friday February 25th, 2011, the Arab Centre for International Humanitarian Law & Human Rights Education(ACIHL), with the support and collaboration of the Lyon Institute for Human Rights (IDHL), held a Round Table, presided by IDHL director, Andre Dizdarevic. The round table theme was: The Arab Charter on Human rights 2004: A New System for Regional Protection of Human Rights?

Ten years ago, the two institutions had previously joined efforts for a day of reflection on the same theme, at that time; the focus was on the previous Arab Charter adopted in 1994 but was never adopted, and has since been revised and modernised. The subsequent modifications, and updates in accordance with international standards resulted in the new text, the 2004 Arab Charter on Human Rights.

The goal of today's Round Table discussion is to reflect on current stakes and perspectives surrounding this new human rights protection instrument.

The content of the this instrument will be considered both with regards to evolutions since its predecessor, and with regards to other regional international human rights instruments (presented by Mrs. Wady, Project Manager, ACIHL). Secondly, we will consider the Arab impact on the Charter, both the Arab conception of human rights, and the implication of this in international human rights (presented by Mr. Koudé, Instructor, IDHL). Finally, we will consider the control mechanisms outlined the Charter (presented by Mr.      Al Midani, President, ACIHL). An intervention was also organised on the theme: Freedom of religion in the European Convention on Human Rights by M Bellati Ceccoli, Ambassador of the Republic of San Marino, United Nations in Geneva. (This intervention was cancelled at the last minute due by the speaker.)

While the new Arab Charter adopted in 2004, and taking effect in 2008 demonstrated a real advancement in the area of human rights for the Arab World, there remain nevertheless a certain number of shadowy areas.

The different interventions and discussion demonstrated that the consideration of international human rights standards in the development of the 2004 Charter have brought a certain number of guarantees for human rights protection, and have reduced international criticism of the initiative. Among the progress noted are the recognition of minority rights, of universal rights, and stricter limitations for the restriction of rights. The text, however also reveals a certain number of flaws, and ambiguous statements. Amongst these, a tacit discrimination towards non citizens, the absence of an absolute prohibition of the death penalty, is including with regards to minors, no mention of the rights to change religion, and a frequent subordination of rights to the law in effect.

The advances and ambiguities of the 2004 Charter are explained by the desire to reach consensus, on the one hand with the international community, who hopes to integrate the regional protection systems in the universal human rights model, and on the other hand, with Arab countries for whom political, national, religious and cultural value systems weigh heavily. It should be noted that thereby regional human rights protection system can be distinguished from other regional systems in that the former is based on identity and not simply geographical criteria. The difficulties in implementing this system are not only intrinsic, but result also from factors directly related to the international human rights model, in particular, the conflict between international and regional human rights mechanisms, a conflict which includes both ideological and technical difficulties. Human Rights are not incompatible with the Arab Muslim world, but, like with every other regional system, their implementation must confront local specificities.

The 2004 Arab Charter must also overcome other obstacles. Firstly, the efficiency and existence of its implementation mechanisms. The Arab charter must find its place amongst the plurality of references and allegiances to which Arab countries are tied; notably the African Human Rights Systems. Secondly, the system put in place must offer real opportunities for recourse. Without available, accessible and credible recourse, the parties concerned may prefer alternate systems, and or extranational jurisdiction.

The control mechanisms put n place by the Arab Charter will determine the efficiency of this, and it is on this point that the Arab Charter can be further perfected. The control mechanism adopted is neither persuasive nor dissuasive. It simply included a Committee of experts who will read country reports and submit recommendations. It can neither state nor individual communications, and the only sanction the Committee can place, is the publication of its discussions and conclusions. Also, the impartially of this Committee is at stake with regards to its composition: certain members are diplomats of former members of the Arab League, largely financed by the gulf countries, whose position with regards to the Charter remain ambiguous.

Strong pressure for civil society organisations (both Arabic and International), have encouraged discussion on the possibility to adopt an optional protocol to the Arab Charter which could ensure a stronger control mechanism. The proposal being considered would allow for individual complaints, and the creation of an Arab Court of Human Rights. The success of such a project depends on the outcome of political changes in the Arab World, and the current democratic revolts that leave hope for a brighter future.

Florence Wady
Project Manager, ACIHL.

see all