Founded on March 19, 1945, the League of Arab States (LAS) is the oldest existing international organization in the world, predating even the creation of the United Nations by seven months. Beginning with seven countries (Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Transjordan, and Yemen), the League has now grown to include twenty-two Arab nations (though Syria has been suspended since 2011).
The LAS was created to "strengthen the close relations and numerous ties which bind the Arab States" and "direct their efforts toward the goal of the welfare of all Arab States... [and] the guarantee of their future and the realization of their aspirations," and today primarily serves to promote political, economic, cultural, and scientific cooperation among Arab states. The League also provides a forum for Arab states to debate and coordinate policy positions on matters of common concern; as but one example, an extraordinary meeting called in January 2013 by the Republic of Lebanon assessed the situation of refugees fleeing the ongoing crisis in Syria.
In March 2008 the Arab Charter on Human Rights entered into force. This landmark document was the result of more than forty-five years of efforts to draft a human rights treaty for the Arab world. Indeed, as far back as 1960 the Union of Arab Lawyers lobbied the League "to adopt an Arab Convention on Human Rights," and an earlier version of the Arab Charter drafted in 1994 was never ratified and failed to enter into force. On May 24, 2004, a revised Arab Charter on Human Rights was approved at the twenty-sixth Summit of the League of Arab States in Tunis, Tunisia. It is this second Arab Charter on Human Rights which took effect in 2008 upon the deposit of seventh ratification by an Arab state. As of this writing, the revised Arab Charter on Human Rights has been ratified by a total of seventeen states: Algeria (2006), Bahrain (2006), Egypt (signed 2004, not yet ratified), Iraq (2012), Jordan (2004), Kuwait (2006), Lebanon (2011), Libya (2006), Morocco (signed 2004, not yet ratified), Palestine (2007), Qatar (2009), Saudi Arabia (2009), Sudan (signed 2005, not yet ratified), Syria (2007), Tunisia (signed 2004, not yet ratified), the United Arab Emirates (2008), and Yemen (2008). Although the Charter has been criticized by Arab civil society as falling short of international human rights standards in many key ways, it does establish an independent Arab Human Rights Committee charged with reviewing reports (submitted every three years) from ratifying states.
Particularly since the 2011 Arab uprisings, CSOs have sought to promote human rights in the Arab region through the LAS. They have, for instance, called on the League to ensure more effective sanctions on the Syrian government, and to hold discussions relating to ongoing violence between Egyptian state security forces and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2015, the LAS began focusing on the escalating violence between Houthi militiamen and Yemeni government, including by sending a delegation to Yemen to monitor and document human rights violations. The LAS has also been an increasingly vocal advocate against human rights abuses related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In light of such crises, civil society has sought to clarify the human rights protection mandate of the League of Arab States by enhancing its monitoring capacity, and to amend the Charter in accordance with universally established international human rights standards. Efforts have also been ongoing since 2013 to establish a regional human rights court for Arab League member states, operating within the framework of the Charter.
The LAS, for its part, has recently shown greater openness to working with civil society to address critical issues facing the Arab world. Recognition of CSOs’ increased participation and engagement with the LAS prompted the General Secretariat to propose declaring 2016-2026 the Decade of Arab Civil Society Organizations. The Decade was formally launched February 22nd in Cairo. The charter of the Decade initiative, which was undertaken in cooperation with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), explicitly recognizes the role CSOs play in sustainable development, and aims to develop a more favorable environment for Arab CSOs to play that role more effectively.
|Members||22 (Syria is currently suspended)|
|Founding Document||Pact of the League of Arab States|
|Head||Secretary General Ahmed Abul-Ghei|
|Governing Bodies||Council of the League, Secretariat of the League, Arab Parliament|
|Key Human Rights Agreements||Arab Charter on Human Rights [English] [عربي]|
|Key Judicial Bodies||none|
|Egypt||Oman||United Arab Emirates|
* Suspended member
|Freedom of Association||Legal Protection||Article 28, Arab Charter on Human Rights|
|Civil Society Participation||none|
|Human Rights Defenders||Current Status||
There is no specific protection for human rights defenders in the legal documents of the Arab League. For more information about the situation of human rights defenders in the Arab world, visit the UN's Arab Human Rights Index.
Freedom of Association and Civil Society
|Arab Charter on Human Rights [English] [عربي]||1990|
As of this writing, the Charter has been endorsed by seventeen of the twenty-two Arab League members: Algeria (2006), Bahrain (2006), Egypt (signed 2004, not yet ratified), Iraq (2012), Jordan (2004), Kuwait (2006), Lebanon (2011), Libya (2006), Morocco (signed 2004, not yet ratified), Palestine (2007), Qatar (2009), Saudi Arabia (2009), Sudan (signed 2005, not yet ratified), Syria (2007), Tunisia (signed 2004, not yet ratified), the United Arab Emirates (2008), and Yemen (2008).
The Pact of the League of Arab States stipulates the purpose of the League of Arab States:
“The purpose of the League is to draw closer the relations between member States and coordinate their political activities with the aim of realizing a close collaboration between them, to safeguard their independence and sovereignty, and to consider in a general way the affairs and interests of the Arab countries.
It also has among its purposes a close co-operation of the member States with due regard to the structure of each of these States and the conditions prevailing therein, in the following matters:
- Economic and financial matters, including trade, customs, currency, agriculture and industry;
- Communications, including railways, roads, aviation, navigation, and posts and telegraphs;
- Cultural matters;
- Matters connected with nationality, passports, visas, execution of judgments and extradition;
- Social welfare matters;
- Health matters.”
(Article 2, Pact of the League of Arab States, March 22, 1945)
Although the call for Arab unity had been made for more than a century, the idea of having a single Arab organization bringing together all Arab countries did not evolve or unfold until World War II. During World War II, Arab countries experienced a growing resistance against colonial occupiers and the rapid growth of national movements that led to a number of Arab countries gaining their independence. In addition, Jewish immigration to Palestine and political unrest in Turkey and Iran encouraged greater Arab unity.
The League of Arab States was not established as a result of a regional power imposing its will on others; rather it was the result of careful negotiation that balanced the concerns of many different parties. The Pact of the Arab League and its principles are the result of a compromise between regional and national concerns. This compromise is reflected in the League’s rule of unanimity in voting and optional cooperation between Member States; its status as an inter-governmental Organization; and its limited authority. The Pact embodies the need for political consensus and public satisfaction.
The League faces many challenges because of the weakness or absence of democracy in most Arab States. There is considerable variation in the level of democracy, the nature of regimes, and the policies and positions of Arab governments. This disparity makes joint regional action nearly impossible despite common interests and goals Member States.
The Arab League and Freedom of Association
The Pact of the League of Arab States does not address freedom of association or partnership with civil society organizations. This is not surprising given that when the organization was established, these concepts were not common. In addition, the League is a regional organization mainly regulating relations between States. Only recently has the Arab League begun to address the concepts of civil society and freedom of association. In 2004, a Commissioner General for Civil Society was appointed. His responsibility is to communicate with civil society organizations on behalf of the Arab League. Two departments were also established; the first is the Department of Human Rights that is concerned with developing an Arab human rights system, and the second is the Department of Civil Society Observation and Vocational Unions, established to communicate with NGOs in the Arab region in order to develop their role in the joint Arab action.
In May 2004, the Arab Charter on Human Rights was adopted. Article 24 states:
“Every citizen has the right: (…)
- To freely form and join associations with others.
- To freedom of association and peaceful assembly.
- No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of these rights other than those which are prescribed by law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
The Arab League and Civil Society Partnership
Although limited, the Arab League has organized activities in cooperation with CSOs. These activities have included regional conferences about protecting the freedom of association, the moral responsibility of CSOs in the Arab world, and the right to freedom of assembly. The Arab League also organized the First Arab Conference on Human Rights held in Doha, Qatar on December 15, 2008.
However, these activities were mostly academic and did not address the practical environment for civil society in Arab League Member States. Consequently, no recommendations were made by the Arab League to Member States concerning protection of the freedom of association.
Civil society is mostly excluded from participation in decision-making within the framework of the League of Arab States. This has prevented CSOs from playing a role in regional development. The Pact of the League of Arab States does not formally identify a role for civil society, and has very restrictive criteria for institutions that can participate in the work of the League as observers. In most cases, CSOs permitted to observe the League are associated with Member State governments in some way.
One of the goals of the League of Arab States was to establish an integrated Arab system of human rights to protect fundamental rights and freedoms. The Arab Charter on Human Rights falls short of fulfilling this goal. Although civil society has proposed amending the Charter to bring it into conformity with universal human rights standards and to ensure the aspiration of Arab people to an effective human rights system, such amendments are not expected to take place in the near future.
Challenges and Problems Related to Civil Society and Freedom of Association
The League of Arab States is an organization completely beholden to Member State governments. Thus, it is difficult for the organization to move forward on most issues, including those affecting civil society and freedom of association. This is reflected in its internal regulations for the Standing Committee on Human Rights:
- Members of the committee shall be exclusively Member States in the Arab League.
- The Committee shall review human rights-related issues based on what the Council of the League of Arab States or the General Secretariat transfers to the committee, and it shall provide recommendations regarding these issues. Recommendations shall have the support of two Member States.
- NGOs and human rights organizations – accredited in the meetings of the Committee as observers according to the criteria and rules adopted – attend the meetings by invitation of the General Secretariat and the committee; however, if the Committee sees it necessary, it shall limit its meetings to Member States only.
These articles show the extent to which the Arab League is controlled by its Member States. The obvious result of this control has been a limited role for civil society within the Arab League where most of its Member States lack strong democratic histories.
In stark contrast, the Council of Arab Interior Ministers regularly meets and coordinates the actions of Arab States on issues of security with limited obstacles. This demonstrates that the Arab League can be a vehicle for collective action on issues considered important by its members. Hopefully, development, economic, and cultural issues will gain more support.
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27th Arab League Summit: Short on tangible results (August 2016)
The final communiqué of the 27th Arab League Summit, which wrapped up in Mauritanian capital Nouakchott on Monday evening, largely reiterated positions on which Arab states agree while studiously ignoring issues of contention. The league communiqué began by congratulating Ahmed Abul-Gheit, a former Egyptian foreign minister, on his recent appointment as league secretary-general. The league did not, however, adopt an explicit position regarding the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with a view to avoiding disputes between Arab states that demand his immediate departure and those that have adopted a softer line.
UAE participates in Arab League’s Launch of Arab Charter on CSOs (February 2016)
In a meeting in Cairo, the Arab League formally launched the 10-year charter for Arab Civil Society Organizations, in cooperation with the UNDP. In his speech, League Secretary General Nabil Al-Arabi stressed that the charter was important in light of the expanding role of civil society in development in Arab countries in recent years.
Arab human rights court plan on track (June 2015)
A statute for the establishment of a new Arab regional court on human rights, first proposed in 2013, has been finalized, and must be ratified by at least seven Arab League member states before it can proceed. The court is expected to be based in Bahrain, and have between seven and 11 judges. Its mandate would include torture, discrimination, and other human rights violations.
Counter-terrorism cooperation with Arab League must respect fundamental rights (March 2015)
EU Parliament hailed counter-terrorism cooperation between the EU and the League of Arab States in a vote, but stressed it must not compromise the rule of law, human and fundamental rights. The recently-signed memorandum of understanding between the two organisations must be made public, it added. Counter-terrorism measures must never be abused to repress legitimate dissent, or to violate people’s universal human rights, MEPs insist. They call on the EU to build clear safeguards into its cooperation with third countries, to ensure that it does not support or legitimise the repression of legitimate organisations and individuals.
KSA, Arab League FMs to hold emergency meeting on Yemen (February 2015)
Foreign ministers of Arab League member states, including Saudi Arabia, will hold an emergency meeting on Yemen in Cairo, Nabil Al-Arabi, Arab League chief, said in the Egyptian capital on Sunday. The meeting will focus on the chaotic situation in the strife-torn Yemen and the need to take urgent coercive measures to try to resolve the crisis in that country. The decision to hold the special meeting of Arab foreign ministers comes as the UN Security Council prepared to discuss a resolution calling on militiamen to step down from power or face consequences.
Ever fewer friends (November 2011)
Arab League (November 2011)
League of Arab States will support Azerbaijan's UNSC bid (September 2011)
HRW Calls Arab League to Hold Emergency Meeting on Syria (August 2011)
Arab League Debates Options in Libya (April 2011)
Arab League states: a recent history of protests (March 2011)
Arab League asks U.N. for no-fly zone over Libya (March 2011)
Conference of Arab Expatriates (December 2010)
A Resolution on Iraq Issued by the Arab League (February 2010)
5th Meeting of the Arab Committee for Human Rights (February 2010)
The foregoing information was collected by the Arab Forum for Alternatives in Cairo, Egypt.