Founded in 1945, the League of Arab States (LAS, or Arab League) is the oldest existing international organization in the world, predating even the creation of the United Nations. Beginning with seven countries (Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Transjordan, and Yemen), the League has grown to include twenty-two Arab member states (though Syria’s membership has been suspended since 2011).
The Arab League was created to strengthen relations between and among Arab member states, in order to promote the welfare of all member states and work towards common goals while protecting the independence and sovereignty of each member. The League today serves primarily as a mechanism for 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, member state Lebanon called an extraordinary meeting in January 2013 to assess the situation of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria.
While not a part of the founding charter of the Arab League and still a peripheral issue, human rights have become somewhat more pertinent to the League’s activities in recent years. As far back as 1960, the Union of Arab Lawyers had lobbied the League to adopt an “Arab Convention on Human Rights." In 1994, parties drafted an initial version of such a charter, the Arab Charter on Human Rights; however member states never ratified it and it failed to enter into force. A second version of the Charter, adopted in 2004, finally entered into force in 2008 after the seventh Arab state ratified the document. Although the Charter has been criticized by Arab civil society as falling short of international human rights standards in some significant ways, it does recognize enshrine key civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. It also establishes an independent Arab Human Rights Committee, charged with reviewing reports submitted every three years by ratifying states.
Particularly since the 2011 Arab uprisings, CSOs have increasingly sought to engage the Arab League to express concern over human rights violations. They have, for instance, called on the League to ensure more effective sanctions on the Syrian government for suspected war crimes, and to hold discussions relating to ongoing violence between Egyptian state security forces and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2015, with CSO encouragement, the League began focusing on the escalating violence between Houthi militants and the Yemeni government, including by sending a delegation to Yemen to monitor and document suspected rights violations. The League has been a progressively more vocal advocate against human rights abuses related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well.
Arab civil society has also sought to more effectively realize the human rights protection mandate of the Arab League, 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 Arab League, for its part, has shown some increased openness to working with civil society to address critical issues facing the Arab world. The Riyadh Declaration, issued following the 2013 Arab League Summit in Saudi Arabia, included specific support for civil society participation in development and highlighted efforts to develop mechanisms for greater CSO-government cooperation. Recognition of CSOs’ growing participation and engagement with the League prompted member states to name 2016-2026 the Decade of Arab Civil Society Organizations. During a launch event for the Decade of Arab CSOs on February 22, 2016, the UAE and other parties issued a communique recognizing the role CSOs play in development, and aspiring to develop a more favorable environment for Arab CSOs to play that role effectively. It remains to be seen if and how extensively members of the League will act to implement those sentiments going forward.
|Members||22 (Syria is currently suspended)|
|Founding Document||Pact of the League of Arab States|
|Head||Secretary General Ahmed Abul-Gheit|
|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. The Arab League adopted the Statute for an Arab Human Rights Court in September 2014, but the court is not yet operational.|
|Egypt||Oman||United Arab Emirates|
* Suspended member
|Freedom of Association||Legal Protection||Article 28, Arab Charter on Human Rights|
|Judicial Bodies||None. The Arab League adopted the Statute for an Arab Human Rights Court in September 2014, but the court is not yet operational.|
|Civil Society Participation||CSOs work with the Arab Human Rights Committee, including by submitting parallel reports on state practice and participating in closed dialogue sessions with the Committee. CSOs may obtain observer status to attend sessions of other Arab League entities, such as the Arab Economic and Social Council, though their opportunities for genuine participation are very limited.|
|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 member states, and ratified by fourteen: Algeria (2006), Bahrain (2006), Egypt (signed 2004, not yet ratified), Iraq (2013), Jordan (2004), Kuwait (2013), Lebanon (2011), Libya (2006), Morocco (signed 2004, not yet ratified), Palestine (2007), Qatar (2009), Saudi Arabia (2009), Sudan (2013), Syria (2007), Tunisia (signed 2004, not yet ratified), the United Arab Emirates (2008), and Yemen (2008).
The founding states of the Arab League sought not to create a regional power capable of imposing its will on others; rather, they sought to balance the strength of newly independent Arab states with the desire for a pan-Arab coalition. The League’s founding document, the Pact of the Arab League, are the result of this compromise between regional and national concerns. The compromise is likewise reflected in the League’s requirement of unanimous votes; its provision that cooperation between member states is optional; its status as an inter-governmental Organization; and its limited enforcement authority.
The Pact of the League of Arab States identifies the purpose of the League as follows:
“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)
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, as these concepts were not common when the League was established in 1945. Citizens’ right to freedom of association gained explicit recognition in the first draft of the Arab Charter on Human Rights in 1994 (though this version was not ratified), and the League increasingly acknowledged the role and rights of civil society in the early 2000s. In 2004, the League appointed a Commissioner General for Civil Society to serve as a liaison to CSOs on the League’s behalf. The League also established two departments: The Department of Human Rights, concerned with developing an Arab human rights system; and the Department of Civil Society Observation and Vocational Unions, to communicate with CSOs in the Arab region and enhance their role in joint Arab action.
In May 2004, League members adopted the revised Arab Charter on Human Rights. The Charter provides for the protection and promotion of key civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. It provides that these rights are “universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated” (Article 1(4)). Protected rights include the rights to life, health, education, a fair trial, equality before the law, and a prohibition on torture.
The Charter explicitly protects freedom of association and peaceful assembly, mirroring the language used in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 24 of the Charter 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.”
A number of aspects of the Charter are inconsistent with international law, however. The Charter grants some rights to citizens only, rather than all individuals regardless of citizenship. Certain rights, such as freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, are construed more narrowly by the Charter than in international instruments. The Charter also leaves regulation of many important rights to national legislation. Accordingly, for instance, the death penalty against children younger than eighteen (prohibited under international law) is allowed if national law provides for it.
Nonetheless, the Charter marks a major step forward for the Arab League’s recognition of human rights. In addition to enshrining fundamental rights, the Charter also provides for the creation of the Arab Human Rights Committee, an independent group of experts with a mandate to monitor member states’ implementation of the Charter’s provisions. As discussed below, this committee constitutes one of the primary venues for CSO engagement with the League.
The Arab League and Civil Society Partnership
Civil society is largely excluded from participation in decision-making within the framework of the League of Arab States. CSOs are able to obtain observer status to attend sessions of certain League bodies, including the Arab Permanent Committee on Human Rights (hereafter “Permanent Committee,” a different entity from the independent Arab Human Rights Committee discussed below), and the Arab Economic and Social Council. The criteria for obtaining this status is very restrictive, however, so few organizations are eligible. Further, observer status provides CSOs with very limited opportunities to actually participate in League processes.
Nonetheless, civil society has gradually made inroads towards greater, more systematic and transparent engagement with the Arab League. Beginning in 2008, the Arab Human Rights Committee has served as a forum for CSO participation in the protection of fundamental rights. CSOs are encouraged to help review state reports on human rights practices; submit parallel reports; attend Committee sessions; and participate in closed dialogue sessions with the Committee at which state representatives are not allowed. Most importantly, the Committee does not limit its engagement to CSOs that have attained observer status with the League.
Challenges and Problems Related to Civil Society and Freedom of Association
While some progress has been made with regard to the Arab League’s recognition of civil society and openness to CSOs’ participation in its work, much remains to be done. As noted above, other than the Arab Committee on Human Rights, CSOs lack opportunities for meaningful engagement in critical aspects of the Arab League’s activities. CSOs’ attempts to inform revision of the Arab Charter on Human Rights in 2003, for instance, were largely ignored: A coalition of forty leading Arab human rights organizations engaged in extensive advocacy around twenty-seven detailed recommendations for reform, out of which only one was acted on.
CSOs were excluded altogether from the development of the Arab Court on Human Rights, as well. There were no civil society consultations regarding the drafting of the Court’s statute. CSOs managed to obtain a draft of the statute and through public papers and private meetings with League officials issued numerous objections and recommendations, but none of these were taken into account when the statute was adopted in September 2014. CSOs cite a need for broad reform of the League’s internal processes to increase transparency and ensure genuine consultation with civil society.
The Arab League also does not have a consistent approach to human rights, as reflected in its variable responses to rights violations in different countries. As noted above with regard to the Charter, the League has yet to bring its human rights standards into line with international law. The League generally could do much more to make human rights a standard component of its programs, initiatives, and decisions. Civil society can and should be enabled to help the League move in that direction, in the interest of enhanced protection of human rights in the Arab world.
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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.
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