Thursday, March 25, 2004

As the Arab League and its 22 member states celebrated the 59th anniversary of the Arab regional organization on Monday, questions were being raised throughout the Arab world and beyond about its potential revitalized role in dealing with regional and world challenges. These core issues will most certainly be debated at the forthcoming Arab League Summit in Tunis today.

Critics of the league have pointed to its internal divisions, its outdated structures and mechanisms, its failure to ensure implementation of its resolutions, its bureaucracy and financial crises and its inability to deal successfully with the issues of deep concern to the Arab people. While some of that criticism is fair and well-intentioned, it should not overlookhistoricreality. Through the Arab League and within its framework, all major Arab common policies and initiatives have been adopted over the years, in areas as varied as the Arab-Israeli conflict, regional security, economic integration, human rights and the environment.

The variety of these issuesunderscoresthe league’s broad agenda and scope of activities. But the major item of concern to the league has always been the Arab-Israeli conflict, a major destabilizing factor in the Middle East. Already, at the Beirut Arab League Summit in 2002, the member states earnestly attempted to change the political dynamics of the conflict by unanimously adopting the “Arab Peace Initiative” as a framework for a comprehensive settlement in the region. Despite Israel’s lack of response, the coming Arab summit is expected to reaffirm its attachment to that initiative as complimentary to the Quartet’s roadmap and President Bush’s vision of a two-state solution, and to seek new means to reactivate it so as to regenerate a new momentum of peace.

On the related issue of regional security, the Arab League continues to call for the establishment of a zone free of all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, including those possessed by Israel, an appeal that assumes increased importance in the aftermath of the Iraq war and Libya’s new transparency, both closing a chapter of weapon proliferation in the region.

Other regional crises on the league’s agenda include Iraq, whose restoration of full sovereignty and preservation of unity are strongly supported by the league’s membership. To that end, the league has significantly increased its involvement in support of the Iraqi people through active contacts with the leadership of all Iraqi factions and by initiating major Arab collective assistance to Iraq’s reconstruction and development. The league is also extending its full political support to the ongoing peace efforts in Sudan and stands by its commitment to contribute to the economic development of southern Sudan.

Another goal of the league is to achieve national reconciliation in Somalia and restore peace and security in that war-torncountry.The league has further condemned all forms of terrorism against innocent civilians,whilestrongly rejectingdefamation against Arab culture and Islam, as well as the racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims. Accelerating the creation of an Arab free-trade zone and customs’ union, as well as improving Arab human development, are also issues of great priority for the league.

Much attention of the Tunis summit meeting will undeniably be given to a set of proposals for a major restructuring and reform of the Arab League, including inter alia, amending the voting procedure and creating an Arab parliament and a court of justice. The experience of other multilateral organizations shows that consensus-building over major reforms is a long-term and complex process, particularly when it involves the creation of new organs and institutions. Therefore, we can expect the summit at this stage to formally endorse the restructuring and reform of the league, and provide guidelines for the implementation of any proposal acceptable to the majority of member states.

A related issue of wider scope, namely the process of Arab reform and modernization, will also be consideredbythesummit, prompted by reform calls in both the Arab and Western worlds. The prevailing feeling among the league’s membership is to acknowledge the need to actively carry on reform, not imposed as an outside model, but evolving from within Arab societies in accordance with their cultural and religious heritage.

And for those efforts to fully succeed, there must be a fundamental change of climate in the region, primarily through resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the main source of the current tension. What is certain, however, is that the coming Arab summit can provide a collective Arab vision for reform and modernization that would become an inspiration to all reform-seekers in the Arab world.

Hussein Hassouna is the ambassador of the League of Arab States.

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