The Arab Region, an Uncertain Future

October 1, 2012 - nr.79
Summary

Conclusions and recommendations

It has been argued above that two strong trends are discernible in the Arab region: the desire for democratisation and the growing emphasis on Islamic identity. It is uncertain how these two trends will develop and how they may influence each other. The AIV believes that the new situation in the Arab region holds out opportunities, but it also sees certain vulnerabilities. If the transfers of power only result in other – primarily Islamic – groups seeking to impose their views on minorities, there will be little effective change from the situation before the uprisings. It is therefore important for the new rulers to be fully convinced that democracy is not just about governing on the basis of electoral victory, but also means protecting the basic rights of women, political dissidents and religious and ethnic minorities.

Ousting a dictatorial regime does not automatically lead to democratic government based on the rule of law. In some cases it may result in a new dictatorship, or a democratic regime with numerous flaws. Holding elections is not the only criterion for assessing the democratic nature of a country. Adequate checks and balances also need to be in place, among other things to safeguard the rights of individual citizens and minorities. Experience in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq makes it clear that changes of government may mark the beginning of a long process of change, which may possibly − but not necessarily − lead to democratisation, but which may also result in considerable instability. In a democratisation process, a regression (perhaps temporary) cannot be ruled out. The AIV therefore urges that Western countries remain closely involved in developments in society in the Arab region, encouraging them in the right direction wherever possible, partly because of the intrinsic value of democratic government based on the rule of law, and partly to serve their own enlightened selfinterest, including their interests enumerated above in stability, controlling migration, the international legal order, research and education. In such efforts, it is important that Western countries not try to impose models inspired solely by their own forms of government. The efforts of Western countries should focus on promoting democracies in which the participation and rights of all sections of the population are safeguarded. The Netherlands should of course coordinate its efforts in this connection with the European Commission and other EU member states.

The AIV believes that the Netherlands can help to promote democratisation and the rule of law in the Arab region, for instance by contributing to exchanges of experience between countries that have gone through democratisation in the recent past. Programmes set up to strengthen the rule of law also deserve sustained support.

A sound understanding of the context is essential to any effort to promote democracy and the rule of law. This understanding can only be gained if the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is sufficiently well staffed with experts on the Arab region who are capable of communicating with all the relevant actors in the region. It is these members of staff, in particular, who can keep the two-way interaction between the Netherlands and the Arab actors alive, learn from it, and translate what they learn into effective policy. Obviously the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can only hire such staff if there are courses in the Netherlands that focus specifically on the language and culture of the Arab region.

Whether the population’s increased influence on government policy in individual countries will lead to an overall improvement in the human rights situation remains to be seen. The changes of government in Egypt and Tunisia have led to greater freedom, but the position of women and minorities may possibly end up being under even greater pressure than before. This is partly because some political parties subscribe to an interpretation of Islam that leads in this direction, and partly because culturally conservative forces have acquired more space and influence than before the transfer of power. Women have created new opportunities for themselves for participation in public life and politics, but the AIV is concerned that culturally conservative groups may try to restrict this participation again.

One thing is clear: it is important to communicate with Islamic groups; otherwise, there will be little scope for exerting any influence to promote democracy. This was already pointed out in the WRR’s 2006 report Dynamism in Islamic Activism. Now that free and fair elections have been held in a number of Arab countries, it has become clear which parties and views enjoy widespread support among the population. By maintaining contact with these (and other) parties, the Netherlands can learn more about the aspirations they represent. The AIV therefore believes that the Netherlands should a)
enter into dialogue with all the relevant political parties and currents in society, and b) keep the dialogue between these parties and organisations active and open. Opening up the political domain, and keeping it open, is key to a viable democracy. The aim should be two-way communication between the Netherlands and those concerned; that makes it possible to define shared principles. Two-way traffic will expand the Netherlands’ insight into ways of promoting its own interests and can help to limit the risks that put democratisation and human rights in jeopardy elsewhere.

Communication between states is essential in maintaining international relations that promote peace, human rights and public wellbeing. Regardless of governments’ democratic credentials, maintaining diplomatic ties with them is essential, however much this may create the impression that one is tolerating the regime. Without such contacts, the international system cannot function, and the Netherlands and the EU would be unable to stand up for their own interests and values. A government that decides against communicating with a particular regime or with certain political currents is depriving itself of the opportunity to exert a positive influence on the ideas and actions of those concerned.

The AIV favours introducing different levels of communication into Dutch foreign policy. The lowest level involves the passive activity of merely listening. This would also apply to groups that do not rule out violence: by listening to their views, the Netherlands would be able to form a picture of what can be expected from them, and how they might be influenced to embrace nonviolence. The level above this would involve the more active engagement of discussion: the Netherlands would articulate the Dutch position on certain issues, more especially about the views and actions of the organization concerned. The position of women and minorities deserves to receive special attention here. One consequence of such discussion might be that Dutch institutions ‘recognise’ their interlocutors, although here too different modalities are possible: for instance, recognising a private, official or semi-official organisation as a partner in talks would have less far-reaching consequences than recognising it as the legitimate representative of a certain group or territory, and so forth. The Netherlands could seek support for this nuanced approach within the EU.

Precisely when an international or domestic conflict is under way, diplomatic contacts with all major players and parties are crucial to helping to resolve it. As time goes on, parties tend to dig themselves in deeper in all respects, and events take place that make compromise increasingly difficult to achieve. So one retains the widest possible scope for exerting influence by communicating with all parties from an early stage of the conflict – in other words, when tensions are rising but before violence has been used. It cannot be ruled out, for instance, that dialogue might have been effective at an early stage of the conflict in Syria. Now that Kofi Annan has managed to secure a precarious truce – a truce that the AIV believes is essential, since the only alternative is more violence – many countries will have to reverse their policies of non-communication and engage in talks with both the Syrian regime and the opposition. At the same time, Kofi Annan’s mission shows that mediators face questions such as how to select the right partners to engage with and how to proceed next.

Communication is not just a matter of imposing sanctions; it calls for a careful analysis of the other party’s objectives in a comprehensive dialogue. In later phases of a conflict, too, it is important to sustain dialogue with all parties as long as possible, even in a phase in which the Netherlands, together with other countries, has imposed sanctions. Setting preconditions for conducting a dialogue may ruin chances for communication and influence.

The various countries in the Arab region are going through a wide range of developments and face a variety of challenges. Policy towards both the Arab states and Israel will be most effective if both the Netherlands and the EU place a consistent and impartial emphasis on the necessity of fulfilling their obligations under international law. Continuing democratisation in the Arab region will not immediately have a positive impact on Arab- Israeli relations and the peace process; initially, rather the opposite is to be expected. It is therefore vitally important that the Netherlands should press in the EU and the UN for new initiatives to breathe new life into the Middle East Peace Process. The AIV takes the view that the developments described above call for a new approach to the Middle East Peace Process and that fresh initiatives are needed in the light of the changing regional context. The EU and its allies should reflect on such initiatives. The AIV is willing to issue an advisory report on this matter if it is asked to do so.
 

Advice request

Mr. F. Korthals Altes
Chairman of the Advisory Council
on International Affairs
P.O.Box 20061
2500 EB The Hague

Date 24 January 2012
Re    Request for advice on developments in the Arab region

Dear Mr Korthals Altes,

With regard to the current situation in North Africa and the Middle East, the House of Representatives of the States General passed a motion, submitted on 30 June 2011 by MPs Wassila Hachchi and Frans Timmermans, asking the government to formally request the Advisory Council on International Affairs to update its advisory report no. 75 ‘Reforms in the Arab Region: Prospects for Democracy and the Rule of Law’ of May 2011.

This letter is the government’s response to this motion.

Question
The government requests from the AIV an update of the report mentioned above, in the broad context of human rights, the rule of law, stability, and peace and security.

The update has been included in the AIV’s work programme for 2012, which I discussed with you on 19 December 2011.

I look forward to receiving your recommendations, which I would be much obliged to receive within three months.

Yours sincerely,

[signed]

Uri Rosenthal
Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands


Encl.: Motion by MPs Hachchi and Timmermans of 30 June 2011
ContentSuite/upload/aiv/file/DEF.vertaling%20EN%20motie%20Hachchi%20Timmermans.docx

 

Government reactions

Government response to AIV advisory report no. 79, ‘The Arab Region, an Uncertain Future’

Introduction
In response to the motion by MPs Wassila Hachchi and Frans Timmermans on the current situation in North Africa and the Middle East (House of Representatives, 32 623 no. 29), the government asked the Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV) on 24 January 2012 to issue an update of its advisory report no. 75, ‘Reforms in the Arab Region: Prospects for Democracy and the Rule of Law?’ of 27 May 2011. On 14 June 2012 the AIV accordingly issued its advisory report no. 79, ‘The Arab Region, an Uncertain Future’. The following is the government’s response to that report.

General
In the government’s view, the report provides a valuable analysis of the Arab region and of recent regional developments. We have noted the AIV’s findings with appreciation and are obliged to it for its analysis of two trends in the Arab region: ‘the desire for democratisation among large sections of the population and a growing emphasis on Islamic identity’. The AIV’s description of these trends and of their consequences for democracy and human rights enhances our understanding of developments in the Arab region, as does the report’s analysis of various other issues. The AIV rightly gives a prominent place to the role of young people and to the position of women in the region. After all, these two groups played a major role in the uprisings and should play an equally major role in transitions to democracy.

Response to specific conclusions and recommendations
The government shares the AIV’s view that the Netherlands can help to promote democratisation and the rule of law in the Arab region. As the government has informed the House in a number of letters, this is being done, notably through the social transformation (MATRA) programme. As the AIV recommends, this programme draws on the experience of countries that have gone through democratisation in the recent past, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. One example of this approach is the Community of Democracies’ Task Force for Tunisia, co-chaired by the Netherlands and Slovakia, which continues its efforts to help Tunisia carry out needed reforms.

As in its previous report on the Arab region, the AIV emphasises that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs must have sufficient knowledge and expertise on the Arab region at its disposal. This is a focus of the ongoing modernisation of the diplomatic service. The government is also in this way implementing the motion by MPs Frans Timmermans and Mariko Peters on knowledge in Dutch government (House of Representatives, 32 623 no. 27). The AIV is right to observe in this connection that there must be enough courses in the Netherlands that focus specifically on the language and culture of the Arab region.

A motion by MPs Wassila Hachchi and Mariko Peters (House of Representatives, 32 623 no. 30) calls on the government to investigate ways of using Moroccan-Dutch relations to enhance the knowledge, expertise and experience deployed in Dutch policy on Morocco specifically and on Arab countries in general. To this end, knowledge is being exchanged at meetings, seminars and so on between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and experts on Moroccan-Dutch relations, including members of the Moroccan-Dutch community.

The AIV states that there will be little scope for promoting democracy unless communication takes place with Islamic groups. It recommends dialogue with all the relevant political parties and currents in society. In response, the government would observe that Dutch embassies in particular maintain contacts with such parties and currents in the Arab region, but that an absolute precondition for such contacts is that these groups do not promote violence to further their political objectives. The government does not agree with the different levels of communication proposed by the AIV if they imply interacting with groups that do not reject violence. The government does share the AIV’s view, as we indicated earlier, that the position of women and minorities merits special attention in our communications.

The government’s letter to the House of 3 February 2012 on the current situation in the countries of the Arab region sets out a nuanced approach, stating that the government will judge Islamic parties by their actions. The following criteria are employed for initiating contacts:

  1. Promoting violence is unacceptable. No contact will be made with those who do so.
  2. Parties must abide by the principles of democracy and the rule of law. The government’s dealings with them will depend on the depth of their commitment in practice to democracy, the rule of law and human rights, including the rights of women and religious minorities.
  3. Contacts with parties will be used to convey clear messages on these subjects, as appropriate, as well as on their attitude towards Israel.

This policy has been discussed with the House of Representatives and enjoys broad parliamentary support. In response to the AIV’s recommendation on this subject, the government notes that this problem has also been discussed on several occasions at EU level, and that the member states have broadly similar views on it.

The AIV states that when a conflict arises, one retains the widest possible scope for exerting influence by communicating with all parties from an early stage, before tensions have escalated into violence. The AIV applies this to the situation in Syria, suggesting that dialogue might have been effective at an early stage of that conflict. The government would make two comments in response. First, the EU, including the Netherlands, did in fact try at an early stage to communicate with the Syrian regime through various channels, calling on the regime to grant the legitimate demands of the Syrian people by launching an inclusive, genuine national dialogue and instituting political reforms. Second, the regime proved unwilling to engage in a genuine dialogue; instead it committed massive human rights violations. The government agrees with the AIV that communication is not just a matter of imposing sanctions. In cases where international sanctions have been imposed on a regime, we are therefore also pursuing communication. However, for an actual dialogue two parties are needed.

The government shares the AIV’s conclusion that with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict the Netherlands must place a consistent and impartial emphasis on the necessity of both parties’ fulfilling their obligations under international law. The Netherlands does so in practice: we continue to urge direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, with a comprehensive peace agreement as the final objective, working from the principle of a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.

In response to the AIV’s recommendation that the EU and its allies consider new initiatives in the light of the changing regional context, the government observes that where possible we support initiatives to bring the parties closer. We see no reason to take up the AIV’s suggestion to ask it for an advisory report on this matter.

 

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