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5 April 2005

“The Time Has Come”:
A Call for Freedom and Good Governance
in the Arab World

UNDP publishes the third Arab Human Development Report

Amman, Jordan, 5 April 2005—The third Arab Human Development Report, released here today, systematically surveys the pace of political change in the Arab world and strongly urges a rapid acceleration of democratic reform, with specific proposals for new regional human rights institutions, robust and freely elected legislatures, and truly independent judiciaries.

The Arab Human Development Report 2004 presents a persuasive and detailed case for many far-reaching legal and political reforms aimed at fortifying the institutional foundations of freedom and limiting the monopoly on power currently enjoyed by the executive in most countries in the region. While this calls for a broad range of corrective action, the authors underscore these immediate needs for reform:

In an often highly critical appraisal of progress towards democratization in the Arab world, the authors of the Arab Human Development Report 2004 analyze the roots of authoritarian rule in the region and issue a call for urgent corrective action. The report demonstrates that pressure for political change has been intensifying within the Arab world for several years now, and the authors warn that unless Arab governments move much more quickly towards reform they could face “chaotic” social upheaval.

“Why, among all the regions of the world, do Arabs enjoy the least freedom?” the authors ask. “What has led Arab democratic institutions—where they exist—to become stripped of their original purpose to uphold freedom?”

The answers are not cultural—as some foreign analysts allege—but political, the authors argue, citing the decades-long imposition of “emergency powers” by authorities across the region, the systematic suppression of independent courts and parliaments, and the “double standard” of foreign powers which they say have accepted or even encouraged authoritarian rule in exchange for political stability and access to energy supplies.

“If the repressive situation in Arab countries today continues, intensified societal conflict is likely to follow,” the authors warn. “In the absence of peaceful and effective mechanisms to address injustice and achieve political alternation, some might be tempted to embrace violent protest, with the risk of internal disorder. This could lead to chaotic upheavals that might force a transfer of power in Arab countries, but such a transfer could well involve armed violence and human losses that, however small, would be unacceptable. Nor would a transfer of power through violence guarantee that successor governance regimes would be any more desirable.”

The report, written by an independent group of leading Arab scholars and intellectuals, was sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme together with the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development and the Arab Gulf Programme for United Nations Development Organizations.

The Arab Human Development Report 2004 (AHDR 2004) is the third in a series of four planned reports. The first Report (AHDR 2002) dealt with the most significant challenges facing development in the 22 countries of the Arab world at the start of the third millennium. It identified three key deficits in the areas of knowledge, freedom and good governance and the empowerment of women. The second Report (AHDR 2003), focused on the Arab world’s growing knowledge gap, and called for closing it through heavy investment in education and research and the enhancement of open intellectual inquiry, greater interaction with other nations and press freedoms. The authors say they hope that this third report, which surveys political reform efforts throughout the region over the past three years, will “stimulate a dialogue in Arab societies on how to expand freedom and establish good governance.” “The time has come to make up for the missed opportunities of the past,” the authors conclude in the introductory summary of their Report. “It is to be hoped that the Arab people will not fail to take the historic road leading it to its appropriate place in a better, fairer and freer world, one that it will have contributed to bring into being, and in whose benefits it will share.”

Progress Real, But Limited
The period covered by the Report precedes such recent critical events as the elections in Iraq and Palestine, domestic political mobilization in Lebanon, municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, and the announcement of major presidential election reforms in Egypt. Yet as the Report shows, pressure for political change has been mounting within Arab society for some time—and it has led to some genuine advances. These include legislative elections with women voters and candidates in Oman; a competitive, multiparty presidential contest in Algeria; the formation of Human Rights Commissions in Egypt and Qatar; and the adoption of a new family law safeguarding women’s rights in Morocco.

“There is a change in mindsets in the region,” said Dr. Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, UN Assistant Secretary-General and Director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States in UNDP, who has been the chief overseer of the Arab Human Development Reports. “We are moving with greater confidence in a new direction now, and there is a strong awareness of the irreversibility of change—change driven by the Arab street, not change adopted from afar.”

The Report commends the courageous initiatives taken by Arab civil society groups who spearheaded the demands for reform, organized petitions and peaceful protests in their support and expressed consternation at the harsh official response to them. The Report expresses the hope that Arab governments will work with proponents of peaceful reforms since this is the only guarantee for genuine progress towards a more stable future.

Overall, however, the pace of progress has been disappointingly limited, the Report states.

“Certainly, incipient reforms are taking place in more than one of the priority areas identified in this Report, but for the most part those reforms have been embryonic and fragmentary,” the authors say. “Some gains are undoubtedly real and promising, but they do not add up to a serious effort to dispel the prevailing environment of repression.”

The Report also draws on an extensive opinion poll of five Arab countries, which reveals a broad consensus in all the nations surveyed that governments must crack down on pervasive corruption and open up their political systems, providing greater personal and political freedoms to all citizens.

The “Black Hole” State
Throughout the region, the concentration of power in the hands of the executive—be it a monarchy, military dictatorship, or a civilian president elected without competition—has created a kind of political “black hole” at the centre of Arab political life, the authors say.

“The modern Arab state, in the political sense, runs close to this astronomical model, whereby the Executive apparatus resembles a ‘black hole,’ which converts its surrounding social environment into a setting in which nothing moves and from which nothing escapes,” they write.

The executive authority at the centre of these “black hole states” prevents the judiciary from safeguarding the rights of the citizenry, the authors say. “Where there is conflict between a political regime unfettered by legal controls and the judiciary, whose independence is upheld in the constitution and law, the Arab regime swiftly sweeps aside the independence of the judiciary without any hesitation,” says the Report.

Corruption, which the authors say is institutionalized in government and business throughout the region, reinforces this “black hole” phenomenon, they argue. So does “clannism,” which reinforces a mindset of passivity and obedience to authority, along with intolerance of dissent.

The Report goes further: “By 21st century standards, Arab countries have not met the Arab people’s aspirations for development, security and liberation despite variations between one country and another in that respect. Indeed, there is a near-complete consensus that there is a serious failing in the Arab world, and that this is located specifically in the political sphere.”

The authors underscore that the status quo is no longer sustainable. If the Arabs themselves do not take real steps towards change, the global powers will step in and lead the process of reform from outside: “Arab countries cannot ignore the fact that the world, especially the powerful players in the global arena, will continue to safeguard their interests in the region. Their call for reform in Arab countries falls within this context.” External reform initiatives may not necessarily correspond to the vision of Arab reformers, in terms of ultimate objectives and scope, the authors say; nonetheless, they add, an overlap between internal and external initiatives can render such cooperation beneficial if the following principles prevail:

Violence Against Civilians: Terrorism and Occupation
The authors of the AHDR 2004 reiterate their previous condemnations of violence against unarmed civilians, whatever the source: “Extremist groups which perpetrate assassinations and bombings and espouse the use of violence also violate the right to life,” the authors write, just as “armed confrontations between security forces and armed groups result in civilian casualties that can outnumber victims in the ranks of the combatants.”

The authors note that foreign occupation, particularly the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, continues to violate the individual and collective freedoms of Palestinians through assassinations, raids on heavily populated civilian areas, arbitrary arrests, house demolitions and repeated closures. Some 24,000 Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip have been made homeless by Israeli demolitions between 2000 and 2004.

In the one-year period from May 2003 to June 2004, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict claimed the lives of 768 Palestinians (23 percent of them children) and 189 Israelis (nine percent of them children). Most Palestinian casualties were the victims of attacks by Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank and Gaza, while “the majority of Israeli civilians were killed when Palestinians blew themselves up in crowded locations inside Israel,” the authors report. “It goes without saying that any loss of innocent life is unconscionable and unacceptable.”

The authors also single out for condemnation the attacks against civilian non-combatants by armed militants in Iraq—as well as the civilian casualties of armed actions by American-led occupation forces in the country, who they charge have failed to meet their obligations under the Geneva Convention to provide security to Iraqi citizens. “After dismantling the old state, the US-led authorities made little progress in building a new one,” the authors assert.

“Occupation,” the authors write, “is the negation of freedom and the right to self-determination, and thus obstructs human development.” The practices of occupation forces, particularly in Palestine, have “sapped the struggle for freedom and good governance in Arab countries in several ways. They provided Arab regimes with pretexts to hold or postpone the process of democratization, citing external threats. They forced Arab reformers to focus their struggle on resisting occupation, leaving less space on their agendas for democratic reforms. And they strengthened extremist groups as violent as the occupiers, hence further narrowing opportunities to achieve greater freedom in the Arab public sphere and stifling emerging reform initiatives.”

Fallout from the “War on Terror”
“Terrorism has become one of the greatest perils of the age,” the authors say, recognizing “the right and responsibility of governments to take strong actions to ensure the security of their citizens.” The authors strongly condemn the terrorist attacks in 2004 against civilian targets, be it in Morocco and Saudi Arabia, or in Turkey and Spain.

“These are crimes that constitute flagrant, indiscriminate violations of the human rights of their victims, including such fundamental rights as the right to life and to physical and psychological health. These unacceptable acts affect children, women and old people who are innocent by any decent human standards, or any religious teaching.”

Yet they also note that some aspects of the “war on terror” pose threats to civil liberties and reform in the Arab region and beyond. The authors note that Western leaders have strongly asserted their support for freedom and democracy as the best long-term solution to terrorism, and many have also understandably sought to tighten their own security legislation. An unfortunate by-product in some countries, however, is that “Arabs are increasingly the victims of stereotyping, disproportionately harassed or detained without cause under new restrictions.”

At the same time, in the Arab world, several governments have cited fear of terrorism as justification for even tighter restrictions on their own citizens. “With the advent of the global ‘war on terror,’ there have been unprecedented numbers of arrests,” the Report states. “Legal safeguards have been violated, and people have been deprived of their liberty and, in many instances, tortured and ill-treated in prisons, camps and detention centres where their personal safety is uncertain…. In several Arab countries, civilians are being referred for trial to military courts or other exceptional tribunals such as the emergency, state security, and special courts, as well as martial law tribunals.”

Freedom: An Agenda for Change
The authors point to many restrictions on democratic rights in the region, including:

The authors stress that their concept of freedom encompasses “not only civil and political freedoms (in other words liberation from oppression) but also the liberation of the individual from all factors that are inconsistent with human dignity such as hunger, disease, ignorance, poverty and fear.”

“Undoubtedly, the real flaw behind the failure of democracy in several Arab countries is not cultural in origin,” the authors contend. “It lies in the convergence of political, social and economic structures that have suppressed or eliminated organized social and political actors capable of turning the crisis of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes to their advantage. The elimination of such forces has sapped the democratic movement of any real forward momentum.”

The authors urge their fellow Arab intellectuals and activists to spearhead the drive for freedom and good governance. “The challenge concerns, first and foremost, the intellectual and political vanguards of the region, those who have until now seemingly neglected to take up their societal role as the conscience and leaders of the nation, hesitating to play their inescapable part in steering their people towards human progress,” says the Report.

According to the Report, the challenge for internal reformers is “to forge a middle way for themselves and the Arab world, neither bowing to the influence of the powerful and wealthy, nor following the route to despair and violence to which many angry young people, whose peaceful and effective avenues for action have been blocked, are drawn.”

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For more AHDR information please visit

For further information, please contact:

Nadine Shamounki, UNDP, Communications Officer
Tel. +1 (212) 906–5171 or Cell +44-7709-415-462; E-mail:

William Orme, UNDP, Chief of Media
Tel. +1 (212) 906–5382 or Cell +1 (917) 607-1026; E-mail:

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