Among the remnants of the wave of reform that is said to have hit the Arab world earlier in this decade is the Arab Charter on Human Rights, adopted at a summit of the League of Arab States in May 2004. The Charter came into force in March 2008 and has been accepted by ten Arab states:  Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Libya, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.  The Charter, which revises a 1994 document, is part of a larger process of modernization of the Arab League, which includes the creation of a Peace and Security Council as well as the establishment of an interim Arab Parliament. The Charter’s significance lies in the fact that it is an instrument from the region, negotiated by states of the region. It therefore has the potential to diminish and eventually end the continued questioning by Arab states of their duties to respect, protect, and promote human rights in many areas. 

The process of revising the Charter revealed tensions among Arab states, Arab civil society organizations, and states outside the region regarding human rights. The Arab League Secretary General said from the outset that the main purpose of the revision was to bring the Charter in line with international human rights law, of which the 1994 version fell far short. The first draft by the Arab Commission on Human Rights (an Arab League body formed of representatives of Arab states), however, was still far below those standards—although many Arab states had accepted them in ratifying international human rights treaties. After pressure from the international community and civil society organizations, the Arab League agreed to task Arab independent human rights experts (themselves members of UN expert human rights bodies) with producing a draft. After input from Arab and international organizations, they produced a draft that was largely consistent with international law and that human rights groups in the region welcomed.

When this second draft came before the Arab Commission on Human Rights, however, the Commission made substantial changes. These were mainly intended to accommodate positions of some Arab states in relation to issues in international law such as the death penalty, women’s rights, rights of non-citizens, and freedoms of expression and religion. The resulting final Charter does recognize many important rights that are consistent with international human rights law as reflected in treaties, jurisprudence, and opinions of UN expert bodies.

The Charter begins by affirming the universality and indivisibility of human rights, therefore putting an end finally to the continued questioning of universality of human rights by some Arab states. It recognizes the right to health, education, fair trial, and freedom from torture and ill-treatment, the independence of the judiciary, the right to liberty and security of person, and many other rights.

At the same time, the Charter does not prohibit cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishments, nor does it extend rights to non-citizens in many areas. It also allows for the imposition of restrictions on the exercise of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion far beyond international human rights law, which allows for restrictions only on the manifestations of a religion or belief, but not on the freedom to hold a religion or belief. Moreover, the Charter leaves many important rights to national legislation. For example, it allows for the imposition of the death penalty against children if national law allows it. It also leaves the regulation of rights and responsibilities of men and women in marriage and divorce to national law. Thus the Charter mirrors to a large degree the areas of acceptance and reservations regarding international human rights treaties by member states of the Arab League.

Nearly half of the members of the Arab League have yet to ratify the Charter. In Lebanon there was a concern that the Charter offered less protection for rights than did Lebanon’s own laws. This was the same reason why some Tunisian organizations, including women’s rights organizations, called on the government not to ratify the Charter. In many other states, there is little debate or consideration about whether the Charter should be accepted. Many Arab, regional, and international organizations take the position that they will not lobby actively for the ratification of the Charter because it conflicts with international law in many fundamental areas. 

States that ratify the Charter undertake to change their laws and policies in accordance with its provisions, but none has actually done so thus far. A Committee to supervise implementation of the Charter was formed in January 2009, composed of members from the first seven states to ratify the Charter (Jordan, Syria, Bahrain, Libya, UAE, Algeria, and Palestine). The Committee will receive reports from states, examine the implementation of the Charter, and issue its conclusions and recommendations in public reports. So far the Committee has stressed that it is an independent body, and its members do not take instructions from governments or Arab League bodies. It also demanded its own independent professional secretariat and the required financial and technical support from Arab League headquarters. 

In the end, the success of the Charter will depend on how seriously Arab states and Arab human rights organizations decide to take it.  Aside from the obvious question of whether Arab states will follow through in making actual changes in law and practices to conform to the Charter, there is the question of whether Arab civil society organizations will engage in the process in the same way they do with other regional and international systems. For the Charter to succeed in furthering human rights, Arab governments would have to be willing to re-open the debate on some provisions that clearly contradict international standards. Another measure of the significance of the Charter will be whether, once states submit their reports on measures they have taken to conform to the Charter, serious debates on human rights start to take place within the walls of the Arab League.  

Mervat Rishmawi is a legal advisor at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International. She wrote this article in her personal capacity and it does not necessarily reflect the position of the organization.