ANALYSIS: Promoting a Rule of Law Culture in the Middle East and North Africa Region

The Global Herald
Tuesday, February 22, 2011 - 19:00
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Morocco's recent reforms have made significant headway in the area of judicial reforms which go beyond the judiciary and encompass the entire justice system, following an inclusive interdisciplinary approach. The 2004 reform of the Moroccan Family Law, the Moudawana, is just one of the many examples of how societies grapple with balancing the ideals of tradition, justice, and Rule of Law with the imperative of making society safer and more just for its citizens. Furthermore, Morocco's Human Development Initiative is unquestionably a landmark in Morocco's recent human and social development history, as it gives top political priority to people's living conditions (especially youth and women) and their access to basic social infrastructure and services.

Other countries in the MENA region have made considerable progress in advancing specific components of the Rule of Law. In the Levant, Jordan has instituted its own reforms to protect political and human rights such as freedom of assembly and the press, initiatives to empower women and youth; as well as enhancements of laws and regulations on alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, mediation in particular. In the Gulf region, Bahrain for example has made notable improvements in basic civil rights protections and freedom of expression and association. A couple of years back, the people of Bahrain took part in a popular referendum, in which they approved a return to the Constitution. As a result, the referendum made Bahrain into an open constitutional monarchy.

Nevertheless, despite improved legislations in the MENA countries, there are obstacles involving enforcing legislations that are often challenging. There are cultural norms, traditions, and lack of knowledge of legal rights in the rural and sometimes urban areas that may prevent people from invoking their rights. Rule of Law principles in the region have been formed by the interaction of the Islamic and civil law traditions. In some countries, there has been some common-law influence as well. To proclaim a uniform definition and application of the Rule of Law in such a diverse environment is difficult. Furthermore, developing a regional standard—one appropriate for all political and legal systems across the region—might be seen as far too complex to attempt.

As a young Arab-American, having grown and worked cross-culturally through progressive legal and social complexities, I feel the need to interrelate more than one set of laws to promote the Rule of Law in the region. For Rule of Law to take hold in the MENA region, careful consideration has to be given to the cultural and legal differences among its national cultures but also within each one of those individual cultures. While several countries in the region have undergone a seismic shift toward improvement in the recent years; there are still many obstacles that remain in the political, legal, economic, and social spheres. Recognizing this, there is an urgent need to explore the status and progress of these issues through the prism of Islamic law, as well as through national and international standards.

Rule of Law values of fairness, equality, and protection of the weak are inherent in our Islamic heritage and MENA traditions, and are not foreign or “exported”. Yet, over time, “these values have been distorted and altered in way that has unfortunately lead to gaps between the ideal and the reality in most countries,” as stated by Qatar University President, Sheikha Dr. Al-Misnad during her keynote presentation at the 2010 MENA Conference.

For Rule of Law to prevail, citizens in a society also need to know their rights and responsibilities. As clearly laid out in the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Rule of Law is recognized as the main source of protection for human rights, “Human rights should be protected by the Rule of Law.” Hence the accent of the Rule of Law, like human rights, is on the individual. The aim is not to ensure that individuals are made equal, but to ensure equal treatment for them under the law. This means equal recognition, equal respect, equal rights, but mostly, equal opportunities. That is one of the WJP's main objectives through its mainstreaming activities.

A key discipline that is vital in promoting Rule of Law is education: the most influential tool in promoting values as are essential to Rule of Law. Legal education in the MENA region must be examined carefully. In my view, legal education is not about training judges and lawyers. Rather, legal education should also be about raising legal literacy and reaching out to the underserved groups, to educate them about the system and to help make it inclusive and accessible, not only financially, but also procedurally.

Given that more than a half of MENA's population is under 25, it is particularly important to educate youth in this region about the meaning of citizenship: the rights and obligations that tie a citizen to his or her state. Young people constitute a source of knowledge and innovation, and when harnessed effectively, provide an excellent resource to make a vital contribution to the development of the Rule of Law. More educated than preceding generations and more aware of their global context, youth in the MENA region today are standing at the crossroads of major changes in their countries. It is the responsibility of all stakeholders, from youth leaders to government officials, civil society and the private sector to take advantage of these opportunities to engage youth at all levels of decision-making processes, provide youth with education on their rights to cultivate active, engaged, and a well-educated generation that are essential to advancing the Rule of Law.

I would say that our challenges to implementing and respecting the Rule of Law are so immense, that they cannot be possibly taken up by one group. The ideal needs to be built from the “bottom up.” We need to empower the underserved groups and create an enabling environment for civil society and advocacy. Furthermore, the fact that MENA societies are closely interconnected culturally and politically, does not necessarily mean they would, or should, have identical debates about how to interpret Rule of Law or how to apply it. MENA countries are highly diverse, and their areas of greatest need for Rule of Law support and development vary depending on their particular contexts.

Through an increased exchange of experiences, encouraging open discussions and public debate, and offering financial, technical, and educational assistance, the legal actors in MENA can serve as a catalyst for new debates, ideas, and solutions among regional leaders, policy makers, and academics. Together, we can advance Rule of Law and extend its benefits of opportunity and equity to more countries.