How the Arab world can prevent another Qaddafi: share a regional bill of rights

To protect citizens from future autocrats, Egypt, Tunisia, and other Arab nations working toward democratic reforms should adopt a single, regional bill of rights among other agreements. The US helped Europe adopt such pacts after World War II, and it should help Arabs do the same now.

The world has watched and cheered at the peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. But observers in the West have expressed fears that future autocrats might steal their victories. And citizens in Tunisia and Egypt can still be legitimately concerned about the possibility of an Iranian scenario. Will a populist government ignore the rule of law, steal future elections, and develop an adventurous nuclear program?

Constitutions are supposed to address this peril. In the next few months, Tunisia and Egypt will reform their constitutions in order to grant more rights to their citizens. Other Arab nations may follow. But in the past, constitutions have proved malleable in the hands of authoritarian rulers.

To prevent future political leaders from stealing the fruits of their democratic revolution, these countries should start a process of regional democratic integration, delegating the protection of core principles to regional courts and institutions. The United States should help the new Arab democracies in this endeavor.

Lessons learned from Europe

This is the lesson we have learned from Europe.

When democratic forces emerged from the ashes of Nazi rule in Europe, the US actively promoted the efforts of the democratic leaders of the European integration movement.

The US applauded the European parliamentarians who signed a European bill of rights and instituted a court that all individuals living in Europe could petition directly if they felt their political and civil rights were threatened by their governments.

After World War II, this European movement did not stop at the protection of political and civil liberties. In 1957, European leaders signed two collective treaties in Rome. One instituted the European Community of Atomic Energy (Euratom), which the US recognized quickly by signing the US-Euratom Treaty in 1958.

The Euratom Treaty ensures that nuclear development does not take precedence over the rights of a country's citizens. At its center, we find two democratic principles.

First, European citizens can petition the European Court of Justice if they feel member states do not honor the treaty. Second, each country's citizens elect members of the European Parliament whose mandate includes discussing the nuclear policies of its member states.

Arabs must protect against future abuses

These institutions and legal instruments do not yet exist in the Arab world. But they have started attracting the growing attention of Arab diplomats who can play a leading role in the democratic transitions of their countries.

Last October in Cairo, members of the European Com­mis­sion presented the Euratom approach to interested Arab diplomats. There I also presented a draft of what an updated Euratom Treaty might look like for the Middle East.

Since then, important leaders like Hans Blix, chairman of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, and Ruud Lubbers, a former prime minister of the Netherlands, have given their blessings to this approach.

With leaders experienced in the art of multilateralism, like Mohamed ElBaradei, former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Amr Moussa, former secretary-general of the Arab League, being called by their people to fulfill important functions, there is real hope that these ideas might be turned into tomorrow's reality.

Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and other countries should discuss similar international treaties now, as a process of constitutional reform is starting.

As new bills of rights will be written in future constitutions in the Arab world, democratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt should invite their counterparts to write a regional bill of rights that will incorporate new thinking, regional legal traditions, and use previous international bills of rights as reference.

The US should aid and facilitate these discussions, just as it helped Europeans stabilize their democracies.

Grégoire Mallard is an assistant professor of sociology at Northwestern University.

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