Address by Minister Reynders on the occasion of the diplomatic days

date: 03 February 2014

"The Arab Spring and its Aftermaths,
Opportunities or Challenges for Universal Values"

Address by H.E. Mr. Didier Reynders,
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs,
Foreign Trade and European Affairs of the Kingdom of Belgium

on the occasion of the opening of the 2014 diplomatic days

Brussels, 3 February 2014

Gentlemen Special Representatives of the European Union,
Mr. the Personal Representative of the Secretary General of the League of Arab States,
Ambassadors,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

[Introduction]

We have already entered the 4th year of what has been called “the Arab Spring”. Those developments in Europe's Southern neighbourhood have been a central concern on my agenda during my tenure as Foreign Minister. Given the importance I attach to the promotion and protection of human rights, as one of the two pillars of my foreign policy, I wanted to focus the opening of the 2014 diplomatic days on the impact of the changes in the Arab world on our common values.

We have the honour to have today 3 high-level guests who have been closely part of this process. I sincerely thank them for accepting my invitation. I wish a speedy and full recovery to Secretary General Nabil Al Araby with whom I have always had open and enriching exchanges. For having often talked to Stavros Lambrinidis and Bernardino Leon over the past months, I can already promise you a most riveting session this morning. But before giving them the floor, let me first start with some opening remarks reflecting my personal experience and thinking.

First of all, it is never unnecessary to remember from historical experience that, as in any revolution, transition takes time. We have experienced that in Europe. Your excellent reporting from countries in transition have rapidly confirmed that major differences existed between the countries that have been affected by this wind of changes. Differentiation is therefore essential if we want to better understand developments in various countries and regions. Different countries are in different phases of transition and each has its own particularities and challenges.

What is beyond doubt is that we face a deep and irreversible transformation of the societies concerned. What is still unclear is what the precise outcome of these political, social and cultural mutations will be. It is probably still too early to say but we can already analyse the impact it has had on commonly accepted universal values that are already under increasing pressure. The current debates at the United Nations are confirming this trend.

As I have often said, it was naive to think that a revolution would take place in the spring, a new constitution would be adopted in the summer, elections would be organised in the fall and after that everything would be solved.

What is happening in the Middle East is an awakening of whole societies underlining shared values of citizens of the world, denouncing inequalities and demanding equal opportunities and justice. At the same time, it is important to underline that it is a sui generis movement, initiated from the inside. There was no "Western agenda" as some have claimed. Arab ownership has been central and it would be far too pretentious to think that the aspiration is the Western or European model. But one other thing is equally true: values that were claimed by citizens of the Western world were perfectly compatible with the Arabic and Muslim world, contrary to what was often and very wrongly pretended.

What we are witnessing is a common quest of citizens to have their voice and concerns taken into account. But the “spark” of the Jasmin revolution – if I may use that word – was the self-immolation in 2010 of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor from Sidi Bouzid. He was not asking for more political freedom, he just wanted not to be harassed by the local police and to be allowed to work and earn a decent living. The appetite for political and civil liberties came from other groups, more educated and mainly from the urban areas. Without the socioeconomic disarray, one might have not seen that massive popular mobilisation that has led to the fall of presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak. Where the economy was better, requests for reforms were often followed by financial compensations. We have seen that on the Arabic peninsula. In other countries, it has contributed to advance the reform agenda further.

[Opportunities and challenges for human rights]

Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

What are the opportunities and challenges of the Arab awakening for human rights? Let’s try to analyse this through several key parts of any transition process based on the experience of the past years. We will then be in a better position to see what should be done to protect what I persist to think are universal values.

Within the transition process in several countries, the drafting of a new constitution and the holding of elections are the first steps to scrutinise.

The drafting of a new constitution is always a key moment. In several places, we have seen that the strongest voices were not always the ones we could hear on the streets or on the major squares during the revolution. In many cases, there was a hard fight between progressive and conservative views. The latter often seemed to have the upper hand in the drafting exercise, at the disappointment of many who thought that this was an opportunity to advance human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law. In that respect, a good news has come from Tunis, where a careful balance has been struck between all the points of view, thanks to a strong participation of civil society and the sense of responsibility displayed by all political parties.

What matters is not only the very provisions themselves but their implementation. The first step is of course to define the best framework possible in order to ensure basic rights can be fully respected. This requires an inclusive process. The Tunisian experience is a landmark in that perspective. In Egypt, the process has been somewhat different: 2 constitutions adopted by 2 referendums but each time with a part of the population boycotting the poll. At the same time, violence has risen to unacceptable levels and is not conductive to national reconciliation.

One of the main challenges for the respect for human rights is the lack of solid institutions able to live up to the mission they have been entrusted with. This underlines the importance of education and of institution-building. In some cases, the deterioration of the security situation or the discontent in the population, who had unreasonable expectations, have led to the intervention of the security or armed forces. This is obviously rarely a welcome development in a transition process towards more democracy, rule of law and human rights.

Two issues can help us understand whether the revolutions have been opportunities or challenges to our universal values: the place of religion on the one hand, and the place of women in society on the other. Both issues where highly debated during the drafting of new constitutions or where reforms were being implemented.

First, the relation between state and religion. With the growing influence or social demands of religious parties, the trend was often to increase this link, while the first wave of – mainly liberal – protesters were seeking more freedoms and more responsibilities for the citizens. This relation has a major impact on the fate of religious minorities. And there are so many of them in the Middle East, some being there for 2000 years! This is why I strongly believe Alawites have to be part of the transition and of the future of Syria and Copts part of the transition in Egypt.  The rights of all minorities have to be respected. As Albert Camus said, “Democracy is not the law of the majority but the protection of the minority.”

Second, the place of women in society. You all remember this debate in Tunisia when it was proposed to qualify women as complementary to men! If adopted this would have been a major setback for women in the Arab world. Fortunately, it was agreed to keep the equality between women and men in the constitution. This is a good example of the influence civil society can have on the process if transparent and inclusive enough. When I visited Tunisia 2 years ago, I was positively impressed by the optimism women rights defenders were expressing about their future.

Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are other indicators of progress - or lack of progress - in terms of human rights in all those countries in transition. Fear has disappeared and people are ready to express their disagreements with the system. Leaders, elected or not, have to take these developments into account. It is clear that the information technologies have made it impossible for some regimes to hide information and pretend that nothing happened. Through social medias, people in other cities and in fact all over the world, could follow what was going on. So freedom of expression was helped by technological progress. But new restrictive measures can be introduced. And the security environment has to be conducive enough for people to be able to freely express themselves. Without appropriate safety, human rights cannot be enjoyed, preserved or simply protected.

Let me now turn to elections, always a defining moment in a democracy. But it is only a part of a process as democracy cannot be limited to winning elections. Democracy needs democrats, which means practice of democracy all year round by all segments of society. The situation in Egypt last year confirmed that it is essential to take into account the views of those who have not voted for you. At the same time, conceding defeat is also key to a successful process.

The first ballots have often seen the rise of political Islam whose leaders were not part of the early days of the revolutions. This should not be forgotten. The last few years have again raised the debate on Islam and democracy. The so-called Turkish model has often been presented to show the compatibility between Islam and democracy. I am rather of the view that each country, each society can develop its own model based on its culture and history. What is essential is that such models respect some fundamental rules in order to safeguard human rights and universal values.

Before concluding, I would like to tackle the issue of the respect of international law, which should be the basic framework for the protection of human rights. In the context of the Arab spring, the international community has been able, in some cases, to live up to its responsibilities. But, unfortunately, this has not always been the case, especially at the level of the Security Council.

The intervention of the international community in Libya in order to protect the civilian population under a UN mandate is a good example. Some have criticised the scope of the intervention but it is clear that the "Responsibility to Protect" mandate has saved the lives of the people of Benghazi and for sure of other cities in Libya.

Unfortunately, the international community was not united enough to stop the bloodshed in Syria. The Arab League tried hard and I want to commend here the efforts of Secretary General Al Araby. The monitoring mission that he sent to Syria could have been successful and could have made a difference if sufficiently backed by the whole international community.

The civil war in Syria has reached new levels in barbarism. Even the most basic rules of international law have been disregarded. This is unprecedented. This is the reason why I have been engaged in the promotion and respect of international humanitarian law, particularly as far as medical care is concerned. As I stated in Montreux last month, I strongly hope that the Geneva II process will quickly lead to some tangible progress also in the field. But the first week of talks has not been very encouraging towards that end.

[Conclusions]

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is up to the Arab people themselves to determine and shape their own future. This is why the role of civil society is so important in order to make sure that the interests of all are duly taken into account. We have seen in Tunisia that, despite the worries about some proposals being discussed and despite a long political crisis last year, the outcome of the drafting of the new constitution – in an inclusive way – has led to good results in terms of human rights. This should be encouraging for other countries in the region and beyond.

What can we do? We can certainly accompany the process and provide assistance. As Europeans, we don't have lessons to give, but we can share our experience of political transitions, from a couple of centuries or from a couple of decades ago in Eastern Europe. The promotion of regional integration or the role organisations such as the League of Arab States or the Gulf Cooperation Council can play, should also be encouraged, as well as the cooperation within the European Union. On the socioeconomic side, Belgium and the EU can support the reforms. Economic growth and prosperity will obviously contribute to the full enjoyment of human rights.

I am convinced, as I explained you earlier, that the economic dimension can never be underestimated in the process presently confronting the Arab world. The economic situation can perfectly make the difference between a country that is able to emerge stronger from the evolution process and another one that remains stuck in chaos because poverty undermines all political developments.

The transition must be an Arab process. A process by Arabs, for Arabs. But at the same time, this Arab ownership does not mean that we have to remain silent when universal values are put into question. Vigilance is certainly required as we cannot tolerate international law being grossly ignored. This is our collective responsibility.

I therefore ask you to continue to closely monitor and report on those developments, and to remain active bilaterally and in the EU and UN frameworks, in order to contribute to the respect of those universal values.

I thank you for your attention and wish you productive diplomatic days.