Prioritising rule of law reform in the Middle East

Prioritising rule of law reform in the Middle East 26 May 2011

Given the historical developments in the Arab world and the expected transition to democracy in several Arab countries, what should be the focus of rule of law reform programs of potential donors? In an international meeting jointly organised by HiiL and ACRLI local actors presented their views.

Most of the issues raised during the meeting on 23-24 May 2012 in the Peace Palace in The Hague pertain to fundamental constitutional-political questions rather than to legal-technical ones. State building and the making of a new social contract (the ‘constitutional process’) is the core of what is happening or what occupies the minds of people in most Middle East and North African (MENA) countries these days.

State officials, civil society activists, media representatives and academics from the region who participated in the meeting agreed that there is a need for strong donor support - not just funds but also expertise and experience. However, the MENA countries should be the main drivers of the process, rather than being driven by donors’ interests. Local ownership is indispensable for success. Rule of law reforms in the MENA region must be based on a differentiated approach: A “one size fits all” approach is not adequate given the particularities of each country.

Donor representatives emphasized that the input and ideas of local actors is crucial. In addition, they favoured an inclusive approach: broad participation of the various stakeholders in the process of reform. They viewed civil society organizations as drivers for change. Disillusioned by the lack of concrete impact of rule of law programme elsewhere, they required programmes and projects to be particular, well-motivated, smartly-designed, aware of risks and, importantly, measurable. They encouraged the local actors in the MENA region to learn from the experience of rule of law promotion elsewhere on the globe. Not only best practices, but also: learn from failures.

Several aspects of the ‘constitutional process’ were highlighted as requiring special attention in most countries: insufficient limits on executive power, insufficient independence of the judiciary, the need for tailor-made transitional justice processes, enhancing participation in political processes, attention for sectarianism and the position of ethnic and religious minorities. In several countries constitutional guarantees exist for these issues, but implementation is lacking. Corruption is a major concern, too.

The meeting constituted a stepping-stone towards particular country explorations in regard of specific rule of law needs which were jointly organized by HiiL and ACRLI. By the end of 2011 meetings had taken place in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. Another such meeting on Tunesia has been scheduled for 2-3 April 2012. The discussions during those meetings are based on Country Quick Scans.

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