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6 April 2017

Arab civil society is crucial for democracy

By: Daoud Kuttab
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Palestinian civil society organisations celebrated this week the successful results of the investigative committee that looked into the events of March 12 outside the court complex in Al Bireh.
The investing committee was headed by a representative of the Independent Palestinian Commission for civil rights, included a member of the Palestinian Bar Association and a member of the ministry of interior.
In its detailed report, the committee criticised the role of the Palestinian police in putting down a non-violent demonstration by fellow Palestinians.
Demonstrators were protesting the continuation of a trial against Basel Al Araj and his comrades even though Araj was killed by Israeli soldiers in his home in areas under the control of the Palestinian security.
The committee, established by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, produced a detailed report with clear recommendations that reflected accurately what happened and pointed out the Palestinian security forces clear violation of the standing orders regarding when force can be used against demonstrators and journalists.
It recommended disciplinary action against a number of police officers and called for a serious review of the decision making process of the Palestinian security’s anti-riot department.
The establishment of such a committee, the speed of its report and the seriousness of its recommendations caught many off guard, as usually such committees were often created to bury problems rather than confront them.
The report of the investigative committee points to a much more important signal: the role of Palestinian civil society, which was very powerful in the years before the creation of the Palestinian Authority, is witnessing a sort of come back.
As the Palestinian government’s powers wane, the role of non-governmental organisations has risen significantly in the past few years.
Decades of struggle against the Israeli occupiers have been instrumental to the struggle from within.
Human rights organisations proved that proper documentation of human rights violations and successful advocacy campaigns can be used against any violators, be they Palestinian police or Israeli security personnel.
This relative success of the Palestinian civil society, however, is not matched in many Arab countries.
As internal violence increases and autocratic regimes strengthen their central powers, civil society organisations and the press are among the first casualties.
Centralised powers are not interested in a vibrant civil society or a professional journalistic tradition.
We have seen consistent and continuous attacks against civil society and independent journalists in Egypt and Turkey, as well as in oil-rich countries.
The situation of civil society and the press in Jordan is not as bad as in other countries, but some negative trends can be seen here and there.
An effort to demonise civil society is sometimes given government blessing; that appears in public statements and in actions against basic rights like the freedom to assemble or hold meetings without the need for a prior licence.
This is also evident in how different ministries, officials and public bodies react to civil society and the press. At the very same time that some ministries are working hand in hand with civil society organisations, others appear to work to undermine it.
No clear guidelines are given by the prime ministry in this regard.
The Jordanian parliament also goes through this love-hate relationship with civil society.
Despite welcoming the work of NGOs that are monitoring the workings of the parliament, the secretariat of the Jordanian legislature lashes out at the very same organisations it signed a memorandum of understanding with.
Last week, the parliament issued a strong attack against Al Hayyat centre’s Rased programme, which had documented cases of travel of Jordanian MPs and laid out, in numbers, which parliamentary factions received most invitations to travel, the cost of travel and the fact that travelling MPs never issued reports informing their colleagues and the public of their official visits.
The monitoring report was not only attacked by parliamentarians, but MPs spoke on television attacking both the report and the role of civil society organisations in Jordan.
Accumulated international experience has shown that the democratic health of any country can easily be measured by the role it allows civil society and the press to play.
Countries that allow civil society to work freely experience much better results in areas of good governance.
International rankings regarding a country’s freedom give high marks to countries with vibrant civil society and a free press.
The Arab League, which held its 28th summit in Jordan last week, pays little attention to the role of civil society organisations and international laws and treaties that even its members states are signatories to.
Jordan and the Arab League, as well as most Jordanian NGOs, for example, failed to publicly raise the issue of the presence at the summit of an Arab leader wanted by the International Criminal Court.
Such disregard for international law tends to weaken the public’s trust in that one day it can see in the Arab world genuine democracies with vibrant civil societies and a genuinely free and independent press.
Much work is needed on all sides. Civil societies and the press must do a better job at convincing the public of their professionalism, and the government must clearly state where it stands and honour its public commitments to civil society.
The results would benefit the entire nation.

* A Palestinian columnist based in Amman, Jordan. - dkuttab@ammannet.net

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