Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—With preparations for this year’s Arab Summit, to be held in Kuwait on March 25 and 26, well under way, attention is turning to the need to reform the body to help it meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby about the upcoming Arab Summit. He stressed the need to make operational the Arab Human Rights Court after it was approved by an Arab League meeting last year, as well as to create job opportunities for the region’s youth.
Elaraby also touched on the Syrian crisis, saying securing humanitarian relief should be a top concern in the UN, as well as the Arab world’s relations with Turkey and Iran.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Let’s start with Syria. Can you tell us if Saudi Arabia has called for an emergency meeting of the UN General Assembly over Syria?
Nabil Elaraby: Saudi Arabia has submitted a draft resolution to the UN General Assembly about imposing humanitarian corridors in Syria. This is needed, but in order to get what we need, we have to take this to the UN Security Council. Saudi Arabia is proposing this resolution to the General Assembly in order to avoid the Russian veto at the Security Council. Saudi Arabia is hoping to obtain a recommendation [from the General Assembly], and I hope this is implemented, but there are some doubts. I do not understand the Russian position on the humanitarian situation in Syria, and this is something of concern to everybody in the world. We must save the Syrian people.
Q: What about a draft resolution calling for a ceasefire?
Securing the transfer of humanitarian assistance [into Syria] requires a safe period and ceasefire.
Q: What is the alternative if these attempts fail? Could the Arab League get involved more directly to seek to aid the Syrian people?
The Arab League and all its member states are ready for a peaceful resolution of the situation. The Arab League is present [in the negotiations], but the US and Russia are playing a more significant role and the issue has been transferred to the UN Security Council, which is the sole international body responsible for peace and security across the world. Since Syria’s membership in the Arab League has been frozen, there has been no direct communication with the government, save through international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
Q: Moving on to the upcoming Arab League summit: You talked about a limited agenda for the Arab Summit and its preparations. What did you mean and what are the priorities?
The traditional priorities are the important issues regarding peace and security in the Arab world. We have Palestine and Syria at this time, but the summit has a different feel, in my opinion, because since the changes in the region the importance of reforming the Arab League itself has become clear. The Arab League’s charter was written in 1944, but the Arab League must reform itself and be prepared to meet its responsibilities amid the conditions that prevail today. Those conditions around the Arab world are changing every day.
There are real changes being discussed now, and since the summit of March last year the Arab League meetings have seen some developments. It is known that human rights issues, which receive widespread attention around the world, are not mentioned in the Charter. An Arab Charter for Human Rights was created, but an implementation mechanism was not put in place. Therefore, we are trying to adopt a statute for the Court of Human Rights, which will start its work as soon as the summit has finished. The Kingdom of Bahrain has asked to host it, and the summit agreed.
Q: When you talk about “development” within the Arab League, are you referring to its ability to resolve conflicts?
This depends on the type of the conflict, the parties involved and whether the parties accept an Arab League role. We are not talking about the Arab League imposing a solution on any party, because there is not a body in the world that can impose anything apart from the [UN] Security Council.
As an example, when the African Union resolves an issue, it is usually based on the agreement of the parties to the conflict. It then prepares a solution and the peacekeeping forces; at the same time, the African Union uses UN help. The Arab League does not have such mechanisms—the best example of this was when we sent a team of observers to Syria at the start of the crisis. It started well and we ran a 24-hour operations room. It was a bright spot in the history of the Arab League.
However, there were those who misunderstood the task of the mission, and so the team was withdrawn. The Arab League did not have the option of extending the mission because it did not have enough financial resources to complete the task, nor did it have the human resources.
The report of [the head of the Arab League’s observer mission to Syria] Lt. Gen. Al-Dabi was also misunderstood. Dabi performed his tasks very professionally. I made an observation on the report, and I mentioned that he started working on the report in December , when he should have been working on it from the beginning . . . I wrote an introduction and attached it to the report; it was a comment about the conflict from the start. At the Geneva meetings, Ambassador [Bashar Al-] Jaafari talked about the Dabi report and used the parts of it that suited him and ignored the rest.
Q: Does the Arab League plan to establish any mechanisms for crisis management?
These are changes that need a summit resolution, and we want to start those changes with the issue of the Arab Peace and Security Council and give it the power to explore issues in a detailed manner, using the mechanisms used by all international organizations.
Q: Will the next Arab Summit adopt the Arab League development mechanism or postpone it, as at previous summits?
I hope the required amendments are ratified to enable the Arab League to carry out its tasks. I hope development is linked to events in the Middle East, and that the Arab leaders are convinced of the importance of change. I think this is a channel that has existed since last year, when they decided to implement the proposals linked to development and formulate the final drafts of what was agreed.
We must praise the recent diplomatic efforts of the State of Kuwait, such as the meetings related to the Syria donor countries, as well as the Arab–Africa summit, because there are 10 Arab–African states. These two groups can integrate in many fields, and the Arab–African rapprochement is needed by both sides. Kuwait has shown great ability in organizing and preparing for meetings, and the Arab League has discussed preparations for the Arab Summit in March.
Q: Turkey has shown interest in the Arab League in the last 10 years, but in light of the recent new developments, will it participate as guest of honor at future Arab Summits?
First, Turkey did not make any requests [to join], and it previously participated as a guest of honor. In addition to that, the Turkish foreign minister [Ahmet Davutoğlu] spoke to me a number of times, saying that Turkey should be a member of the Arab League. But today, Turkey’s relationship with a number of Arab states is tense. I do not dismiss the possibility of Turkey asking to participate as an honorary member, but it has not made that request so far.
Q: Do you see an end to this tension with Turkey?
Of course. As with all states, differences will ebb away gradually.
Q: Do you expect Iran to take positive steps in its relations with the Arab countries, especially given that we are now hearing talk but seeing no action?
I have heard about the Iranians’ desire to improve relations with the Arab countries. I did speak with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif—he is a good friend–last September, and he told me that as well. I asked the Iranians for specific steps, and mentioned the issues we face, the most important being non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. This is an international commitment that is in harmony with the UN Charter and international law. I asked them to resolve the issue of the Emirati islands, and we discussed the UN Charter and possible solutions using negotiations and arbitration . . . He promised to look into the issue.
Q: Before and after each Arab Summit, there is usually a spate of attacks on the Arab League. People will say it is a failure, and they say it does not play its stated role. How do you respond to that criticism?
The accusations made against the Arab League are the same as those made against the UN, which has many problems. In each meeting, we talk about the same problems. We have a new international order, the features of which are not clear yet. This takes time—I could say the same about the Cold War—and to this day the features of the new international order are still not clear. I accept any criticism of the Arab League because these are the problems we have ahead of us, and the Arab League cannot impose any measures on the states if they are not prepared to implement them.
Q: Do you agree with the view that the differences between Arab countries could end with the formation of a regional project?
Any such regional project to bring the Arab countries together has no clear outline yet. But I look at it from another point of view, because the world is changing, and the project is not necessarily essential. I think that it is important to have big pan-Arab projects in the economic field, and I will propose to the ministerial meeting a number of projects in the field of renewable energy. We must also look at projects related to scientific research and education.
All Arab states are required to contribute to these projects, and we also have the subject of free trade and the customs union. These are comprehensive issues for all Arab states, and I hope they lead to a change in the nature of the relationship between Arab countries. I hope they improve the economic situation of the people, because most of the problems facing the Arab countries are related to improving living standards, as well as the issues of corruption and of finding job opportunities for the youth. What I mean by all that is that we are in 2014, and we must not limit ourselves to political projects. We must show interest in solutions to issues that would benefit the youth.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.