The first summit between the European Union (EU) and the Arab League, formally known as the League of Arab States (LAS), took place on February 24-25. Pictured: EU and LAS leaders at the summit meeting. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
The first summit between the European Union (EU) and the Arab League, formally known as the League of Arab States (LAS), took place on February 24-25. "Europeans and Arabs have a long and rich history of cultural, economic, commercial and political exchanges. This, together with the geographical proximity and interdependence, has contributed to institutionalise a strong relationship between the EU and the League of Arab States (LAS). Within this framework, the common aim is to develop closer cooperation to realise their shared aspirations to ensure peace, security and prosperity in both regions," the website of the European Union announced.
"The summit marked the start of a new dialogue between the EU and the LAS. Leaders committed to hold EU-LAS summits regularly, with the next summit set to take place in Brussels in 2022" according to the EU press release, which also included President of the European Council, Donald Tusk's statement that, "There are differences between us. But we face common challenges and have shared interests. We need to cooperate and not leave it to global powers far from our region."
Tusk referred to the values gap between the states of the Arab League and those of the European Union as "differences between us". Such euphemisms however, do not explain the evident lack of even the pretense, on the part of the EU, to comply with its own stated human rights policies.
"The European Union," the EU professes, "is based on a strong commitment to promoting and protecting human rights... Human rights are at the heart of EU relations with other countries... EU policy includes, among other things:
- promoting the rights of women, children, minorities and displaced persons
- opposing the death penalty, torture, human trafficking and discrimination
- inclusion of human rights clauses in all agreements on trade or cooperation with non-EU countries".
"We've been witnessing a spike in gross human rights violations across the Arab region, including in extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and torture and other ill-treatment," observed Said Benarbia, the MENA Programme Director of the International Commission of Jurists, recently. "The region is in dire need of a credible and independent judicial mechanism to provide justice for human rights violations, the overwhelming majority of which presently go unaddressed," he added.
According to the International Commission of Jurists, "Many States in the region are plagued by widespread and systematic violations. These range from torture, enforced disappearance and arbitrary detentions in Egypt, attacks against human rights defenders and journalists in Saudi Arabia... as well as the judicial harassment of human rights defenders and political activists throughout the region".
At the EU-LAS summit in Egypt, the parties agreed to, "Embark on a new era of cooperation and coordination; confident that strengthened interaction between the member states of LAS and EU has great potential to enhance the stability, prosperity, and well-being of the two regions and the world at large..."
The EU-LAS cooperation also promises to include, "the upholding of all aspects of international human rights law", but how and for whom remains a question. The formulation, therefore, can hardly be seen as anything but a sugar coating for the EU's evident disregard for its own stated principles.
In addition, the parties will cooperate on "...challenges such as the phenomenon of migration..., condemnation of all forms of incitement to hatred, xenophobia and intolerance; the strengthening of the fight against irregular migration and scaling up our joint efforts in preventing and fighting migrants' smuggling, eradicating trafficking in human beings and combating those who exploit vulnerable people; and to global efforts to tackle climate change, notably the Paris Agreement".
The EU wanted the UN's Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration mentioned in the summit statement, but Hungary blocked the statement. "The global migration compact cannot be part of a common EU-AL declaration and cooperation. We strongly disagree that the migration should be managed and that the migration has no security risks at all," said Péter Szijjártó, Hungary's Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Other issues on which the two sides apparently want to cooperate include, "the fields of trade, energy, including energy security, science, research, technology, tourism, fisheries, agriculture and other mutually beneficial areas; all with the aim to create wealth, increase growth rates and reduce unemployment to better respond to our peoples' needs".
In uncomfortably Orwellian fashion, the summit "Reaffirmed our resolve to combat cultural and religious intolerance, extremism, negative stereotyping, stigmatisation and discrimination leading to incitement to violence against persons based on religion or belief and condemn any advocacy of religious hatred against individuals that constitutes incitement, hostility or violence, including on the internet and social media".
Apart from still relatively new efforts by the United Arab Emirates, there is effectively no tolerance of other religions in any of the Arab League states. In addition, the lack of any reference to possible initiatives to introduce measures that might alleviate that problem appears to be both a whitewash and aimed exclusively at Europe.
In addition to the first summit and ministerial meeting with the Arab League, Federica Mogherini, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, has already been participating in the summits of the Arab League for some years. The most recent League of Arab States Summit took place in Tunis on March 31.
"International leaders mustn't sit back and follow the agendas of rights-violating States at this Summit, which will no doubt be directed towards further entrenchment of their authoritarian regimes at the expense of victims," said Said Benarbia of the International Jurist's Commission prior to the summit. "Instead, they should urge LAS members States to ensure accountability for human rights violations in the region, including by revising and then making operational the Statute of the Arab Court," he added.
Mogherini, who participated at the Tunis summit, apparently had more pressing priorities. Prefacing her speech with words that were meant to give the expression that the EU and the Arab League are almost like two sides of the same coin, she said: "We are so geographically and culturally close, and we face so many common challenges, and we have so many opportunities to work together".
In her speech, she mentioned that Europe and the Arab League have four priorities -- none of them included the issue of human rights in the region. Nor did those priorities include the smallest reference to all the problems with which Europe is struggling -- migration from the Arab world, terrorism and extremism imported from the Arab world, which is directly affecting the physical security of Europeans. Instead, Mogherini said, "The first point, the first top issue on our respective agenda: Israel and Palestine. We need to continue to work together very closely, because we share the same sense of priority, the same sense of urgency, the same concerns and the same objectives: to get back to meaningful negotiations towards the two-state solution, which is the only viable, realistic solution".
Mogherini did, however, place great emphasis on the following, "One issue on which I believe it is crucial that Arabs and Europeans work together very closely: we need to preserve diversity in our societies. We need to prevent the rise of hate, starting with preventing Islamophobia in our societies. We need to work together to make sure that in all our countries, no one excluded in Europe as in the Arab world, everyone is accepted, protected and respected as a human being, whatever his or her background is, whatever religious belief, gender, age, identity. We value diversity and we believe that everyone needs to find his and her place in our societies. So we have a joint interest and a joint responsibility to nourish and preserve diversity and together with that the dignity of every single human being".
Perhaps, before Mogherini spoke of preserving diversity, she should have addressed the concerns expressed by the International Commission of Jurists on the human rights violations of the region and its lack of basic human freedoms and diversity of religion, speech, identity and gender. Mogherini, however, chose to keep silent.
Instead, Mogherini's words came across as references to the EU's own continued efforts to monitor and police free speech and thus, gradually, to extinguish any kind of diversity of opinion within the EU.
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.