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Emerging Democracies Forum
SANA’A, 28-30 JUNE 1999

Towards the end of June, more than two hundred delegates from 16 recently established democracies, plus representatives of countries and organisations supporting this Forum, assembled in Sana’a. Sponsored by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (USA) and hosted by the Government of Yemen, with financial support from various organisations and governments (including the UK), the three-day forum was designed to provide an opportunity for representatives of countries where democratic forms of government had been established within the past decade or so, to air and discuss experiences and common problems encountered in the process of political transition.

Participating countries were drawn from four continents — Africa (Benin, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia), Asia (Mongolia, Nepal), South America (Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana), Europe (Georgia, Macedonia) and from the Arab world (Yemen, Morocco, with an observer from Jordan). Delegates ranged from the President of Mali and the Prime Minister of Namibia, through incumbent and opposition parliamentary leaders, senior officials and representatives of civic and judicial bodies, to unions, NGOs, the media and academic worlds, etc.

The opening plenary session was presided over by President Ali Abdullah Salih; the working sessions were conducted in five parallel groups, each discussing the same topic. The agenda included: Political Transition and Economic Restructuring; Elections and Legislatures; Democratic Decision-making; the Vital Voices of Women; Civil Society and Pluralism; and Good Governance: controlling Corruption, improving Administration, and strengthening the Rule of Law.

The Forum provided a platform for a wide diversity of speakers to air and discuss common problems, and was aptly described by a Namibian woman delegate as ‘interesting, relevant and timely’. The final Sana’a Declaration was read by the Yemeni Prime Minister, Dr. Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, and adopted in the final plenary session attended by the Presidents of Yemen and Mali and co-chaired by Kim Campbell, a former Prime Minister of Canada, and Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada of Bolivia. Mrs Hillary Clinton delivered a video-taped message on women’s issues.

Hosting a conference attended by 200-300 participants involved a major feat of organisation on the part of the Government of Yemen, and all arrangements, which included the construction of a purpose-built plenary session hall in the grounds of the Presidential Palace, went like clockwork. During the Forum, Yemenis of all parties and points of view voiced their often critical opinions without restraint. The Yemeni President, for his part, stressed that democracy and development went hand in hand. Perhaps predictably, the Forum received no media coverage in neighbouring countries.

I and my wife, Sarah Searight, gratefully accepted an invitation to attend the Forum and received the warmest possible welcome from Dr Abdullah Abdul Wali Nasher, Minister of Public Health and Chairman of the Yemeni-British Friendship Association, from Dr Abubakr al-Qirbi and many other Yemenis.

December 1999