Democratic dressing

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International, 23 January 2004

YEMEN, famous in recent years mainly for qat, kidnappings and kalashnikovs, became the unlikely venue earlier this month for an international conference on democracy, human rights and the International Criminal Court.

Given that Yemen is considered a dangerous place by the British Foreign Office which advises against "all but the most essential travel", the attendance of more than 800 delegates from 52 countries at the EU-backed event was no mean achievement.

"I believe no other country in the region would dare to host such a conference, especially now," Emma Bonino, former European commissioner for humanitarian affairs, told the Straits Times.

The importance of free elections, the rule of law, independent media, rights of women, civil society and a flourishing private sector were all highlighted in the rousing "Sana’a Declaration" issued at the end of the conference.

"Democracy and human rights, which have their origins in faith and culture, are interdependent and inseparable," the document said. "Democracy is achieved not only through institutions and laws but also through the actual practice of democratic principles."

President Ali Abdullah Salih, in a speech to the opening session, hailed democracy as "the choice of the modern age for all people of the world and the life-raft for political regimes, particularly in the Third World".

It is a life-raft that Salih himself sailed triumphantly through Yemen’s first direct presidential election in 1999 when he defeated the only other candidate - a nonentity from his own party - with 96.3% of the total votes.

Nevertheless, Yemen can claim better democratic credentials than its neighbours. It has held three parliamentary elections since the multi-party system was introduced in 1990, as well as rather bloody local elections in 2001.

In the face of President Bush’s call for more democracy in the Middle East, the conference certainly provided scope for window-dressing and, in some cases, portrayal of democratisation as a process which can only develop slowly within a framework of entrenched cultural and religious sensitivities.

The fact that such issues were being aired at all was seen as positive by some delegates - "an essential step to have us get used to accepting the principles of democracy and discussing them in a way that conforms to our beliefs and regulations", according to Dr Isam Ali al-Rawas of Sultan Qaboos university in Oman.

Others were far more sceptical.

"It is now up to the decision-makers to start implementing the declaration formulated by the organisers," said an editorial in the Yemen Times.

"Will the president become a leading example in enforcing those declarations? Or will this be mere talk and propaganda? Let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best."