The Amman roundtable, or people matter

Paul Hilder
2 June 2004

“The United States and the European Union are not the sole responsibles of the world. We need to share. We are not looking for people to come from outside and ‘take care of us’, but to participate with us in giving a gift of security to the world. We have to understand ourselves as part of a larger whole, a symphony.”

These were the words of participants in The Amman Roundtable on Human Security in the Middle East, held in mid-May 2004. Its report is presently circulating among governments in advance of the G8 leaders’ summit at Sea Island in Georgia, United States, from 8-10 June. The Roundtable’s most fundamental principle? People matter; start from the bottom up.

The full report of The Amman Roundtable is available from 3 June 2004; you can contact its temporary secretariat at [email protected]

A rage for dialogue

We came together from Israel to Iran, Iraq to the Czech Republic, Egypt to the Netherlands: citizens of the Middle East seeking ways to make sense of and put an end to the horrors that visit them daily and the barriers that wall their lives around; citizens of Europe listening and offering their experiences of working together to heal a continent.

We met as the world recoiled with horror at the images coming out of Abu Ghraib prison of hooded and naked Iraqis being humiliated and tortured; and as Americans far away asked themselves “who are we as a nation, as human beings, to do this?”

openDemocracy’s response to Abu Ghraib includes articles by Isabel Hilton, Mai Ghoussoub, Laila Kazmi, Marcus Raskin, Charles Peña, and George Soros; for these, and other material in our “Iraq – the war and after” debate, click here

We came out of sessions to phone-calls about Palestinians in Gaza waving body parts and playing football with severed heads; to helicopters firing missiles, fighters, children, innocents dying alongside each other, bulldozers demolishing row after row of houses, the incongruous colours of a parrot and a kangaroo rescued from Rafah’s shattered zoo… Israeli soldiers dying to retrieve fragments of flesh the size of a coin. Our mood was dark. But we did what we could.

I knew it would be an interesting process when the former head of the Israeli foreign ministry said the United States should withdraw from Iraq at once (and Iraqis took issue): “It doesn’t get any easier. It gets harder the longer you stay. We know!”. I had had to promise his quivering daughter to guard him like a hawk; his security people had told him to stay away. The Palestinian reform leader we invited couldn’t even cross the border. (What kind of “security” is this?)

Yet all of us ended drinking tea in the Jordanian Palestinian refugee camp of Baka’a one evening; listening to stories of displacement, poverty, rage and hope. Human security, it became clear, is economic, political, social and physical. It’s about the capacity for human life to flourish at the most basic level. And I think it can provide real foundations for geopolitics as well as individuals.

Learning to listen

At Sea Island, the G8 is meeting to consider a “Greater Middle East Initiative” that promises – or threatens – to tackle the region’s many problems. The first US draft met a firestorm of protest. A surprise, on one level: it is little more than a modest litany of low-level technical assistance and institution-building programmes. But the problem was the mood music and the Realpolitik; in other words, Iraq. People feared the initiative as an American Trojan Horse.

Neo-conservatives in Washington have talked with mysterious fervour about the experience of Europe, and looked forward to dominoes of oppression and Islamic fundamentalism falling across the region. Some saw the initiative sowing dragon’s teeth amidst the dunes, and envisioned a guerrilla cadre of revolutionary “democrats” springing up.

So we asked: what happened in Europe’s last generation to melt cold war and frozen politics? Civil society activists who worked for peace and human rights with Václav Havel and others across the arc of central and eastern Europe explained. Détente from below rather than leaving it all to governments, cross-border loyalty and solidarity between citizens, campaigning for humanitarian intervention in disintegrating Yugoslavia, and an openness to learning from each other, were some of the answers.

Is civil society activism the politics globalisation needs? openDemocracy writers explore its radical potential:

The Helsinki Process of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) – which in the mid-1970s bound states to declaratory principles of human rights, democracy and security – helped provide a framework and a compass for this work. The CSCE acknowledged the sovereignty of member-states and provided a multilateral framework of legitimacy – things lacking in the first draft of the Greater Middle East Initiative. It also provided one seed of the European Union’s recent enlargement. An Iranian participant demanded an equally powerful vision for the Middle East: a Middle East Union owned by its own states and citizens!

We heard about the actions of the women’s coalition in Iraq: marching from town to town in Kurdish provinces to prevent civil strife, maintaining the personal status law against attempts to impose a regressive form of sharia. We heard about the vast gulf between the Green Zone and the Red Zone in that country: a gulf into which the outcry of the country’s great debate is vanishing, unheard and unfocused by dialogue with power.

We heard about the broader debate gathering today from Casablanca to Tehran: a debate which cannot be left to governments or to citizens alone, and whose conclusions must not be dictated by the rich countries’ leaders in Sea Island. One of our participants was summoned to interview by the Jordanian Mukhabarat, and there’s little doubt we were all bugged at some point – I hope the listeners learnt some useful lessons.

Paul Hilder, co-editor of Peace Fire – fragments from the Israeli-Palestine story (2002), has written on openDemocracy about the Middle East and Europe, including “Liberate Iraq on the world’s terms”: (March 2003) and “Which Europe do you want? A map of visions” (March 2003) “

The road from here

The Amman Roundtable was one of a gathering wealth of processes of civil society dialogue and invention across the region. Not least among them is the Arab Reform Forum, and its Alexandria Statement calling for “genuine democracy”, empowered parliaments, independent judiciaries and cultural reform. There are opportunities as well as threats for Middle Easterners today, and a vast reservoir of energies waiting to burst through.

While we were meeting, Fred Halliday was writing on openDemocracy, “Within the Middle East as a whole, there is a crisis of political legitimacy, after decades of hot air and rhetoric.” I would add decades of power play from abroad, only very occasionally benign for human security in the region. It is time for Middle Easterners to take responsibility together, and for the world’s states and citizens to offer solidarity and assistance; for colonialism to be succeeded by independence through responsibility for interdependence. No forces – whether those of Islamic politics or civil society – should be excluded. Everyone has rights and responsibilities in this process.

The Amman event concluded with thirty-two recommendations. But what stays equally in the mind is an exhortation I heard in Tel Aviv a couple of days later, from the Middle East civil society activist Ami Ayalon (and co-founder of the grassroots “People’s Voice” initiative Sari Nusseibeh). The gist of it was: “until we wake up every morning with a fire within us and decide what we are going to do to make peace come, until we reach out to everyone in our society and feel the pain of those who may lose, it will not come.”

It’s up to us; all of us.

Twelve of the Amman Roundtable’s thirty-two recommendations:

  1. Work together for participation, civil society, reform and cooperation in the wider Middle East:

    • Rather than presenting an “Initiative”, the G8 offers states and peoples of the region the first outlines of a “Process” of cooperation for a common future, to be developed with them. Any new multilateral umbrellas be fully empowered, and based and led within the region.

    • The European Union and the OSCE offer high-level capacity-building support to Middle East forums, in particular to explore processes toward a common regional future including security, democracy, human rights and prosperity, and a Conference on Security and Cooperation.

    • Civil society is involved fully from local to regional level, in the latter case through new networking and incubation frameworks such as a Middle East Citizens’ Assembly or an Islamic World Forum; international civil society offers capacity-building support.

  2. Work to build a sovereign and legitimate Iraq that serves its people:

    • Give international and Iraqi security forces new rules of engagement under which every person is treated as a citizen with rights and a life of equal value, from the American GI to the Iraqi child.

    • Restructure the multinational security presence to a combination of police forces and special forces, and limit its presence in major population centres, except as requested by the Iraqi government.

    • Make a rapid transition from the system of security detainees to one based on arrest warrants and due process.

    • All holders of power take the “Brahimi process” of rooting decisions in wider listening processes as a model.

    • Assess damage and injury caused by the coalition, make restitution and take legal and disciplinary action in public.

  3. Involve all parties to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

    • Initiate steps towards all-party talks processes, building on recent Palestinian talks in Cairo and involving a broader cross-section from Israel, civil society and the international community

    • Members of the Quartet and Arab states develop the modalities of a multinational politico-security presence for the territories, consulting with the parties

    • The international community build a solid consensus within the Quartet and also involving the Arab states on the acceptable outlines of a final status deal, bringing comprehensive balance to recent political promises

    • International solidarity activists engage with both Israelis and Palestinians, rather than with one side only

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