UNU-ILI Talks on Democracy in the Middle East
The United Nations University's motto is "Advancing knowledge for human security and development". In this vein, the UNU's International Leadership Institute held a week-long series of talks in 2006 between Members of Parliament in the Middle East, to discuss and develop democratic capacity in the region. My blog recounts my experiences at the talks.
to Jaw-Jaw than to War-War
08 March 2006, 23h22 EST (GMT-5)
Tomorrow evening, I will begin a tortuously
indirect journey to Jordan,
to participate in a set of United
Nations talks with MPs from across the Middle East in an effort
to expand democracy in the region. Our hope is that greater democracy
will lead to greater respect for human rights, greater security,
greater enforcement of the rule of law, and a greater willingness
to solve international conflicts through diplomacy and international
The talks will held under the authority of the
Leadership Institute. This represents, in my view, the best
hope for the international community to make a meaningful long-term
commitment towards fostering democratic capacity, a culture of democracy,
and a framework of democratic institutions, in an area where the
democratic deficit imperils the entire world.
I have been invited to the talks in my capacity
as President and CEO of the Concordis
Foundation, and my contributions are meant to focus on three
areas: freedom of expression and equality of citizens; the development
of strategies for the diplomatic resolution of international conflicts;
and peaceful co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians. Yes,
the easy subjects.
The talks will last a week, from 12-17 March,
and I do not underestimate the challenges ahead.
Equally, I am conscious that I live in the shadow
of men and women greater than I could ever hope to be, who made
the world a better place by projecting Canadian values into the
international arena: Wilfred Laurier, who created the first genuinely
bilingual state; Lester Pearson, who created international peacekeeping;
Pierre Trudeau, who created multiculturalism as the post-modern
nationalism. Every Canadian has a chance, and I believe an obligation,
to add to that legacy. For whatever it is worth, this is my effort.
I will be keeping a daily account of the talks
at my blog, and I suspect that, for better or for worse, I will
have interesting items to report.
and "a lot more"
10 March 2006, 18h30 CET (GMT+1)
I have a twelve-hour wait before my final flight
Amusing myself during the gap has proven to be more difficult than
I had anticipated.
Initially, I considered driving into the city.
Unfortunately, the slogan emblazoned over the EuroCars kiosk was
"You rent a lot more than a car," and this led me into
an entirely unproductive discussion with the staff about what else
one might rent from them. "A lot more!" they replied cheerfully.
Such as what a GPS perhaps? "Well, no, but certainly
more!" But what more? "More than a car!" By the time
I realised that I was trapped in a more tiresome version of Abbot
and Costello's "Who's on First" (a lot more tiresome),
I had lost interest in the drive.
I then thought to finish a bit of work. Alas,
strike two. When I asked at the information desk if there were any
publicly accessible power outlets, one of which I might use for
my laptop, the response was a terse Teutonic dismissal. "You
mean you want us to give you our electricity? No. I am sorry, but
Having recklessly consumed an indigestible breakfast,
for no better reason than that the physical pun of a frankfurter
in Frankfurt appealed to me, I decided that the only sensible course
of action left was to splay out here, in what appears to be an abandoned
(or at least underused) flight museum. There is even a power outlet
peeking coquettishly out from behind a cabinet.
Now, I need only stay awake until my flight
a nice day, or else...
11 March 2006, 13h36 EET (GMT+2)
Well, I survived the journey with most of my
wits, such as they are, intact.
I arrived at the Amman
airport at the altogether ungodly hour of 01h40. Once I presented
myself at the passport counter, the control officer lugubriously
typed my name into his computer, but then shuddered and called for
his superior. I doubt that there is any country in the world where
this is not a bad sign.
A corpulent man in plain clothes, contrasting
with the control officer's uniform, appeared with a police escort.
"Please step out of the line," he said. "We need
to welcome you differently." I suspected that he did not have
a fruit basket in mind.
He examined my passport and United
Nations credentials minutely, and asked me a series of questions
about whom I knew in Jordan
and why I wanted to work on the talks. Eventually, he handed the
documents back to me. "We were told to treat you well,"
"That's nice to hear," I offered in
as friendly a voice as I could muster after being deprived of sleep
for the thirty-six hours of my travels.
He regarded me sternly. "I do not like
to be told what to do," he replied.
We stood facing one another in silence for at
least a minute before I realised that he was waiting for me to leave.
The drive to the Kempinski
Hotel, where all of the invitees are staying, was uneventful,
save for a blanket of fog and the utter silence of the driver. The
boulevard leading to the hotel, however, was a marvel of good design
and poor implementation.
An iron nail carpet lay across the entranceway
to shred the tyres of anyone who attempted to drive past the gatehouse
tent without approval from the guard; however, the guard did not
ask to see identification from either the driver or myself before
pulling the carpet away and waving us through. The curved driveway
before the hotel was littered with low concrete ramparts to force
cars to weave left and right, thereby limiting their speed and making
their drivers and passengers easier targets for snipers from the
gatehouse; however, the guard appeared to be lounging outside the
tent without his weapon. No one may pass into the hotel without
first walking through a metal detector; however, when I set off
the detector, the guards could not be bothered to carry out a more
detailed search, and simply told me to carry on walking.
I reached my hotel room, hurled myself unto
the bed, and did not rise again for ten hours.
1: And so it begins
12 March 2006, 23h42 EET (GMT+2)
Diplomatic dinners tend to be a social form
of Russian roulette. Will I die of boredom or will adrenalin and
relief sustain me to the next trial? Nevertheless, the UN
ILI talks' inaugural dinner this evening was a relatively pleasant
This may have been because I speak only English
and French, whereas the majority of the national representatives
at the talks speak Arabic, and the translators will not arrive until
tomorrow. Perhaps mutual understanding is overrated; some of us
would undoubtedly be more charming if we were more laconic, and
would fare better if we were misunderstood. Perhaps I should not
mention this theory when the talks begin tomorrow.
The objective of such dinners is to introduce
us to one another in a calm and pacific setting, thus making us
more agreeable during the hysterical and combative moments to come.
The MPs, ministers, and ambassadors present
cut a sartorial riot: the bearded, robed, and head-dressed Bahraini;
the Chanel-suited and stiletto-shod Saudi; the pin-striped Senegalese;
the French-cuffed Moroccan; the scarf-wielding Palestinian; the
button-downed Norwegian; the curiously mis-matched German.
Like at so many of these events, some participants
employed dress to assert not only where they came from geographically,
but also where they came from philosophically. "I take this
desperately seriously, and you should take me seriously." "I
do not take this at all seriously, and I am even more dismissive
of the rest of you." "I am a patrician; you should defer
to me." "I am a victim; you should indulge me." "I
am modern and westernised, the new front of liberalism in the region."
"I am a keeper of true traditions, proof against the sordid
impulse for novelty and things foreign." "This was a gift
from my spouse, and I have to wear it at least once."
The representatives regarded one another with
something less than suspicion, but more than interest. Some knew
each other well; most did not. There was clearly a great deal of
mute analysis going on behind furrowed brows, and glances over drinking
glasses were pregnant with meaning.
Because I am easily identifiable as not Arab,
not Muslim, and not Middle Eastern, the other participants quickly
understood that I stand outside these calculations. Moreover, being
a Canadian is the diplomatic equivalent of the vegetarian option:
acceptable to virtually everyone, likely safe in an uncertain setting,
but something of a mystery until it arrives. As a result, the other
guests seemed disarmed when they spoke with me, and were surprisingly
The one conversation that most stood out for
me was with Adab Al-Saoud, a female Jordanian MP. Adab is a former
social worker elected to parliament as an independent. Although
I am half a world away from home, her concerns about life as a parliamentarian
could have been uttered by any MP in Ottawa. Her home is some distance
from the capital, and being separated from her husband and children
for long stretches of time wears on her. She feels that she is making
a difference in parliament, but she is uncertain whether she is
making as much of a difference as she did in her previous career.
She is dismayed by the lack of women in parliament, still more concerned
by the lack of women in the executive branch of government, and
feels that politics are held back by the gender imbalance.
The dinner drew to a close relatively late,
and we all dispersed back to our respective rooms. It was a pleasant
start to the talks, but the real cut and thrust begins tomorrow
2: Bile Letting and Blood Oaths
14 March 2006, 06h17 EET (GMT+2)
Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words
can wipe out nations.
The first day of United Nations
ILI talks had its moments of high drama and low comedy, but
it also reminded me that words uttered by political actors can have
as potent an effect as any wizard's incantations.
The day began inauspiciously, with security
arrangements again speaking to apprehensions not replied to by actions.
The transport bus from the hotel to the UN ILI compound sported
covered windows, but the glass itself was not bulletproof. A Jordanian
intelligence car shadowed the bus, but the escort apparently became
separated from us in Amman's chaotic traffic. The compound was gated
and guarded, but the path from the disembarkation point to the institute's
doors was a sniper's dream: long, bereft of cover, with a clear
line of sight from an infinite number of vantages. As at the hotel,
the guards made no attempt to detain any one of us, despite the
fact that every one of us set off the metal detector.
We drove to the compound in pensive silence,
and many of the delegates evinced the tell-tale signs of stress.
My seat-mate was a Moroccan MP who unselfconsciously mentioned that
he had served a term behind bars as a political prisoner before
he began his term in parliament.
The UN ILI building proved to be an architectural
tour de force. Gleaming glass cupolas crowning angular stone walls
melded traditional oriental and modern occidental forms.
I took my seat at the centre of the hemicycle
in the great hall, flanked on the left by Ibrahim Mashoukhi, a conservative
Islamist MP from Bahrain, and on my right by Bakhtian Amin, the
liberal secular past Minister of Human Rights in the transitional
Iraqi government. Someone clearly has a sense of humour.
We were greeted by a set of speeches from UNU
officers. Then the sparks flew.
If the day was successful, it was because it
reinforced some of the oldest axioms of summitry.
Recognise that representatitves bring much
bile with them, and actively draw it out early and thoroughly, to
allow the subsequent discussions to proceed unimpeded.
Waheed Hashan of Saudi Arabia fulfilled the
role of agent provocateur to great effect. In an incendiary speech
to the plenary, he was unrelenting in his criticisms of Arab governments,
reserving his harshest words for the régime of the House
of Saud. He denounced most of the region's elected parliaments as
pantomime legislatures, designed to palliate international criticism
by giving the appearance of democracy, though they are impotent
to restrain the tyranny of monarchs and presidents. He accused the
nations represented in the room of fostering terrorism through oppression
of their own people. He even grazed the ultimate taboo by tracing
the history of undemocratic successions of power back to the practices
of Mohammed, though he stopped short (barely) of criticising the
His discourse elicited some comment.
The effect was dramatic, but more importantly,
it was cathartic. It opened virtually every wound that we would
need to cauterise this week, it engaged every delegate (primarily
by inviting them to savage Waheed) and ensured that no one would
spend time during the talks simmering in a disruptive rage because
of unspoken concerns, and it let us all know where every person
in the room stood.
Isolate issues and establish parameters for
the talks at the first opportunity.
With words erupting from every quarter after
Waheed's speech, a consensus quietly emerged around the key issues
we would have to address at the talks: how can democracy be fostered
within Arab states instead of being imposed from without; how can
parliamentarians develop popular legitimacy if their constituents
have a limited or a discouraging experience of democracy; how can
elected parliaments become more effective in checking the executive
branch of government; how can political parties develop in countries
without a tradition of organised civil politics; what is the appropriate
relationship between faith and politics; how can parliaments enshrine
the rule of law in cultures more accustomed to the rule of individuals;
how can freedom of expression and human rights be defended when
power remains concentrated in so few hands; how can states seek
diplomatic resolution of conflicts when international institutions
have so consistently failed; what is the best role for mediating
powers such as the United States, Norway, and Canada; what is the
role of domestic and international NGOs; what are feasible next
steps to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; is there any
hope of Arab unity?
Perhaps we will need a little more than a week.
Most important developments occur bilaterally
between individual representatives in the corridors during coffee
I often think that instead of holding such talks
the glittering chambers of palaces and institutes, the UN should
construct a building that is nothing but a maze of corridors with
coffee urns strewn about, and set delegates loose in it for a few
hours. By the time they all found their way out, most of the world's
problems would be solved.
This first day, I had productive corridor exchanges
with Doudo Wade, a Liberal-Democratic MP from Senegal; Finn Martin
Vallersnes, a Conservative MP from Norway; and Bakhtian Amin, the
aforementioned past Minister in the transitional Iraqi government.
Our discussions and decisions were all unrelated to the foci of
these talks, but were surprisingly substantial despite that, covering
subjects as varied as economic development; mediation in East-Asia;
and federalism. Alas, Sarah is going to throttle me when she finds
out how much more travel I have committed myself to.
Allow disruptive elements to tie themselves
up in meaningless activity.
This is the oldest trick in summitry. Suffice
it to say that in some of the breakout sessions, we had passionate
discussions about who has the legitimate authority to set the agenda
for setting the agenda.
Get some sleep
These talks can be surprisingly physically demanding,
especially for people like myself who are grotesquely jet-lagged
and foolish enough to spend late hours blogging. Monday went well,
and set the stage for the week. Unfortunately for me, it is now
Tuesday morning, and I should nap for half an hour before getting
dressed to step back on the merry-go-round.
3: From a Whisper to a Scream
15 March 2006, 07h03 EET (GMT+2)
I imagine it would have been counter-productive
to encourage any of the representatives at the United
Nations ILI talks in Jordan to use their "indoor"
voices. There appears to be an endemic Middle Eastern affliction
that deprives otherwise even-tempered people of any ability to speak
at a microphone without shrieking.
Tuesday's talks began with the Egyptian participant
Hamdy Hassan yelling away, his hands clamped together with such
force that his knuckles were drawn white, the blood rushing to his
incandescent face, as beads of sweat rained from his furrowed brow.
He was saying, "I agree with my colleague."
The tone having been set for the day, we embarked
upon the first trenche of issues raised Monday, using the framework
of contrasting Middle Eastern and occidental models of political
Perhaps coincidentally, Eduard Linter, Vice-Chair
of the Council of
Europe's Human Rights committee, and Holger Haibach, a German
MP, informed us that they were being recalled. Still, if our numbers
are smaller, our share of glory (or infamy) will doubtlessly be
The talks ranged over a broad field, treading
upon two of my three areas of focus.
Freedom of Expression and the Defence of
I have been impressed by the candour of representatives
at the talks, but perhaps nowhere more so than in their blunt admission
that the human rights record of Middle East states has been dismal.
They ascribed blame to a variety of quarters, but primarily to the
fact that in most states, power is concentrated in the hands of
a small ruling caste, whose illegitimacy leads them into a profound
insecurity, which in turn creates their reflex to ration information
and suppress dissent.
If a concentration of unchecked power leads
to human rights abuses, the obvious solution is to diffuse and oversee
executive authority. Both ends would be met by invigorated elected
parliaments, and we spent much of our time crafting strategies to
move parliaments from simply possessing a democratic form to wielding
meaningful democratic powers.
We began with a set of legislative projects
to make the formation of political parties in the region easier,
in our belief that formal associations of MPs bound together by
a common vision would be more effective in scrutinising and restraining
governments than individual MPs working alone. We then proposed
supranational steps to associate parties across borders, to allow
those with compatible political philosophies to support one another,
from a constellation of centres beyond the control of any one state.
We were, however, unable to come to a consensus over the relative
merits of full-time MPs, who could dedicate all their professional
time and energies to parliament, versus part-time MPs, who might
remain more attuned to the needs and wants of ordinary working citizens.
From a more abstract perspective, we considered
how parliamentarians could negotiate with the executive branch of
governments to devolve power to democratic institutions. We reasoned
that, much like King
John signed the Magna Carta and surrendered modest powers to
the nobles because he knew that to survive he needed the funds only
the nobles could raise, so too might modern kings and presidents
cede power to parliaments if those leaders came to realise that
to survive they need the popular support only parliaments can provide.
We did not decide how to put this case most persuasively, but in
any event, I suspect that appropriate strategies would vary from
state to state.
Peaceful Co-existence between Israelis and
A great deal of invective was uttered over
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but when the clouds of bile eventually
parted, there was unambiguous support for a two-state solution,
with a sovereign and recognised Israel and Palestine, each behind
secure borders, co-existing peacefully.
The key question remained how Israelis and Palestinians
could negotiate successfully when all structures to date have proved
inadequate. Towards this end, we raised the possibility of the two
groups together fashioning a new diplomatic architecture, one that
would supplement rather than replace existing international institutions,
but one that would recognise that the state itself has lost its
monopoly on foreign affairs. This, however, was a vast topic, and
as such, was put off to Thursday.
The day closed early, but not nearly early enough
for many of us who were yielding to fatigue. It had been a good
day, worse than our ambitions but better than our expectations.
Before we left the UN ILI compound, I confided
to Osama Bin Javaid of Pakistan that I found it a challenge to adapt
to the Middle East habit of yelling. He shrugged, and said that
Middle Easterners might find it a challenge to adapt to someone
as soft-spoken as me. "You never know what someone like that
is thinking," he said. "It's quite menacing."
With that, our group drove back to the hotel,
with me menacing silently all the way.
4: Flirting and Infamy
15 March 2006, 22h27 EET (GMT+2)
After Tuesday's exertions, we granted ourselves
a minor reprieve in the United Nations ILI talks,
with all of the participants spending the day in a field study at
parliament. We had a series of meetings with MPs, Senators,
officers of parliament, and Ministers, to allow the group to consider
the progress and impact of democratic reform proposals making their
way through the belly of the political beast. In addition, the time
away from formal discussions was meant to allow us to catch our
breaths and collect our thoughts.
We gathered at our bus in the morning, looking
distinctly worse for the previous two days' wear: rumpled, crumpled,
and harried. Nevertheless, there was a cheerful mood in the air,
and no one seemed to mind the bus lurching hither and yon as it
strained to keep pace with our police escort.
The day again proved that the most interesting
and productive exchanges at diplomatic gatherings tend to happen
informally and spontaneously, in the corridors rather than in the
chamber. In many ways, Wednesday provided me with an advanced education,
not just about the Middle East, but also about Canada's place in
Jordanians would sooner stop breathing than
Not only do Jordanians smoke in offices, in
meetings, and at the dining table; it seems they smoke in the midst
of parliamentary debate.
People everywhere vote for hope
All the representatives agreed that a key reason
for the Islamist parties' rising fortunes in the Middle East is
that they offer a sense of hope and a set of ideals transcending
the deprived circumstances of their electorate, even if it is false
hope and tainted ideals. Secular MPs conceded that by appealing
to local concerns and narrow self-interest, their political parties
had too often failed to offer a broader vision of national identity.
The world views Canada as more than our government
Members of several delegations praised the model
of inclusive tolerance offered by Canadian society, and expressed
admiration of individual Canadians working in the international
arena, particularly General
de Chastelain. However, those same individuals expressed disappointment
in the Canadian government's role in international affairs. The
most benign interpretations were of a federal government suffering
a long withdrawal from the community of nations because of indifference
or inattention. The less charitable characterisations were of a
government that lectures the world about its responsibilities, even
as it fails to live up to its own rhetoric. In a particularly bitter
reference to the Maher
Arar scandal, one MP decried the fact that while he and his
parliamentary colleagues were "risking our lives to put the
torture chambers out of business" the Canadian government was
"sending work their way". He finished with a particularly
sharp flourish: "If the Canadian government wants to torture
its citizens, do it in Canada. Don't outsource it to the Arab world,
because it tells the torturers here that no one's going to stop
them doing the same to us."
The less democracy people have, the more
they crave it.
The appetite for the democracy in the Arab world
is awe-inspiring to behold. Bahadyr Matrizayev of Uzbekistan spoke
of having seen Egyptians scaling the walls and climbing thorough
the upper story windows of polling stations, after armed riot police
had blocked the buildings' entrances to prevent them casting their
ballots. I could not help but silently compare this to the number
of people in mature democracies who stay home on voting day in inclement
A headscarf does not smother mind games
At the risk of sounding superficial, I confess
that I had assumed that women who opt to wear headscarves
(as distinct from women compelled to wear the garment) must be highly
conservative. Apparently not. The headscarfed young women we encountered
were without question some of the most accomplished and aggressive
flirters I have ever met. Even the ones who would not shake hands
with a man were fountains of double entendres, unmistakable leers,
and whispered poetry. Perhaps in a society that proscribes physical
contact between the genders, flirting becomes consequence-free outlet
for romantic impulses.
We returned to our hotel with time to prepare
for tomorrow's talks. Thursday is likely to be the most important
day of dialogue, our last and best opportunity to make significant
progress on our agenda. Although I am still not over my jet lag,
it is far too exciting a time to waste on sleep.
5: Know-nothings and Do-nothings
16 March 2006, 20h42 EET (GMT+2)
"Foreigners," intoned Abdullah Shayji
of Kuwait, "know nothing." So began the fifth day of the
United Nations ILI talks. I thought that he would
be unlikely to appreciate anyone pointing out that each of us is
a foreigner to one another, and so we left him to meander on in
his pose of the great misunderstood.
Thursday was our most intense day thus far,
although it frequently played host to those four horsemen of diplomatic
talks: speechifying instead of dialogue; analysis instead of recommendation;
blame instead of responsibility; and despair instead of hope. This
was perhaps inevitable, given the gravity of subjects on offer.
Discussions on American foreign policy towards
the region, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and restructuring
the Middle East peace process, dominated the day.
There was much discussion of Condoleezza
Rice's famous assertion that American foreign policy in the
Middle East had been "six decades" of failure, during
which the United States had been "accommodating the lack of
freedom in the hope of purchasing stability," but had ended
with neither. The participants agreed that in supporting tyrannous
régimes, these policies had fomented violence and resentment
against the west. Now that democracy is the United States' cry for
the Middle East, many Arab MPs felt themselves in a conundrum over
I believe it is fair to say that few of the
MPs at the assembly were prepared to give the United States the
benefit of the doubt, and that most were highly sceptical of the
sincerity, or at least the durability, of this change in heart.
In particular, there was a suspicion that American support for democracy
in the region was already faltering, as democratic elections are
returning governments hostile to the United States.
Ironically, as much as they denounced the United
States for exalting the principle of democracy while condemning
its practical effects, most participants shared American anxieties
about the success of extremist parties at the ballot box.
Moreover, the MPs conceded that as the United
States is the only remaining superpower, they could not ignore its
policies and they would have to shape any locally-conceived drive
for democracy around it.
The Bosnian MP Sefik Dzaferovic cautioned against
placing the focus of international diplomatic efforts on the installation
of liberal régimes rather than on sound process, and I suggested
creating parallel efforts to strengthen moderate political parties
in the Middle East. If offered a credible (and, most critically,
non-corrupt) moderate choice, I believe that most people will opt
However, we all agreed that it is rarely advisable
for governments to involve themselves in other countries' partisan
affairs. The consensus was, therefore, to invite international associations
of political parties to play a greater role in helping moderate
Middle Eastern parties build capacity. The centrist Liberal
International, the conservative International
Democrat Union, and the leftist Socialist
International were the obvious candidates of first instance.
At one point, several Iraqi MPs were expounding
on why they believed western foreign policy had caused the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict to fester. I gently interrupted to ask why, if this had
been the case, Arab diplomacy had not sought to reframe the issue.
In particular, it seems odd that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
is most important in the Middle East, but that the primary mediators
between the Israelis and Palestinians have been western states.
They laughed, and I had to state that this was not a rhetorical
question before a response was forthcoming.
The Palestinian MP Husam Al Taweel drew himself
up to his full height. "Sir," he began. "I respect
your question. Do you want to know why Arab lobbying and diplomacy
have failed? Do you really want to know why? I will tell you why."
And to my surprise, he did.
Husam attributed the lack of Arab presence in
peace talks as being due to the inability of Arab states to speak
with a unified voice: "No one speaks for us as a whole, so
no one can listen to us," he stated. He also asserted that
many Arab governments had been installed by colonial powers and
have never been genuinely elected since, and so are dependent on
US and EU support (rather than on popular support) to maintain their
positions. Their primary objectives, therefore, become the suppression
of internal dissent and the mollification of international powers,
depriving them of the political capital necessary to influence the
Middle East peace process, or to be taken seriously in such efforts.
Ultimately, our view was that a necessary precondition
for the Arab world to play an effective role in international diplomacy
is the democratisation and popular legitimisation of Arab governments.
This took us back to the main democratic thrust of the talks themselves,
but with additional zeal.
Multilateral rather than Institutional Negotiations
There was clear agreement that notwithstanding
their importance in other spheres, international institutions such
as the United Nations had not proved viable fora for the resolution
of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, the assembly felt
that the conflict must negotiated in other multilateral arenas before
being ratified by the UN system.
Interestingly, there was a consensus amongst
participants that the state had lost its monopoly on international
affairs, and that non-state entities might sometimes be better suited
to act as catalysts between the Israelis and Palestinians.
For Norway, its government stood out as a traditional
state actor that should continue to play a meaningful role, especially
following the qualified successes of the Oslo
Accord. For Canada, there was enthusiasm for the participation
of individual Canadians, but no expectation that the Canadian government
would take a place in the peace process. For the United States,
apprehension of its government did not extend to its people or its
NGOs, and groups such as the National
Democratic Institute were spoken of in positive terms. For Germany,
there was a sense that its impact on the Middle East could be maximised
through its influence on European Union policies.
The day drew to a close on a positive note,
McLaughlin courteously but forcefully recalling MPs to their
duty to act to change, rather than simply bemoan, their circumstances.
Throughout the week, she did much to contribute to the high regard
in which Canada was held at the talks.
Because Friday is a day of rest in Jordan, this
was our final set of substantive deliberations. Tomorrow, we will
cap the talks by reviewing our conclusions, apportioning activities
for their implementation, and considering next steps. I will spend
much of the evening reflecting on the past week, trying to frame
where we have agreed and what we should do, and considering how
we should act to ensure that our discussions have greatest effect.
I am pleased with the week's unfolding, and
I believe that in a modest way, we have made genuine progress in
furthering democracy in the Middle East. I must admit, though, that
it all still sometimes feels overwhelming: a thousand years of conflict,
the well-being of hundreds of millions of people, and the cause
of freedom and security across the globe, all compressed into a
single week of talks. I will have much to put into perspective before
our final addresses to the ILI tomorrow...
6: The End of the Beginning
18 March 2006, 13h17 EET (GMT+2)
"Dress for Friday is strictly casual,"
came the paradoxically formal announcement for the final day of
the United Nations ILI talks. We had set aside
Jordan's rest day for a recapitulation of the week's accomplishments,
followed by a tour of the famed ruins of Jerash,
a Roman Decapolis
city in the heart of the country. Perhaps ending an international
summit amidst the crumbling remains of a once great civilisation
was poor symbolism, but to me, it sang of the defiant panache of
optimism in a cynical world.
A third of the seats in the great hall sat empty,
as many of the participants, having achieved all that we could during
the substantive portion of the talks, had repaired to their home
countries. "Only us A-type, obsessive Anglo-Saxons are left
today," offered Audrey
McLaughlin to me cheerfully and inclusively, without a trace
As we made our way around the hemicycle, with
each person offering a final evaluation of the week, a few common
themes emerged: we had deliberated over a far greater range of subjects
than any of us had thought remotely likely; we had managed at least
a modest consensus in some of the most improbable fields, including
the Arab-Israeli conflict; and we have a great deal of work ahead
of us if we are to translate words into deeds.
Perhaps the most stirring moment, however, came
when Swsan Sajjan of Saudi Arabia took the microphone. She had remained
silent during the entire week. When conjoined to this watchful reticence,
her husband's role as the local Saudi cultural attaché had
raised eyebrows: his is the portfolio of choice for spies embedded
in embassies. However, when she did speak on this final day, it
was with courage.
"Too many of us here have blamed others
for the problems in the Middle East," she said. "How can
we call for democracy, for self-mastery, without showing that we
are mature enough for self-responsibility? We can not keep excusing
ourselves. We can not keep accommodating people who act outside
the rule of law. Allah helps those to change their circumstances
who first show that they are able to change themselves."
It was a poignant summary of the challenges
before the region.
"Power," as one of my forebears was
wont to say, "is too important to be delivered into the hands
of those who lack the courage to seize it from the unjust."
Similarly, I suspect that Swsan is correct: democracy will not come
to the Arab world unless Arab leaders have the courage to create
After the final round of speeches from the UN
ILI officers, we decamped for Jerash. The Roman ruins were breathtaking,
far better preserved than anything in Rome itself. In particular,
the stone colonnades and temples appeared much as I imagine they
did two-thousand years ago. Amidst it all, one sight captured the
essence of our multinational talks.
The closing dinner was an intimate affair, addressed
by Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit, who to my surprise, appeared to
have read all our working papers. He peered at each of us in turn
as he quoted from us, but his gaze was the very definition of inscrutability.
I will be sorry to take my leave of the other
representatives at the talks. I have sincerely enjoyed their company,
and found our discussions enormously enlightening. As we posed for
photographs with one another, I could not help but feel that, much
like the bagpipers of Jerash, we framed an oddly jumbled picture:
conservatives and liberals; theocrats and secularists; monarchists
and republicans; traditionalists and reformers; Middle Easterners,
Europeans, North Americans, Asians, and Africans. But like the bagpipers,
we have been able to work in harmony with one another.
Over the next few weeks, I will be working on
a plan of action to capture the consensus of the talks, and most
importantly, set up a work plan, much of which will swing into action
after the Israeli
Tomorrow will be my final day in Jordan. The
desert, the ancient city of Petra,
and a grey stallion await.
All Kinds of Crazy
21 March 2006, 17h33 EST (GMT-5)
With the close of the United
Nations ILI talks, I decided to take a day before leaving Jordan
to explore Petra,
rose-red city, half as old as time". Petra is an entire
metropolis literally carved into the red cliffs of the Wadi
Araba desert, a hauntingly beautiful memorial to a long dead
civilisation whose works outlived its people.
The city is every bit as breathtaking as its
renown suggests. Given my fascination with ancient history, I could
not have contemplated passing through life without passing through
its streets at least once.
Rather than take the well-worn path from
the Siq to the High Place of Sacrifice, I decided to pass above
and around the city, and approach it from its far side. I quickly
discovered why this is the road less travelled.
My hosts had arranged for me to be greeted at
Petra by a guide and a pair of Arabian
stallions. My horse, the improbably named Whisky (is every stable
somehow required to have at least one horse by that name?), was
a mere eighteen months old, far too young to ever be saddled as
a working mount in Canada. Whisky was magnificently constructed,
dappled grey, fearless, and too restless to ever stand still.
"We shall take the Secret Way," said
Atiff, my guide, rather portentously, as we rode off. His severity
proved not entirely misplaced.
The (ironically well-known) Secret Way is a
pass over Petra's cliffs, which was discovered only in the 1980s
and which remains little-used even today. It winds through steep
and treacherous outcroppings, polished smooth by thousands of years
of wind-driven sand.
Well, I thought to myself, Atiff is
a local. He must know what he is doing. At that very moment,
I heard a clatter of hooves, and glanced back to see Atiff's horse
splayed out on the ground, with Atiff dusting himself off and remonstrating
with the animal in Arabic. "It is my friend's horse,"
he shrugged. There would be several encores to that scene before
our journey's end.
We reached a level plain high in the pass, and
allowed the horses to gallop hell for leather, until I realised
that we were making for the edge of a cliff. To his credit, Whisky
managed a sliding stop, even if it was something of a rotating slide.
"I do not think you should do that again," Atiff offered
belatedly as he came trotting up. "You are riding my horse."
When we reached the end of the pass, I handed
Whisky's reins to Atiff, and took my leave of both of them. "Allah
gives some men great courage," he said to me as I swelled with
pride. He quickly deflated me as he continued, "To others,
he gives foolish recklessness. It is not always easy to tell which
is which." I suspect that he is in no doubt about the quality
with which I have been graced.
I walked down a narrow footpath cut into the
rock, towards the High Place of Sacrifice. Eventually, I met and
fell into conversation with Nazeh Lafi, a young Bedouin
woman plying a trade in local crafts. As much as I enjoyed the balance
of my time in Petra -- to ride over the Secret Way, to look upon
the Al-Khazneh Treasury with my own eyes, to amble through the Siq
with the same wonder as Burckhardt,
to stand in the Bab as-Siq triclinium -- the visit with Nazeh is
my happiest memory of the city.
She and her best friend Rosa (I suspect this
is a retailing nom de guerre) are both barely literate and were
never formally educated. Yet, they are both fluent in Arabic, English,
French, Italian, and Spanish, and haggled effectively in the last
four languages with tourists as we sat on the ground, drinking the
treacly tea they brewed over a propane-fired element. We discussed
our lives, our hopes for the future, and the nature of change in
this undying landscape.
Naturally, Nazeh asked me what I had been doing
in Jordan. Despite her command of English and French, it took some
time before I could effectively explain the United Nations ILI talks
and my work in international conflict resolution and democratisation
of the Middle East.
"Oh," she eventually said. "I
thought you were crazy for taking a horse through the Secret Way.
But you are all kinds of crazy." Rosa tittered, and Nazeh seemed
to think that she might have come across as unkind. "Maybe
that is not so bad," she offered, pouring me another measure
of tea. "If there is peace, if people are free, it will have
to be because people are crazy enough to believe it can happen.
I am glad you are crazy. I hope you make other people crazy, too."
We all laughed and drained our tea. The sun
was bathing the crimson cliffs of Petra, and I rose to continue
on my way.
I have returned to Toronto, and the work of
taking the high words of the UN ILI talks and translating them into
actions on the ground is beginning in earnest. I have always held
that it takes courage to be an idealist in a cynical world, but
perhaps it takes a little craziness as well. If so, so much the