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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.

Further resources are at:

List of participanting states and MPs

United Nations University

UN International Leadership Institute

Better 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 institutions.

The talks will held under the authority of the UN's International 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.

Frankfurters and "a lot more"
10 March 2006, 18h30 CET (GMT+1)

So this is Frankfurt, or at least Frankfurt airport.

I have a twelve-hour wait before my final flight to Amman. 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 no."

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.

The final list of confirmed participants for the talks has arrived, and can be downloaded here. The list includes MPs from a healthy cross-section of Middle Eastern states, and I am particularly interested in whom the Iraqi transitional government has sent.

Now, I need only stay awake until my flight leaves...

Have 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," he said.

"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.

In a final bizarre twist, I looked up to find Audrey McLaughlin, the former federal NDP leader and MP for the Yukon, standing at the front desk. It seems that she has worked in Bahrain with the American National Democratic Institute, and will be speaking about her combined experiences during the talks this week.

I reached my hotel room, hurled myself unto the bed, and did not rise again for ten hours.

Day 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 event.

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. One hopes.

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 candid.

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 morning.

Day 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 Prophet himself.

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 breaks.

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.

Day 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 institutions.

Our discussions were, however, held in the gathering shadow of the news that British and American monitors had withdrawn from Jericho, and that Israeli tanks and troops had moved in to seize members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In reprisal, westerners in the occupied territories were being kidnapped, and the area was declared a "no go" zone for foreigners.

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 larger.

The talks ranged over a broad field, treading upon two of my three areas of focus.

Freedom of Expression and the Defence of Human Rights

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 Palestinians

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.

Day 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 the Jordanian 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 the world.

Jordanians would sooner stop breathing than stop smoking

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 weather.

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.

Day 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.

American Diplomacy

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 their response.

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 for it.

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.

Arab Diplomacy

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, with Audrey 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...

Day 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 of self-consciousness.

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 it themselves.

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.

Here, in the heart of the Middle East, amongst the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre, stood a trio of Bedouin men, in Arab headdress, skilfully playing American ditties, on Scottish bagpipes, that are now regarded as traditional Jordanian instruments. It brought a smile to all our faces, and in a small way, reminded us that despite the terrible divisions that beset the world, understanding can find a way.

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 elections.

Tomorrow will be my final day in Jordan. The desert, the ancient city of Petra, and a grey stallion await.

Epilogue: 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, "the 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.

Whisky strained to pull us up and over the most perilous sections of the pass. Stone splinters occasionally erupted from under his shod feet as they scrambled over slick rock, and he would fidget at the edge of precipices beetling over gorges hundreds of metres high.

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 better.


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