Sana’a International Conference on Democracy, Political Reforms and Freedom of Expression [Archives:2006/960/Reportage]

July 3 2006
H.E. Mohammed Al-Tayeb, conference coordinator and chair of the Shoura Council Human Rights Committee.
H.E. Mohammed Al-Tayeb, conference coordinator and chair of the Shoura Council Human Rights Committee.
Dr. Abu Baker Al-Qirbi, Minister of International Affairs
Dr. Abu Baker Al-Qirbi, Minister of International Affairs
Scott Carpenter, Head of Delegation, US Dept. of State
Scott Carpenter, Head of Delegation, US Dept. of State
Lawyer Mohammed Naji Alaw, Director - HOOD
Lawyer Mohammed Naji Alaw, Director – HOOD
Laura Salama, MENA Program - Article 19
Laura Salama, MENA Program – Article 19
Dr. Lotfi Najji, President of Tunisian Journalists Union
Dr. Lotfi Najji, President of Tunisian Journalists Union
AbdulRahman Al-Rashed, Chairman - MBC Board of Directors
AbdulRahman Al-Rashed, Chairman – MBC Board of Directors
Raidan Al-Saqqaf
Taking place in Sana'a on June 25th-26th, the Sana'a Conference had a substantial agenda to be discussed, allowing participants in the conference to have higher expectations than usual, especially as the stated objective of the conference was “to assess progress made in dialogue for democratic reform since the Sana'a 2004 Conference, facilitating and reinforcing the various initiatives carried out in the MENA Region in the last few years”.

President Saleh insisted that he inaugurate the conference himself to explain to the world through this conference that democratic development in Yemen and other developing countries is only conditional to economic development, calling on donor countries to focus on helping economic development in Yemen just as much as they focus on democratic development as both go hand-in-hand, President Saleh stated. The conference started with an interesting concern raised by Dr. Erayni, who chaired the first session, stating that a discussion on democracy would be unfeasible if the government continues to monopolize broadcast and radio media and if the judiciary is not impartial and does not have independent enforcement mechanisms.

However, the roundtable discussions diverted away from the first part of the conference's objective – to assess and formulate mechanisms to measure the success…- and focused primarily on discussing and reinforcing the various regional initiatives. Therefore one can conclude that any success of the Sana'a conference was only partial and limited, considering that most Yemeni NGOs had articulated the need to measure and assess our progress in order to know where we stand and in which direction we are heading on the democratic development map.

There were three roundtable discussions during the conference discussing democratic reform; fostering freedom of expression; and the enhancement of the role of women in the political system. The discussions resulted in several findings and recommendations which were endorsed by most participants.

Nevertheless, the participants were disappointed in the briefing of the final communique which was presented during the closing session of the conference. Having overlooked first part of the objective of the conference related to the assessment mechanisms, most participants did not find the communique brief reflective of their discussions or inclusive of their recommendations which they had voiced or submitted to the organizers. News of a parallel communique started to spread as several representatives of NGOs who were present in the conference grouped to formulate their own communique. Yemen Times received three different communiques following the events each claiming to be the parallel communique, reflecting the disorganization of participant NGOs. Below is the revised version of the Sana'a communique.

Final Communique of the Sana'a Conference

Under the auspices of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, President of the Republic of Yemen, the Sana'a International Conference on Democracy, Political Reforms and Freedom of Expression was convened in Sana'a on 25-26 June, 2006.

The Conference, which attracted more than 500 participants from both governments and civil society from countries throughout the Region, was hosted by the Government of Yemen in collaboration with the non-governmental organisations Human Rights Information and Training Centre (HRITC) and No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ).

The Conference participants included representatives of governments of the Region, the G8 and other democratic partners, as well as international organisations and non-state actors, including politicians, parliamentarians, academics, intellectuals, democracy advocates, opinion makers, NGO and media representatives.

The Conference was held in the framework of the Democracy Assistance Dialogue (DAD) to offer a viable platform to consolidate free dialogue among participants over vital issues pertaining to democracy, political reforms and freedom of expression.

The gathering fostered the free exchange of ideas and provided a valuable opportunity for participants to critically review the achievements made within the Region since the launch of the BMENA initiative, including in particular the two sessions of the Forum for the Future held in Morocco in 2004 and Bahrain in 2005, along the path of democratisation and political reforms. Other achievements made within the framework of the on-going DAD dialogue were also reviewed.

The participants

– Acknowledge the successful experience of Yemen in democratic practice and in involving civil society organisations as partners in the DAD program;

– Emphasise the contribution of non-state actors as essential counterparts of dialogue in the democracy-building process, sharing an important responsibility alongside governments;

– Renew the commitment of the countries of the Region to strengthen democracy and to broaden the scope of participation in political life as well as the commitment of the G8 and other partners to accompany and support effectively these reforms, in a spirit of partnership and mutual respect. In this respect participants welcomed the announcement of the establishment of the board of directors of the Foundation for the Future and recommended that it operate in consultation and cooperation with other regional and international initiatives supporting democracy in the Region and in particular the DAD;

– Reaffirm their intention to continue the current and future political reforms and to undertake concrete action to implement the commitments made within the DAD processes;

– Reaffirmed their commitment to advancing the implementation of all recommendations made jointly by Governments and non-State actors at the Rabat International Colloquium on Political Pluralism and Electoral Processes of October 2005 and those made in plenary at the Intergovernmental Conference on Empowering Women in Public Life, in Ankara in May 2006;

– Welcome the commitment of the Government of Yemen and HRITC to propose a mechanism of consultation between governments and non-state actors, identifying clearly defined timeframes and benchmarks, to pursue the DAD theme to promote freedom of expression in line with international standards;

– Encourage the expansion of DAD activities and partnerships in order to enhance its operational reach across the Region, based on the positive experience of the involvement of other actors in the process;

– In reference to the implementation mechanisms of democratic development, the participants emphasized the following:

– Firstly, to call upon governments to accelerate the pace of reform and to include civil society in order to overcome the multiple challenges faced upon the path towards democratic development; and, to provide enabling conditions for the development of good governance by removing those obstacles which impede the peaceful, free and transparent organisation of civil society and political parties.

– Secondly, the need for all governments in the Region to establish timeframes for the realisation of peaceful democratic transition.

– Third, to commit to the following basic mechanisms for peaceful democratic transition:

– Remove restrictions from all forms of media – whether audio, visual or print – and allow the private ownership of media through the breaking of state monopolies;

– through legislation, guarantee the security of judges and the independence of the judiciary, the latter being the underpinning of the rule of law and one of the cornerstones of democractic transition;

– Recognise that the freedom to establish civil society organisations and political parties is the backbone of democracy, while empowering the independent judiciary to monitor and evaluate their performance in public life.

– Fourth, with the practical involvement of civil society, establish national and regional watchdog institutions, the goals of which would be to monitor and report on the accomplishments and failures of democratic transitions, and the protection of basic freedoms throughout the Region.

– The participants also take note of the repression experienced by professional associations in the Region, and call for this situation to be remedied through respect for the independence of these associations in all their affairs, in conformity with the aims of this conference.

– Finally, Request that the results of the Sana'a Conference be presented during the third meeting of the Forum for the Future (Jordan, December 2006);

– Acknowledge the important support of Italy, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the U.S. Middle East Partnership Initiative and United Nations Development Programme for their financial contributions to the successful organisation of the Conference.

– In concurrence with the above, the participants welcome and endorse of the recommendations of the three thematic sessions, which are annexed to this document.


On Democratic Reform:

(A) On Political Systems and Democratic Transformation:

– That parliaments of the Region engage in a process of dialogue with their counterparts to reinforce their skills and capacities;

– That institutional reforms be accompanied by reforms of administrative structures, including increasing the professionalism of the public servants and the accountability towards the citizens;

– That Regional countries shall develop with NGOs their own systems to evaluate progress on reform in the Region, finding operative techniques to assess and evaluate what has been done in each country;

– That participants call upon the Arab League to review the proposed draft Arab Charter for Human Rights with a view to promote its acceptance by Arab counties (governments and civil society actors).

(B) On Democracy and the Rule of Law

– That international law and national legislation safeguarding the independence of the courts be respected;

– That terrorism, in all its forms and manifestations, be regarded here as a serious threat to the growth and to the development of democracy, and world peace. Acts of terror create an atmosphere of distrust, panic and fear which undermine universally cherished values such as the freedom of thought and the freedom of expression; to combat terrorism requires addressing also its root causes;

(C) On The Role of Civil Society in Democratic Processes

– That priority be given to the promotion of democratic values within the three branches of state (i.e. the legislative, judicial and executive authorities) to ensure fair and democratic practices in compliance with the rule of law, deemed essential to accelerate the process of political reforms and to guarantee progress in the protection of human rights as well as to foster the transparency and accountability of institutions;

– That necessary measures be taken to promote the values of peace and tolerance through cross-cultural dialogue;

– That the role of youth in the dialogue between civil society and government be strengthened and that, to this end, measures be taken to increase youth participation in good governance; that media and cultural exchange and school curricula be encouraged to contain principles of democracy and democratic values;

– Endorses the many civil society networks in the Region and recommends that they be stregthened and built assume their role as a strong partner in the democractic reform process in the region;

– And in conclusion, as it is at the national level that commitments taken at the Regional level need to be implemented in order to be effective, the participants welcome the willingness of the Government of Italy and No Peace Without Justice to follow up on the commitments which resulted from the first year of DAD activities on political pluralism enshrined in the Venice Workshop and Rabat Colloquium declarations.

On Fostering Freedom of Expression

– That, as a result of the conference, a process be initiated towards the formulation of Arab standards on freedom of expression, consistent with international law and taking into account existing standard-setting documents relevant to the region, including the African Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression.

Process for reform

– Any reform of legislation affecting freedom of expression should be undertaken in genuine consultation with a broad spectrum of interested civil society organisations, including the media, for example through the establishment of government-civil society working groups.

– Any legislation adopted in the area of freedom of expression should be consistent with relevant international law and standards, as contained inter alia in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 32 of the Arab Charter of Human Rights and the Sana'a Declaration on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Arab Media.

Principles and ethical on media regulation and policy

– Governments should encourage the development of knowledge societies by exploring the development of legislation with a view to legalising private and community broadcasting, where not yet in place.

– Enhance the capacity of State broadcasters to provide public service programming and reflect a plurality of views

– The independence of any public authority with regulatory powers over the media should be protected by law and through practical measures.

– Closure of a publication should not be permitted, except as a penalty of last resort, where less intrusive measures have failed, and only following a fair trial before an impartial tribunal.

– The development of knowledge societies shall be encouraged by facilitating access to the internet, and avoiding attempts to monitor it.

– Given the contribution of satellite TV to the realisation of the right to freedom of expression in the Region, promote access to satellite television.

Professional standards in journalism

– Initiatives to develop journalistic codes of ethics should be encouraged and supported, as a step towards the replacing of official regulation by self-regulation.

– The establishment and development of training institutes for journalists should be encouraged and supported, to ensure the promotion of professional standards in the media.

Principles on the work of journalists

– Support for the work of media freedom and journalists' rights NGOs should be encouraged.

– Journalists must be able to exercise their right to freedom of expression without fear of prosecution or intimidation, which would undermine effective journalism and the free flow of information to the public. Effective measures shall be taken to prevent and punish any such persecution or intimidation.

– In times of conflict, the status of media practitioners as non-combatants shall be respected at all times, and measures taken to ensure their safety.

– The right of journalists to establish and operate independent syndicates and associations without interference should be guaranteed by law and in practice.

– Criminal sanctions for offences committed in the course of the practice of journalism should be abolished or replaced by appropriate civil proceedings. Any trial of a journalist should be fair and be held before an impartial court.

Content restrictions

– Restrictions on freedom of expression shall only be permissible foreseen by law and necessary in democratic society.

– Laws which protect individuals against attacks on their reputation should take due account of the need for democratic debate about the functioning of public officials.

Access to information

– Governments and civil society shall work together to examine the possibilities of adopting and implementing laws guaranteeing the right to access information held by public bodies.

– No undue restrictions should be imposed on the ability of journalists to gather news, including on access to meetings of official bodies.

On the role of Women

No recommendations.