Toward Greater Human Responsibilities and RightsPolitics Culture
Launched in April 2009, the WANA Forum is a forum for dialogue on issues affecting the West Asia and North Africa region. The issues cover topics that include the economy, the environment, education, and social problems, and intellectuals and other experts from a range of different countries participate in the discussions. The fourth WANA Forum was held in 2012 to address the theme of “identity,” and the event attracted around 70 participants from 27 countries in the WANA region, as well as 10 experts from countries outside the region, including Japan.
Since its establishment, the WANA Forum has sought ways to develop the region, backed by the leadership of its chairman, HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal. This period saw the outbreak of a fascinating social movement, dubbed the “Arab Spring,” that liberated Arabs from despotic regimes that had been in power for around four decades, raising the question of what direction those societies will take in the future. The “identity” theme for the most recent WANA Forum was chosen to discuss how the region might forge a common identity to sustain the sort of development that Japan achieved in the post–World War II era. Nishimura Mutsuyoshi, former Japanese diplomat, interviewed Prince El Hassan to discuss regional issues and to hear his thoughts on what is needed to forge an identity that brings together Arabs and the WANA region as a whole.
New Players in the Region
NISHIMURA With regard to West Asia and North Africa, could you please elaborate on your vision of “clairvoyance” for this region, looking ten or fifteen years to the future.
PRINCE EL HASSAN As for what the region might be like in ten or fifteen years, as things stand now, the powerhouses, the economic powerhouses, are Turkey and Israel. Of course there is the possibility of Iran coming to an agreement with the international community, if and only if the discussion to achieve a breakthrough on weapons of mass destruction in the region is facilitated by Iran recognizing this one-item agenda and putting it behind us.
But what I think is important is that West Asia is a conduit between East Asia, South Asia, on the one hand, and the West (that is to say, Europe and the North Atlantic community) on the other hand. But now, with attention shifting to East Asia, I think it’s interesting to note that the attention of the United States is attracted by the new realities of an emerging economy and political reality in China, and the Chinese projection of power in the China Sea. Moreover, in the context of West Asia, the Chinese fleet is visiting the region, including most recently the Red Sea port of Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia. So we see new players in the region. We see the interest of Russia in the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. We see a throughput through Turkey.
And in Israel there is a polarity that has arisen in terms of identity because even within the Jewish population there are differences regarding the country or region from which people emigrated. This polarity has led to the construction of a physical wall separating Israel proper and the Palestinian population. And there is also a wall that has gone up in people’s minds, between the hardliners, on one side, and the liberals who are questioning the need for a division, this apartheid division as some would call it.
And this is all happening in the context of the Arab Spring and what has been called the “Israeli Summer,” where clearly the confluence of disaffection that rose to the surface in the form of demonstrations. And around the world things are rising to the surface with regard to such issues as living conditions, pensions, education, appropriations, and human dignity.
The Need for Regional Institutions
NISHIMURA The recent developments seem to have served as a wake-up call for Israel.
PRINCE EL HASSAN Exactly. There is the confluence or concurrence of social disaffection, plus confrontation between states, which is a remnant of the historical confrontation between states. Some of examples of these conflicts include those between Israel and Arab states, disputes now between Arabs, and Turkish-Kurdish friction, as well as Iranian concerns over the future of Iraq and the presence of coalition forces in Iraq. Instead of stabilization, the reality we are seeing now is a subdivision or balkanization of the region.
NISHIMURA The theme of the 2012 WANA Forum is “identity”; what are your views on this topic as it relates to the Arab World?
PRINCE EL HASSAN With regard to “identity” and what might be called “institutional identity,” one problem I see is the absence of an authentic regional economic and social council representing the region. And when I refer to the region, I obviously hope that the council would include all countries of the region.
I do think that if we’re talking about the stabilization of population, it is hugely important to adhere to the normative values of the Helsinki Process on Globalization and Democracy—the joint initiative of Finland and Tanzania aimed at solving problems related to globalization through dialogue involving major stakeholders with differing standpoints. These values basically come down to security with human dignity, economy with social development, the correlation between human dignity and sustainability—rather than between material and personal interests and sustainability.
The empowerment of people means offering substantial alternatives to the existing dilemmas. Why is it that our region has no social charter, no code of ethics in the dialogue between the believers of different faiths? Why is it that we do not have a social cohesion fund?
I think the answer is that our identity is unilaterally and bilaterally attached to external powers—external influences. Sovereign wealth funds are managed in this region by people who do not come from the region. So if the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development enters the region, they are the ones who define, like the World Bank, what the priorities are. So there is no partnership, either between sovereign wealth of the region, or between international institutions.
My hope is that the next decade will witness cooperation between the regional institutions of the Arab and Muslim world and the Western institutions, and the G8 countries (or even the G20 countries)—with the objective of moving from unilateralism, strict unilateralism, to a multilateral regional appreciation that West Asia is a region and has the right to exist and contribute.
That would of course combine the Arab identity and the non-Arab Turkish, Iranian identities, and the region of West Asia would extend to include the participation of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. In this way, we can become a strong link in the chain connecting the Mediterranean countries of Europe, South Asia, West Asia, and Southeast Asia.
Concerns About Islamic Fundamentalism
NISHIMURA What are some other challenges that remain with regard to the region’s identity?
PRINCE EL HASSAN If the region remains a field of conflict, it will encourage the rise of the hard-line, right-wing fundamentalisms, in the plural. It seems to me that these new schools—such as Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the different grouping, with their different names, which kidnap and maim people—are not schools of Islamic jurisprudence, and they are not faiths in themselves. Islam is not in the plural.
So I would hope that in the next ten years that the concept of consultation, between Muslims in Mecca particularly, will be taken seriously. My hope is that Muslims, in consultation with each other, can announce their position on the real issues today: human dignity, the right to life, proscribing all forms of discrimination, and so forth.
If we continue to be led by political groupings that are really trying to get onto the bandwagon of the Arab Spring and hijack that popular agitation to serve an ideological framework, then I think that the future of the region in ten years will not be one of a stable region cooperating with the rest of the world; rather it will be a region that feeds on pain.
I think that the lifeblood of the region has been affected by conflicts and war for over a century now. There is an attitude of “I’m right and you’re wrong,” a sort of belief among each group that it has a monopoly on truth—whether Israeli truth, Arab truth, a non-Arab-Muslim truth, or a truth that has currency among others working with the region for the sake (let’s face it) of buying or selling weapons or playing with the price of oil. Because of that attitude, there is no development of institutions capable of responding responsibly to the piecemeal-ism that we have lived with for such a long time.
This is why I believe in the importance of a formula where there is participation of politicians at the apex of the triangle formed on one side by socioeconomic thought, and on the other sides by humanitarian law and civil society. This combination can, I hope, help begin to move those who think about this region in terms of statistics, toward a mode of thinking about the region in terms of its people and their responsibilities.
NISHIMURA Absolutely. I think those humane aspects are so important; because there’s still a tendency in Japan to view the region from a narrow, economic viewpoint.
PRINCE EL HASSAN Regarding that topic, I noticed that there was an article in today’s International Herald Tribune by Peter Sutherland calling for greater “human responsibility” with regard to the structural social deficit in Europe. For example why is the president of the Council of Europe not elected? Why is there not greater attention given to public debate over economic policies?
This takes me back to the political, economic, and social factors. If this is the case in Europe, I think that the same criteria should be applied to region of West Asia. It’s not a question of national debt, material debt; it’s a question of the human dignity deficit. And restoring a structural balance, to involve people in their own destiny, whether they are young people or women or different pressure groups is important. But that alone is not enough.
We will need a “merit template” if we’re going to make the transition to a new identity, which is a more human identity with the participation of people, including the young people who have migrated all over the world by the millions—the so-called “Arab exodus”—many of whom are highly skilled. That merit template is necessary for them to become involved in the reconstruction of the region. They have to be listened to.
Looking to Japan’s Example
NISHIMURA Finally, do you have any other message, with regard to Japan and Asia, you would like to share?
PRINCE EL HASSAN I along with many others in West Asia have a genuine and abiding respect and admiration for the Japanese ethic, because you have combined the empirical, the traditional, and the modern.
In this regard, I would like to emphasize that what I call the “truth formula”—that is truth with yourself, truth with others, and truth with your socioeconomic environment (or with your physical and human environment). This can be understood as a motivating factor in Japan’s reconstruction effort after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
We know, of course, something of the anguish of the Japanese people, having been targeted by nuclear weapons in World War II. And living in a region where we have a combination of man’s inhumanity to man, and man’s inhumanity to nature, we face wars that are literally turning the region into a desert again. We have to reconstruct an environment for people, a living space for people to not only exist but to flourish. So I think that our region can look to Japan; a country that is geographically remote from us but has the sort of acumen we need.
(Interview carried out on May 30, 2012. Photo courtesy Nippon Foundation.)
Interviewer: Nishimura Mutsuyoshi
Former Japanese Ambassador for the Global Environment. Over the course of his career with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs he held numerous positions, including director general of the European and Oceanic Affairs Bureau and ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 2002, in addition to his duties related to global environmental issues, he was appointed ambassador in charge of Afghan aid coordination. In 2006 he also served as the chief climate change negotiator, and the following year was special advisor to the Cabinet on climate change. He has attended every WANA Forum since the inaugural event in 2009.