Monday, February 19, 2007

New database gives citizens tools to defend rights

New database gives citizens tools to defend rights
By Maria Abi-Habib
Special to The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Human rights are often arbitrary in the Middle East, but citizens will soon be better able to defend their liberties with a new online legislative research database that provides information about 18 Arab countries' freedom-of-association laws. "The database is very important as everything relating to human rights is supposed to be sacred, but in Arab [countries] these rights are refused a lot," said Wassim Harb, the senior rule of law adviser for the Program on Governance in the Arab Region (POGAR), a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) project.

The database, which is the first of its kind in the Middle East, was introduced on Saturday in a conference organized by the Arab Center for the Development of the Rue of Law and Integrity (ACDRLI) at their offices in Badaro. ACDRLI spearheaded the database with funds from the UNDP and the American Ford Foundation. The database is still incomplete, but will be launched online next week. When finished, the project will expand on its present freedom of association inventory to include 100,000 state laws of 18 Arab countries. The ACDRLI is looking for partners to provide the funds needed to complete the venture. "Freedom of association is the first step in the broader human rights process," said Harb. Freedom of association is seen by many countries as a key foundation of human rights, and is included in the constitutions of many advanced countries. The right is an integral part of the freedom of speech, press and religion. Without freedom of association, citizens can be punished for personal, political, religious and business affiliations. "You can't speak of democracy without the freedom of association and the right to join a political party or have freedom of speech," said Issam Suleiman, a speaker at the conference.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) frequently rebukes Arab governments for violating rights of association by cracking down on opposition groups and religious or ethnic minorities. "Governments continued to harass, arrest and prosecute human rights activists under legal systems that lacked independence," a 2003 HRW report on the Middle East stated. The new database intends to improve human rights in the Middle East by empowering citizens with knowledge about their rights, so that they can demand that their governments respect existing legislation. "Collecting information on [human] rights is very important, as the reality of the case cannot be changed when you have rooted facts," said Attayeb al-Bakouch, the president of the Arab Institute for Human Rights. "The main goal now is to improve society by giving civil society organizations information so they can work based on the information." The database can be searched by keyword, country and legislation type. For example, users can type in the word "protest" to see which actions are legal when demonstrating and which are prosecutable under the law. "The database will increase legal literacy - important for activists and lawyers," said UNDP-POGAR director Adel Abdel-Latif.

As state legislation is often inaccessible and citizens are not well-versed on their civil rights, the database will serve as a legal guide to help citizens defend themselves. Suleiman said the database will also be a tool for citizens to fight corrupt states. The database can be found on ACDRLI's Web site at

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