Amid the West Asian and North African turmoil, the League of Arab States has begun to raise its profile, a development that bodes well for the whole region. Prompted by popular uprisings, by the Nato-inspired attempt at regime change in Libya, and by the brutalities governments in the region have inflicted on protesters, a committee of the Arab Parliament, to which the League's 22 members send representatives, has recently taken public positions on several key issues. It has proposed suspending Syria and Yemen for their failure to heed popular demands for reform and for cracking down on democratic protests. Significantly, the League rules out any call for international intervention of the kind it opportunistically approved in Libya — where, without its agreement, the continuing episode of western military adventurism would have been extremely difficult in the first place. Tripoli, however, remains suspended from the Arab body.

The League now appears to be transcending some of its constitutional constraints. It has no supranational powers or enforcement mechanisms to support its broad objective of improving coordination among members on a wide range of matters, including military ones, and it cannot override national sovereignty. As a result, rivalries and disagreements between member states, and external exploitation of these, have at times rendered the grouping almost impotent. It has also been criticised as a body that serves dictators and despots, not ordinary citizens. In 2008, however, its Arab Charter on Human Rights, which is broadly consistent with other international rights instruments, came into force, and its recent expressions of concern over Syria and Yemen mark an important departure from its earlier silence on internal repression. The Arab League can become a genuine forum for the voices of the region's many peoples. Its potential for constructive engagement stands in contrast to that of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which bases its own Declaration on Human Rights in Islam on the Sharia law and has only just abandoned a 12-year campaign to have what it called the “defamation of religions” incorporated into international human rights law. The League now has a chance to widen and deepen its forward-looking concerns — and to remind member-governments that progress towards democracy founded on the protection of human rights is a key element in political stability. That, in turn, will give greater weight to its members' calls for the creation of a Palestinian state. In sum, the Arab League's enhanced standing must be welcomed as a positive factor for the region and the world.

More In: Editorial | Opinion