POMED Notes: Dr. Cherif Bassiouni’s Keynote Speech at George Washington University
On Tuesday, the Institute for Middle East Studies in conjunction with the Project on Middle East Political Science & The Middle East Policy Forum hosted their annual conference entitled, “The Legal Dimensions of the Arab Spring,” at The Elliot School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. The event featured a series of panels, and hosted keynote speaker Cherif Bassiouni, professor of law at DePaul University and Chair of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). His keynote address discussed the events of the pass year and their impact on legal order in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, and Syria.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF
Cherif Bassiouni began his keynote address noting the key differences in the exact meaning of the term “revolution,” as the Arab Spring often led only to a change in the head of state, but not a dramatic overthrow of the regime as a whole. Bassiouni, who has worked in the region for more than 40 years, highlighted the importance in the differences in understanding legal concepts, such as accountability, between the America and the Middle East. He said that each country in the region defines accountability different. It is important to understand, said Bassiouni, that accountability may mean different things to different people. Bassiouni noted that every country affected by the ‘Arab Spring’ “professes adherence to the rule of law” and each “professes its commitment to a democratic process.” However, said Bassiouni, his work in the Arab world has revealed to him that there is an enormous gap between what is “intellectually achievable” and what is attainable in reality.
In the Arab world, and to some extent in the Muslim world, “word is paramount to deed,” said Bassiouni. He told stories of his meetings with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his meetings with King Hamad of Bahrain where orders they had given in his presence had not been implemented in practice. “How is it possible,” he recounted as their response. Bassiouni does not question the sincere desire for accountability in any of the countries, but said that the real question is how the accountability is implemented. Saying one thing and doing another is not a policy unique to the Arab world. Americans, who Bassiouni referred to as the ‘champions of accountability,’ said that the history of American foreign policy reveals that there is a difference between what “we say” and what “we do.”
Bassiouni told the audience his theory of the killing of former Libyan Leader Muammar Gadhafi. Bassiouni said he suspects that Gadhafi was deliberately killed in order to stop a war between two tribes fighting over his custody. He asked the audience rhetorically why Saif al Islam had not been turned over to the government. In attempt to describe the tribal system and how it may complicate the system of ‘justice’ or the understanding of accountability, Bassiouni described a situation where Saif al Islam has a “bank number in his head for the Zintan villagers,” promising them the sum of what probably is millions of dollars in exchange for his sanctuary. Bassiouni continued saying that another aspect of accountability is the question of the equitable distribution of accountability. “Accountability for whom?” asked Bassiouni. He said that all of the Tuareg rebels had been expelled. “No such thing as human rights for them,” said Bassiouni. He added that hundreds of prisoners that supported Gadhafi, who may or not have committed crimes, are being held prisoner. “This is very selective justice,” said Bassiouni, “but its perceived as justice.”
He went on to describe an elaborate real-estate banking scheme in Egypt in order to give scale to the level of institutionalized corruption that has eroded the country’s economy and society. After describing an international money-laundering scheme, he noted only 45 cases of corruption being investigated at the moment in Egypt. This shockingly low number, Bassiouni said, reveals the attempt of the current leadership to grant immunity to their cronies. “There is no doubt SCAF has a share in this process of selective justice,” said Bassiouni. When it comes to the application of the rule of law, said Bassiouni, there is a great deal of selectivity. He used the United States granting of immunity to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Citing the lack of evidence of the opposition movements and revolutionaries’ commitment to the law, Bassiouni says that the transitional governments have not proven to be about reinforcing the law.
Bassiouni briefly discussed the ongoing unrest in Bahrain. Bassiouni maintained that while rights groups and certain media outlets may tell a different story, the Kingdom of Bahrain has made significant steps in establishing “something about the rule of law.” He offered evidence of more than one thousand students being reinstated in schools that were expelled, and the majority those fired or dismissed from employment had been reinstated. He said that these were positive signs that showed the process was overall good, but said the failure was that political, social, and economic reforms were not following.
Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies Marc Lynch began the Q&A session by asking Bassiouni what more could be done to push Bahrain a bit further. Bassiouni said that a scoring system could be developed in order to grade the progress made by the Bahraini government in implementing each of the 39 recommendations. Bassiouni said that Bahrain would receive a good grade from him in several of the “symptomatic” areas. He commended the progress on reinstatements for students and workers, and said that torture had completely ceases since he arrived in July up to when he left Bahrain. He noted that Bahrain has allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross to maintain a presence in Bahrain
He said there was a “genuine weakness” in the failure to investigate and prosecute torture and killings that “we documented and submitted to the government.” He highlighted the lack of institutional capacity of the Bahraini government. He said the public prosecutor’s office, which is made up a total of 54 people, had no ability to investigate or conduct forensics independently of the Ministry of Interior, which they were supposed to be investigating. He said that “on its face, nothing much has happened” but that is was “not because of a lack of political will.”
He summarized that on the “symptomatic relief categories” he would give Bahrain a good grade, but said that a larger problem in Bahrain is that not much is happening in terms of political, socioeconomic, or electoral reforms. He said Bahrain is a “de facto ghettoized society” with “totally segregated housing and school systems,” and said that not much “can be done without encroaching on the interests of the royal family.” Bassiouni concluded that the “causal remedies” for discontent are “far from even being started.”
Bassiouni answered more questions from the audience about the independence of the Egyptian judiciary, the political motivations behind the new nationality law, the immunity of Saleh, and the recent NGO crisis. Bassiouni said that while the institution of the judiciary in Egypt may be independent of the legislative and executive branches, the independence of the judges is “left to the conscience of each and every judge.” He also said that the former Minister of Justice’s job was to “destroy the independence of the judiciary, and that recent decisions of the administrative courts reveal an overstepping of its power. Bassiouni said that he understood the possibility of having the nationality law, but says that at the time of its passing, the motivation behind it was mostly political. It was used to disqualify liberal candidates. Bassiouni reiterated his earlier position about the invalidity of Saleh’s immunity, saying that it doesn’t stand up according to international law. Finally, the NGO’s crisis, said Bassiouni was “mishandled terribly.”