AMMAN: Arab intellectuals and reformers say they have seen few advances towards democracy in the Arab world in the past year. The third Arab Human Development Report (AHDR), released yesterday under UN auspices, said most reforms were "embryonic and fragmentary" and did not amount to a serious effort to end repression in the region, which has some of the world's most authoritarian governments.
The United States, which says it aims to promote democracy in the region, contributed to an international context that hampered progress through its policy towards Israel, its actions in Iraq and security measures affecting Arabs, the report said.
Both the US and Egyptian governments criticised parts of an early draft of the report, leading to a dispute that held up its release for at least three months.
The report, which covers the year from Oct. 2003, was written before elections in Iraq and street protests in Lebanon that the Bush administration has cited as evidence of change.
Rima Khalaf, the senior UNDP official who presided over the intellectuals and reformers who wrote the report, said Arab states had to embark on reforms that expanded public freedom.
Following the American and Egyptian objections, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) eventually decided to put the report out under its logo, with a disclaimer in the preface.
"Some of the views expressed by the authors are not shared by UNDP or the UN ... (But) this report clearly reflects a very real anger and concern felt across the region," wrote Mark Malloch Brown, UNDP Administrator at the time it was written. The most controversial sections described the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and the occupation of Iraq by the US and its allies as violations of freedom and obstacles to development.
Khalaf said in the launch address that over a 10th of Arabs now lived under foreign occupation.
"Occupation is a confiscation of rights by violence," she said, adding that last year's Abu Ghraib scandal, when US interrogators tortured Iraqi prisoners, meant detainees' basic rights were no longer protected by international jurisdiction.
The report said occupation of Arab land had given governments an excuse to postpone democratisation, forced Arab reformers to divert energy away from reform and strengthened groups that advocate violence.
It also accused the US of undermining the international system by repeatedly using or threatening to use its UN Security Council veto, enabling Israel to build new Jewish settlements and extend its barrier in the West Bank.
In Iraq, the occupation increased human suffering and, because the US failed to protect citizens, there was "an unprecedented loss of internal security", it said.
It said US-led authorities had dismantled the old state but made little progress in building a new one.
"The 'war on terror' has cut into many Arab freedoms ... An unfortunate by-product in some countries has been that Arabs are increasingly the victims of stereotyping, disproportionately harassed or detained without cause," it said.
The report noted an increase in activity by civic groups pressing for changes inside Arab countries, some reform initiatives by Arab governments, some improvements in education and some empowerment of women in the Arab world.