In an ace research piece, Patrick Clawson writes for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that the Middle East's "poor track record with regard to actually implementing constitutional guarantees may make the [Iraqi interim constitution] appear less impressive to Arabs than it does to Americans." That's because many Arab countries boast constitutions with similar rights to the Iraqi one, yet they "have a decidedly unsatisfactory record on human rights." Here are some examples to prove Clawson's point:
- Syria: "The state guarantees the freedom of the press, of printing, and publication in accordance with law."
- Egypt: "The state shall guarantee the freedom of belief and the freedom of practice of religious rites."
- Yemen: "Anyone whose freedom is restricted has the right to remain silent and to speak only in the presence of an attorney. . . . Whoever is temporarily arrested for suspicion of committing a crime shall be arraigned within twenty-four hours. The judge shall inform him of the reasons for his arrest, question him, and give him the opportunity to plead his defense. The judge shall immediately issue a reasoned order for his release or continued detention."
- And this gem, from Saddam Hussein's Iraq: "it is inadmissible to arrest a person, to stop him, to imprison him, or to search him, except in accordance with the rules of law. . . . The dignity of man is safeguarded. It is inadmissible to cause any physical or psychological harm."
It hardly needs belaboring the point that all these rights had as little weight as the beautiful words in the Soviet constitution.
Clawson concludes with this insight: "Constitutions are not necessarily accurate predictors of an Arab country's actual track record on human rights. Those regimes with reasonably good records in practice (e.g., Kuwait) sometimes have constitutions that contain the most qualifications and limitations to human rights, while those regimes with poor records (e.g., Syria, Algeria) sometimes have the most liberal constitutional provisions."
The hard part, then, is not getting signatures on an interim constitution but getting this document to mean something in the reality of Iraqi life. (March 4, 2004)
August 30, 2005 update: A year and a half later, the debate has barely moved and Ofra Bengio elegantly reiterates these points, though this time more in the context of Iraqi history, at "A Constitution for Iraq: Does It Matter?"