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Time for a Council of Europe in the Middle East and North Africa

If some version of the Council of Europe were established in the Middle East and North Africa, it may serve as a good platform to address and resolve the leading obstacles to closer integration.
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The Council of Europe (CoE) was founded in 1949 to address human rights issues and the rule of law and legal matters. It has grown to encompass all the European Union member states and non-members as well. Although fundamental rights and freedoms were not mentioned in the founding treaties of the European Union and the CoE judgments are not binding on EU institutions, human rights became the subject of European Community and European Union treaties - particularly the Single European Act in 1987 (where a reference to human rights was included in the preamble), the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 (in Article 6), the 1999 Treaty of Amsterdam, the 2003 Treaty of Nice, and most importantly the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007, which paved the way for the EU's accession to the European Convention on Human Rights by amending the aforementioned Article 6 of the Maastricht Treaty.

Headquartered in Strasbourg, France, CoE resolutions are non-binding for the EU - such power is reserved for the European Parliament only. However, the Council has several important and influential bodies within its system, out of which the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) may be best known in the EU and worldwide. Through the ECHR, any individual from a Council member state can file a lawsuit against the state. The Court also accepts interstate lawsuits, although in practice, individuals filling lawsuits for discrimination or lack of judicial action in their own countries on human rights, economic, and social issues dominate.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 saw a significant increase in lawsuits filed in Strasbourg, as people felt genuine freedom and the need to fight for their rights and dignity, to establish justice after living so long under oppression. One of the recent, most famous lawsuits is 2009's Sejdic and Finci versus Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which the ECHR's Grand Chamber ruled that Bosnia and Herzegovina violated Protocol No. 12 to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, because Dervo Sejdić (an ethnic Roma) and Jakob Finci (a Jew) could not be elected members of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The country's constitution recognizes only three major ethnic groups - Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats, thus preventing Jews and Roma, among others, from standing for election to the House of Peoples or the Presidency. In October 2011, the Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina voted to initiate constitutional reform to address the issue. Bosnia's petty politicians have yet to agree on the modalities of the Strasbourg ruling, posing a huge headache for their electorate and also halting the country's progression toward EU accession negotiations, the issue will have to be solved rather soon if country is to progress.

Despite difficulties in Bosnia and Herzegovina and elsewhere, the Council has been a success in solidifying and spreading common values in Europe's neighborhood. This is why a professor at Istanbul Gedik University in Turkey, Aylin Ünver Noi, recently pitched the idea of establishing a mirror "Council of Middle East and North Africa" or even enabling the countries of the Maghreb and Mashriq to join the Council in Strasbourg.

Enhancing people-to-people regional cooperation, inter-cultural dialogue, shared visions of the future and values are crucial for the success of North Africa's turbulent transitions. People are hungry for genuine democracy, close cultural interactions, and strong judiciary systems that will defend their human rights, with the added benefit of signaling to foreign investors that their investments will be protected if legal disputes occur.

Animosities that are so fervent in the political spectrum could be reduced by bringing representatives together in such regional settings. If a Middle East and North African Court of Human Rights were established under the Council, there is no question that a number of individual lawsuits would be filed immediately, especially from Libya and Egypt, but such steps will be needed if a breath of relief from mounting injustices doesn't become available. The international community - even the Council of Europe itself - could help by providing judges and administrative clerks.

If some version of the Council of Europe were established in the Middle East and North Africa, it may serve as a good platform to address and resolve the leading obstacles to closer integration. For all North Africa's leaders, the time has come to recognize that regional (and international) dynamics are changing so quickly after the Arab revolutions spurred forward transitions to democracy. No one has the luxury to play a slow game of chess anymore. The time to make the next move has rapidly shortened - now it is time to respond. Embarking on reforms, solving open bilateral questions and promoting regional cooperation and political inclusiveness is a win-win for everyone.

This initiative, coming from a scholar in Turkey, may indeed be well-received globally. If such a multilateral body is formed in the Middle East and North Africa, we propose Istanbul as a headquarters. Turkey, who joined the Council of Europe in 1949, has long experience with this kind of values-based multilateralism - and more concretely, it has the know-how and resources to undertake such institution-building.

Professor Noi's suggestion is timely: in Algeria, for instance, there are already calls for an inclusive National Dialogue after the reelection of President Bouteflika last month. If - as we hope - this push for reconciliation is to spread across the region, its path would be eased by a Council of the Middle East and North Africa. The values and demands for human rights declared in the streets from Sidi Bouzid to Cairo need a champion here and now as they did in Europe in 1949.

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